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Announcing the Soul Shelter First-Person Essay Awards

bullhorn_blog_pshrink.JPGTim and I launched Soul Shelter for the same reason we wrote The Prosperous Peasant, from our conviction that for the majority of people, every day presents a single definitive conundrum: How do I realize my desire to do work I love while needing to do work that earns money?

We believed there ought to be a forum dedicated to exploring the special challenges of integrating inspiration and employment, fortune and fulfillment. Our own personal experiences have taught us (and the parables in The Prosperous Peasant avow this) that there is no secret shortcut to the realization of dreams and the fulfillment of wishes. But we felt that a blog would be the perfect vehicle for sharing amusing stories and insightful perspectives with readers — and inviting discussion. Now, not quite six months on the blogging train, our steadily growing subscription rate suggests that our instincts were true. We’re glad you’ve come aboard!

And today we’re rounding an exciting bend in the blog-road by announcing a new Soul Shelter offering — one we hope you’ll be as thrilled about as we are. With the Soul Shelter First Person Essay Award, we’re searching for compelling personal stories on our theme of balancing fortune and fulfillment. We’re offering a Grand Prize of $1,000 and publication on Soul Shelter to the best essay we receive. Prizes totaling an additional $1,000 will go to seven runners-up.

submit_button_pshrink.JPGWe’ve established specific guidelines for submissions, so jump over to and read our contest rules and FAQ thoroughly, then use the online form to send us your entry by July 1, 2008.

Oh, and did we mention there’s no submission fee?

We’ve already received some superb entries. And to give you a sense of the kind of material we’re seeking, today we’re featuring this moving essay by Melissa Hanser from New York City. Congrats to Melissa on being our first featured writer from the Award pool!


• Lighting the Way for Others by Melissa Hanser

“Melissa, what do you do for a living?”school_desks_pshrink.JPG

“I’m a teacher.”

“Oh. . .so you’re poor and lazy. Must be nice getting out at three o’clock, and having the summers off.”

I can remember the very first time someone uttered those facetious words to me. I was young, twenty-two or so. I had just finished graduate school and I had the drive of a twin turbo Porsche on the open road. I was hot-tempered and defensive. I argued my point until I was blue in the face.

“For your information, I am not lazy. I stay at work well past three, I work on the weekends, and by the end of my career my education will be comparable to that of a doctor. There’s no merit pay for working harder, or extending my day. There is no time-and-a-half. I don’t get more for the psychiatric counseling sessions that my job entails. I need the summer for my immune system to recuperate because I’m exposed to more germs and disease in a half-hour than many are in a lifetime. My job is important because I’m molding the future…”

I thought that the rest of the world was naïve for not understanding or valuing educators and I was determined to make sure that every person I encountered recognized the importance of my job. I was a teacher, for crying out loud, and I certainly was not lazy!

For many years, I stood my ground and defended my occupation, but often cried when I was alone because I too began to discredit the very part of me that I’d once been so proud of. Deep inside, I began to believe I was lazy, and that I could be making more money in another field-until one afternoon when a student refreshed my outlook and changed my defense.

school_supplies_pshrink30.JPGIt was 3:00 p.m. My extra-help session was over for the day and the children of my affluent school district were getting picked up by their parents one-by-one. I agreed to stay an extra hour every week before a test, beyond my contractual duty. It helped the students and the parents feel that they were getting the most from their tax money. I was tired and had three children lined up for private tutoring that afternoon. John, a young boy in my sixth-grade class, waited by my door as I grabbed my bag to leave.

“Ms. Hanser, you got a minute?”

“Sure, but just one. Did you need help with that last math problem? I made it more difficult so that the test will look easy tomorrow.”

“No. It…it’s not about the test.”

“Okay, what’s up?”

“Ms. Hanser, it’s May third.”

“Yes it…”

“Ms. Hanser, my dad died one year ago today … and I’m really sad today. I don’t want to tell my mom because she’s already sad enough, but … Maybe I’m more mad than anything. I’m mad at him for leaving us.”

