Note: This is long. It's personal. But so many of you have asked me for more details on how all of this Florida business got started for me, so this is the best I can do to communicate that story to as many of you as I can at once. If you're reading this with any level of interest, you've probably been one of those people who have encouraged me and helped me and supported me over this last year. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being there when I've needed you all the most.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a teacher.
In fact, one of my earliest memories was of me gathering all my friends into a semi-circle around me the minute my mother’s back was turned at my fourth birthday party and reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear to my friends just like my pre-school teacher had done with me. I loved playing school. The organization of it all was fun and I took endless glee out of writing on chalk boards. All my favorite heroines were teachers. Anne Shirley. Jo March. Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Hermione Granger. . . Sort of.) I could think of no other possible future for myself than in teaching.
My first year of teaching was mostly a dream. I had a week or two at the beginning where I wondered how on earth I would ever survive, and I remember getting some really bizarre advice from my BYU mentor that I’m still trying to understand (“Don’t ever accidentally offend someone.”), but aside from normal teacher challenges, I left my first year feeling triumphant and proud of myself and of my kids. I took to teaching like a duck to water.
What I had not taken to like a duck was life in Utah as an unmarried college graduate. My faith and my family and my own vision for my future would have had me married already. Most of my friends were by this point, but I’d had no success whatsoever with dating at this point (or. . . You know, this point.) I wanted to escape and try something new because a fresh start somewhere totally different felt like the bold move I needed to make to feel comfortable with myself again. I landed on Seattle. I flew there for my spring break and had a wonderful time. I loved everything about that city, including the handful of boys who asked me out for the first time in months. A few weeks later I went back to attend a job fair. I remember standing outside the transformed gymnasium and feeling the strongest spiritual impression of my life to that point. It said “Have fun, but you’re not moving to Seattle.”
I was dumbfounded.
I walked around the gym and idly chatted with one or two of the school districts in attendance, then went back outside, bought a truly disgusting sandwich at the concession stand, sat down on the carpet, and fought back the urge to burst into tears. What was I supposed to do now?
I was in a show at the time and when I came back from being gone, mentioned to a few friends in the cast that I was looking for a teaching job in Utah now. I knew that there were a few teachers in the cast and I also knew that most of the jobs in Utah had been filled at least a month before. Through a series of really strange (and totally divinely intervened) events, I wound up having a conversation with Greg and his amazing wife Nicole about the possibility of my co-teaching a class with him. (Actually, the conversation with Greg was a long one. The conversation with Nicole was an easy “Yeah! I think it’s great!” She’s unreal.)
That initial conversation with Greg brought about the second strongest spiritual impression of my life: an overwhelming feeling of peace. Every time I thought about how crazy it sounded or how on earth I would get anyone to believe that I really did feel like I was inspired to do it or any other fear: I just felt peace. My logic was forced aside.
Greg and I ended up building a program together for eight years. It was a complete and total labor of love. We’re both artists at heart with a great love for stories and a deep passion for teaching through inspiration. We believe that teenagers are capable of and searching for much more than most people think. We ended up taking our program to three different schools. When things were really clicking, we were able to engage students in projects and units that changed them in powerful ways. I could go on and on about how proud I am of what we created, and how I continue to be humbled and amazed by the students I was able to work with. They and their families became part of my own family. What we did was more than just classroom based learning. It was so, so much bigger than that.
The problem is that it was always an uphill battle. We were, admittedly, doing unorthodox and weird things that required patience and intense trust and faith from our administrators, our students, and their parents. What we did was not right for everyone. Our class was a heaven for some and a hell for others. We fought to preserve what we had for the sake of those that it did work for, but the battle grew increasingly difficult. It was brutal during the last two years. We were in a new school where the structure of education was far more restricted and governed than the culture of our class. Truthfully, I can’t remember being so depressed and miserable since I went on Lexapro than I was during those two years. I was not a good teacher for those students. I wasn’t a good co-worker to Greg, who was having to cover for me when I was breaking and who had to compensate for my pessimism and anger.
