This Is The Sign For Drowning, part 2

The roar in her ears is muffled now, the sounds of the shore distant and hollow. The water forces her down, her back slamming against the gritty bottom. Eyes clenched shut, the world around her is dark.  Her throat burns; her lungs scream for air.

Above her, the surface plays an elusive game of peekaboo as each new wave dangles the possibility of her mouth and nose breaking the barrier between water and sky.

The barrier between watery grave and sun-kissed life.

Panic wells in her chest. Her mind races.

This cannot be how it ends.

She will not succumb to these monstrous depths.

Forcing her eyes open, she gathers what little strength she has left.

She is determined.

The next wave slams her back into the ocean floor; she skids toward the shore on its current.

The monster doesn’t realize it’s helping her now.
A lull. She twists against the water, willing her feet to touch the bottom.

The next wave crashes and in the second it passes, the current sends her downward, toes brushing the sand.

She springs upward, breaking the surface, arms moving in familiar repetition, stroking the current beneath her.

She is exhausted, but she can see the shore.

With a few more strokes, she’s back in quieter waters.

She reaches with her toes…

…a few more inches.


Lungs gasping at the pure air, she looks out at the horizon. The waves build and break around her.

With aching arms, she lifts her hands. Right hand fingertips to left palm, firm, steady.

This is the sign for standing.

The Fascination and Fear of Waves

Of all the elements of nature, water is my favorite. Maybe it’s because my name is Cherokee for “falling water” or maybe it’s just coincidence, but I’ve always been drawn to water. Rain, Creeks. Pools. Lakes. Oceans.  Even now, as I write this post, the sky roars with thunder and raindrops rush to the ground, calming my thoughts.

I was two or three years old the first time I went to the beach. My parents were chaperoning a singles retreat and brought me along. There are few things I remember about that trip—mostly just that I fed a flock of greedy seagulls the French fries from my Happy Meal and soaked up the attention and adoration of the group of twenty-somethings poolside. I don’t remember seeing the ocean for the first time or sticking my toes in the surf.

While I don’t remember that initial trip well, I can recall my second trip to the beach.
I was eleven. It was September—still balmy enough in South Carolina to enjoy being on the beach and in the water, but not oppressively hot like July and August. This was the trip during which I fell in love with the ocean. It’s vastness and mystery issued an invitation and claimed my heart. Since that trip, the beach has continuously beckoned me back, its pull a little stronger each time the gritty sand slides between my toes, the sticky salt air tickles my nose, the steady heartbeat of the waves echoes in my ears. When I’m standing on the edge of the ocean, a sense of calm washes over me. It’s a security blanket for my soul.


As deeply as the ocean drew me in, it also terrified me. The sheer force of it repeatedly crashing against the shore. The unending vastness.

One day that week, my father and I were wading out into the waves. I was knee-deep in the surf and happy to be there. I didn’t trust the unpredictability of the waves I hadn’t yet learned to read. And I wasn’t all that trustful that my dad wouldn’t let me go under either. Eventually though, and with much apprehension, I managed to brave the looming waves and wade into waist deep water.

Keeping my eyes locked on the horizon line and the larger waves forming a little farther out, I was poised to run for the shore at the sight of any threat of going under. My dad was a few feet away in slightly deeper water when I felt it brush my leg. Panic rose in my chest as I glanced down at the creature circling my legs, its distinctive dorsal fin just inches below the water’s surface. It swam away just as my brain registered “run!” And run I did. I fought those waves, my feet sliding against the shifting sand beneath my feet as I moved as fast as I could toward the shore.


It was just a baby shark…maybe three feet long. But it was big enough to make me afraid of deeper waters. That was the last time I waded farther than thigh-deep in the ocean for more than a decade.


Earlier this year, during Spring Break, I found myself standing in the waves again, eyes locked on the horizon line. It was the end of March and the water was still quite chilled. A restlessness stirred in my soul, my heart felt like it was breaking into a thousand pieces, and salty tears glistened in the eyes hidden beneath my sunglasses. As I stood on the Carolina coast, two dear friends in two opposite directions were walking through very hard days. My heart ached to be with both of them, my mind hyper aware of the distance that separated us. And my own family had recently been slammed with a grim diagnosis. I was numb and carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders at the same time.


The waves gathered strength and crested all around me, beating themselves against my legs and stomach. My feet shifted in the sand, my muscles aching as they braced against the ocean’s continuous attempts to shove me under the water. Drowned out by the roar of the waves, I sang the same two lines over and over and over: “So I will call upon Your name/ And keep my eyes above the waves.” Over and over and over. I stood there until my legs, chilled to the bone, began to give way. I turned and stumbled back to the shore, where I continued staring at the horizon line.


For weeks, I’ve sat in drought-ridden northern Texas and thought of the ocean. I’ve written and re-written a dozen metaphors to parallel this particular incongruity.

And for the first time in a long time—maybe ever—I’m allowing myself to both feel and display the depth of my emotions. I’ve spent decades suppressing them, stuffing them down, terrified of what I might find if I wade out a little deeper—what startling creatures are lurking in the depths of my soul? Do I trust my Father enough to allow Him to lead me out farther—where the waves are less predictable and seem more likely to drown me? What will people think if I let these pockets of pain and weakness bob up to the surface? Can I keep my eyes fixed on the horizon of truth and not be thrown into a panic when something unexpected or unpleasant brushes up against me? Am I strong enough to withstand the repeated battering of the waves?