My heart broke for this little boy. I sat down on the floor in the hallway and listened.

“He always bought me everything I wanted, you know…but he didn’t go to the doctor enough. I would give everything back if he had just gone to the doctor. They said that his cancer spread because he didn’t go when he started feeling sick, and I’m really sad today because I should be sad that he’s gone, but I’m mad at him and I know that’s wrong.”

“Sometimes we get mad at people for not taking care of themselves,” I replied. “Or for not seeing how important they are to others.”

“Well, what are we gonna do without him for the rest of our lives, Ms. Hanser? Who’s gonna take care of my mom when I go away to college?”schoolkid_sitting_pshrink.JPG

“You’re only in sixth grade. I’m sure you’ll figure it out by then. It’s going to take time … and time, whether you choose to believe it or not, heals all wounds. Time, and love from those who are close to you, and chocolate ice cream doesn’t hurt either.”

The young boy smiled, put his head on my shoulder, and cried so hard that his whole body shuddered with each sob. I sat there, and I remembered who I was, why I was there, and why I would teach until I had nothing left to give.

“Melissa, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“Oh. . .so you’re poor and lazy. Must be nice getting out at three o’clock, and having the summers off.”

These days, my response is very different and much more effective than the hot-headed retort I once used.

“Poor … that depends on what exactly you’re counting. If you’re counting time, then I’m not poor at all. I have tons of time for listening, teaching, learning, and helping others. If you’re counting knowledge, I have a wealth of it that stretches far beyond textbooks and facts. If you’re counting love, multiply the love and respect of fifty children by the amount of years I’ve taught, and you’ll see that I’m certainly not poor in that either. Lazy … well that would imply that I don’t work hard at what I do … and you’re right. I don’t work hard at being a role model, lighting the way for others, or lending an ear to a child in need — because these things come naturally to me. It is nice getting out at three o’clock — I wish I allowed myself to do it more often. And the summers are lonely without the laughter of my students.

“You see, my job affords me the wealth of what matters most to me, and the ease of knowing that I’m great at what I do.

“So what was it you said that you do, again?”

8 Comments to Announcing the Soul Shelter First-Person Essay Awards

On May 26, 2008, by Tim commented:

I love this essay–it speaks for so many teachers. Thanks, Melissa!

On May 26, 2008, Chris Guillebeau commented:

Hey guys, just dropping in to say this is a great idea! It adds value all around, which I’m sure you’ve thought of.

I’ll try to come up with something, although I’m sure it won’t be as good as Melissa’s essay here.

On May 26, 2008, by Tim commented:

Hey, Chris, don’t put a bucket over your own light :-) Submit away! Tim

On Jun 13, 2008, Melinda (Aussie-Girl) commented:

I think it also speaks for many stay at home parents.
God bless you Melissa,

On Jun 16, 2008, Kathy commented:


You go, girl! I was a high school English teacher for seven years and gave so much to the kids that I burned out. I never found a balance. The fact that you’re still at it and doing a wonderful job means that you obviously have found that balance. I always say that teaching is the second hardest job in the world — if you do it right. I believe being a Mom is the hardest job — even though I don’t have any kids of my own).

You hit the nail on the head with your powerful essay, Melissa. Teaching is not about the subjects we teach. It’s about the kids we teach. And they are the most important reason to continue teaching.

I miss it every day. I’ve worked in Corporate America for more than 30 years now, but I still consider myself an English Teacher on temporary leave from the classroom. (smile)

Remember, balance is the ticket.

I hope you win the contest.


On Jul 8, 2008, Kate Knightly commented:

Any updates? How many entries received? How many possibilities? Tease us…( I didn’t enter, but a close friend did)

On Jul 8, 2008, by Tim commented:

We had well over 300 entries and many, many outstanding essays. Winners will be announced in our July 16 post. Stay tuned!

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