I started looking for options. I was desperate for something, anything else, but I had no idea where to even start. Grad school? (How could I afford it?) Teach somewhere else? (How would that solve anything?) Get another job? (Doing what?) It was suffocating. I felt trapped and utterly miserable. I couldn't see a way out or see a solution for how utterly miserable I felt. I started looking up grad-schools anyway and found a few that looked promising, but I had no idea what I would study. (They were all in England so at that point, did it really matter what I was studying?) Even so, nothing really felt right.
Fall of 2017 I was asked to help fill in for the school musical. One of the cast members had a medical emergency and wasn’t going to be able to do the show, so, given that I don't look my age, I was called to come in clutch to help cover. At the cast party before the closing show, I was talking with the director of the show and her son, who had flown in from Anaheim to see the show. Her son worked for Disneyland and talked about some of his experiences. I casually mentioned that I'd love to work for Disney sometime (who wouldn't want to work for Disney?), and went to get ready.
Before the show started that night, Elaine (the director of the show), took me by the shoulder and told me "You need to go work for Disney." I kind of laughed and rolled my eyes. "I couldn't do that now. Maybe someday," I said. How could I afford it? What about my house? My cat? My friends and family? "You need to work for Disney now." She insisted. Sure, Elaine.
It felt right.
And I knew it felt right because I didn't want it to, but it did. There was no way I could afford to live in California, which would mean moving to Florida. I didn't want move there because my first visit to Florida had been full of insane humidity and heat exhaustion and I had vowed never to return. (I had been in August, which was a terrible choice.) But in spite of all of that, it felt right. I hated that it felt right. I hated that it felt right because it was in the literal opposite corner of the nation that I'd prefer to be in, but it felt right., and when I feel peace about something that I don't want to feel peace about, that's when I know that God is really trying to talk to me. And when God is really trying to talk to me, I get to work.
I started applying for any job on the Disney website that looked like it could even sort of fit my what my resume would say I had skills to complete. Pretty much everything came back with a rejection almost at once. I ended up visiting Florida at the end of January to attend a job fair to try and see if I could find a job, any job.
I was, admittedly, terrified that I would walk into that career fair and have the same experience I had before in Seattle. I also decided I was going to throw out all the advice I'd read about career fairs and talking to your preferred employer last and went directly to the Disney booth. I was determined that I would get them past the standard spiel telling me to go directly to the careers website. I wanted to get them talking.
Truthfully, it's been long enough now that I don't remember exactly who I spoke with or what was said, but I spoke with her for several minutes. I shared some of my story with her and what I hoped for my future with Disney. She was extremely encouraging and positive about my prospects with the company and shared her email address with me so that I could stay in touch with her. Where the fair in Seattle had felt dark and wrong, I left my conversation with this cast member feeling totally light about my choice. It was going to work. It was going to work. I ended up only talking to Disney at the career fair. I had no desire to give up everything and come to Florida for any other reason.
I flew home and drove directly from the airport to Barnes and Noble to apply for a bookseller position. I knew from talking to the recruiter that having more recent sales on my resume would only help, so I walked into the store, told them I'd worked for the company before, had a degree in English Education, and was willing to start immediately. A week later I was back to work at the "Barn".
It was in March that I finally heard back from the Disney Reservation Center about a sales agent position. (I say "finally" since it felt like forever, but was really only about four and a half months since I'd started the whole process of applying. All things considered, it was a bit faster than it is for some people.) I had an online assessment, followed by a phone interview and then an in-person interview. Once I was called in for an in-person interview, I put my house up for sale. It sounds a bit arrogant, but I know that I interview well. To date, I've never (knock on wood!) interviewed for a job I wasn't offered. I knew it was risky to put my house up for sale before securing a job, but throughout all of this I was doing everything I could to pray for help in making the right decisions, and I felt like the "right decision" in this case was to put my house up, just in case.