Fighting the waves is exhausting. When you’ve stood in the waves for a while and head back to shore, your legs feel shaky and your body feels heavier. No longer buoyed by the waves, exhaustion rushes in. Fighting emotion and vulnerability and honesty is also exhausting. But so is walking through it.


Raindrops fall softly on the parched grass. The sky is gray and dotted with heavy clouds. Sitting on the porch, feet propped on the table, my eyes are fixed on the horizon line. There are no ocean waves here, but the internal waves build and crest, battering my heart and mind. Some days my legs give way and I feel as though I am drowning, swept under by the weight of the water. I am exhausted. But tonight, I choose to let them carry me. Tomorrow is another day.

This Is The Sign For Drowning

DSC_1313The roar of it fills her ears, drowning out her thoughts. Over and over and over.

Before her, a calmer path opens as the crest languidly rolls toward her, promising reprieve.

A break. Infrequent and welcome.

It glides passed her, unassuming.

Another swells in the distance.

It obscures the horizon line and draws strength from its belly.

The spray stings her eyes, springing from the surface with innocent exuberance. It crashes against her thighs, threatening to knock her down.

She fights to maintain shaky balance against the force of it.

Determined, it returns again and again and again.

The next builds, rising faster and stronger than the last.

Teetering backwards, her feet grasp for solid ground. Her muscles tense, braced for the impact. It’s too strong.

Gritty sand digs into her kneecaps.

The water rushes over her head. The roar is muffled, still filling her ears.

Her eyes burn and her lungs scream for the surface.

Arms and legs flail.

Her fingers find themselves instinctively.

Fingertips to palm, pulling downward, swirling.

This is the sign for drowning.

Passing the Torch: A Letter to the New Teacher

Dear friend,

img_3794You don’t know me and I don’t know you. I don’t know your name yet, but you might hear mine in the weeks to come. We’re participants in a relay of sorts, working together yet separately to make a difference in the lives of students. As teachers, we have the privilege of partnering together to cultivate a lifelong desire to learn in countless lives. We will likely never work in the same space together, but we’re partners in carrying out a mission with a common goal.  I’ve passed the torch on to you and you’ll be responsible for carrying it until it’s time to hand it off again. It’s not easy to give it away and entrust it to someone else, but it is necessary nonetheless. Carry the torch with pride.

You’re entering a classroom I love dearly. You’ll be working closely with one of the best teachers I’ve ever known. And the kids who will populate your work week—and nestle themselves deeply in your heart—are precious to me. I miss them every day and as the beginning of a new school year rushes in, I hope with all my heart that you find the same sense of belonging in the classroom that I did. I hope you are stretched and taught by the littles who will call you Teacher. I hope you learn how to be the best teacher you can be. Your lead teacher truly is the best. Soak in her knowledge and compassion.

We haven’t met yet, but I hope we eventually will. In the meantime, here are a few things that you should know about your new work home:

*Expect to be surprised—you never know what nuggets of wisdom are going to come out of the mouths of the littles in your care.
*Don’t be afraid to be real—your students are human; they know what it’s like to be frustrated or tired, or upset or happy or afraid or excited—and you can tell them when you are (in an appropriate way, of course). Let them know if you’re having an off day. More often than not, they’ll offer a bit of innocent advice that will turn your day around. They’re young, but wise.
*Be silly—they need to see that it’s possible to have fun without getting out of control. It’s up to you to model that for them.
*Say yes—when there’s free time and someone asks you to read a book to them, say yes whenever you can. Be animated, use voices. Show them that reading is fun. This is one of the things I miss the most.
*Be present–There will always be something to plan or prepare. I get it. But sometimes those things can wait. Sit with your students, talk to them, find out what they love and what they don’t—each of them is quite an individual. As the year progresses, the shy ones will come out of their shells, the talkative ones will inform you about all kinds of topics, and you will have an abundance of stories to carry with you.
*Remember those “hope moments”—write them down when they happen, because (trust me) you probably won’t be able to recall them when it comes time to share at the next faculty meeting. Those moments will help you through the hard days, which will inevitably come. They’ll remind you precisely why you do what you do.
*Don’t mention the subject of mice in the presence of your lead teacher. The trauma from past experiences is real. (You’ve probably already heard the story…or will as you prepare the classroom. And I’ll probably get in trouble for mentioning it here!)
*Enjoy your time in the white house—it truly is a fantastic place to work.

There are so many more things I would tell you about this place and this job if we were sitting down for coffee. I’ll admit that I’m a little jealous that you’re there and I am here. Picking up the white house torch six years ago was the best decision I could’ve made for that phase of my life. The lessons I learned in that space were invaluable and I carry them with me still. I don’t know what the white house will teach you, but I know you’ll walk away a better person for having been there. I did.

Here’s to your first year in the white house.  Enjoy it and have fun!

Passing the torch,
Ms. Ticcoa