Turns out I probably could have held off on selling my house if I needed to, because I had about ten offers on my house within 72 hours of putting it on the market. In fact, the day of my in-person interview, I had to be ready to either turn down or accept an offer on the house. I had thought that I would get an answer on whether or not I had the job on the day of the interview, but that wasn't the case, so I had to take yet another rather terrifying leap of faith and accept the offer on my house before I knew if I even had the job.
(I still can't think about that house without feeling a little sick and sad. I miss that place and its glorious views of the mountain and its garage and its carpet and granite countertops so much. It was my first home! It was the fulfillment of so many of my single, feminist dreams and the product of so much hard work!)
Fortunately, I was confident in how the interview had gone. I was prepared for that interview. Now that I sit on the other side of those interviews, I realize how abnormally obsessive I had been. I put together a chart of every single Walt Disney World resort, where it was located, what theming it had, what types of amenities it had, and I memorized it. I could rattle off every single resort and its category off by heart. The cast members who interviewed me even told me they'd never seen someone come so prepared. I left the interview and called my mom. Then I texted my realtor and told her to agree to the sale.
I came back from Florida and immediately started to pack up my house. I always take down pictures first. For some reason this helps make the whole place feel less like a home and more like a building. I started making the rounds to say good-byes. I resigned from my job. I was so busy that I didn't have too much time to focus on how hard it was. Not until the last few days, at least.
To be honest, I still can't think about April of 2018 without feeling horribly, horribly depressed. Those weeks were brutal. I went to Ogden to say goodbye to my grandparents and has my usually lighthearted and not terribly emotional grandparents give me tearful goodbyes. I said farewells to my theater family. My church family. My actual family. To everything I had known for my independent adult life. The night before my mom and I pulled out of my home I remember sitting on top of the tub in my bathroom and just shaking. Suddenly everything I had done felt intensely and horribly reckless and just wrong. I couldn't believe what I had done to myself. I spent half that night sobbing.
I didn't really sleep that night. But somehow mom and I managed to get everything loaded into the Pod, managed to drug my cat and get her into a carrier (that she broke out of about half an hour later), and we started our drive east.
The months that followed were some of the strangest of my adult life. I started out as a nomad, waiting for my house to finally close in Utah, and then Florida. I woke up so early for work that my family in Utah and Arizona sometimes hadn't even gone to bed yet. It felt oddly like living on another planet. I was lucky enough to meet some really supportive and generous people who helped me move and invited me to play in the theme parks and out for dinner and generally gave me a safety net when I arrived. Even so, I'm a person who thrives not on quantity but on quality of relationships, and such relationships take time to develop. I was intensely lonely.
What was worse, though, was coming to terms with the reality of everything I'd lost and how little I knew of what I was going to do next. I wanted good relationships, but I'm independent enough that after spending all day in training (or, later, taking reservations on the phone), having some time alone was usually not the worst of it. What was so, so much harder, was saying goodbye to all I'd known and trying to figure out where I was going to throw my passion.
To be clear, working for Disney has been about 95% awesome. There are so many things about working for this company that are completely fantastic. I've had supportive and generous leaders. (Heck, I was able to be promoted to the training team about four months after being hired in the first place, in large part thanks to some truly amazing leaders who encouraged me and went out on a limb to help me.) The perks of working for the company are fantastic, and it's great to work for a place that is so diligent in creating magical and happy experiences for both guests and cast members (employees.) The hardest parts have mostly been about adjusting to corporate America after years of working in a much smaller pond. That said, when I was hired to work in the reservation center, I knew it would be a pit stop on the way to something else, because while I am good at sales, I can't really say it's my life-long passion. I didn't know what that was any more. I had thought it was teaching, but I'd been so betrayed by that, I had to work through that grief every bit as much as the loss of being somewhere familiar and away from all of my friends and family.
Fortunately, God hasn't quite finished with his mischief in my life. Actually, I think he needed to make it as hellish as possible for me so that I would stop being so cautious and just go for broke on anything. So much of my life has been shattered over the last year that things I'd put on the "impossible" shelf were dusted off.
Remember when I said that for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a teacher?
Remember when I said that for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a teacher?
I could say the same thing about working in a theater.
I was an actress before I really even knew what that meant. Next to playing school, you were most likely going to find me playing pretend. I forced many a childhood friend into acting out The Sound of Music, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and so on and so forth. (I would like to issue a formal apology to all the friends I had as a child who were forced through such things by my younger, bossier self.) ((I'm looking at you, Heather and Liz.)) The older I got, the more I realized how unlikely a responsible career in the arts would be. I put those aspirations on the back burner and turned the heat to low. I would be content with a few shows a year in a community theater.
To further complicate my vision of the future, I met Scott. Scott and his wife Natalie have been in the same circles of theater friends I had back in Utah for ages but while I'd heard about them I hadn't actually met them until I came here to Florida, where Scott is getting his MFA at the University of Central Florida in Theater for Young Audiences. The more Scott told me about his program the more jealous I was. That's when God started whispering in my ear again. (What if I didn't come to Florida just to work for Disney? What if now was finally the right time for me to fulfill my dream of getting a Masters?)
So that's where I am now. I've applied for the MFA program at UCF. What does that mean for my future with Disney? The plan is to stay with the company while I get my degree. I'm not sure what role I'd be able to fill that would allow for that to happen, but at some point in my time with the company I'd love to be involved in entertainment, or have some experience in the parks, just to say I've done it. I’ll be getting a degree in Theater for Young audiences, and I want to focus on theater that impacts families and possibly also theater that helps teenagers cope with trauma. Working in a regional theater as an education director or artistic director of some kind would be an absolute dream.
Truthfully, I feel like the end result isn't what I'm supposed to focus on right now. So much of my life I have known (or assumed I'd known) the end from the beginning, but now I feel like the best thing I can do is stop worrying so much about that responsible adult question of "but what will I do?!" I don't know what I'm going to be doing five years from now. I hope it's something awesome, but taking the enormous pay-cut I did to come work for Disney has taught me that having a job with a positive environment matters more than a better paycheck. I've learned that I can make do with less. I've learned that when I do what I feel God wants me to do, that miracles happen.
So where am I now?
Well, I'm dreading the GRE (even though the program director at UCF told me that I could bomb it and still be accepted.) I'm finally back in the theater and in rehearsals for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown with the Disney STAGE Cast Club, where I'm playing Lucy. I've made some amazing friends and gotten involved in my church again (where, I think the leadership has finally learned my name). I've got a great roommate who keeps me company (and loves my cat. Truthfully, my cat loves her as much as she loves me, or maybe more. Half the nights she's whining at Rachel's door wanting to sleep with her, which I am not okay with, but also relieved by. I hate leaving Izzy alone, so I'm glad she has a friend.)
I'm doing better. Truly, I am. 2018 was easily one of the hardest years of my life. I don't know if it's the hardest - the months before I went on Lexapro might challenge it - but it was pretty close. Even so, I've decided that I'm going to face anything that comes my way now with as much courage and optimism as I can muster. I guess working for Disney will do that for you. To borrow loosely from Ginny Weasley, when you're surrounded by Disney stories and music all the time, you start believing that "anything's possible if you've got enough nerve." I've learned that I have more nerve than I gave myself credit for. I've learned that it's never too late to take a risk on yourself. I've learned that I am far more capable than I thought I was. So, ultimately, when I look back on 2018, I'm grateful for everything I learned from it. I don't think I'd re-live it any time soon, but I am grateful for all that's come for me because I moved to this humid, alligator infested, cockroach ridden, magical place. My time in Florida is just getting started. I can't wait to see where the next steps lead me.