Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Nutty (Happy, Nervous) Professor

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Behold, I have done a new thing! Actually, it's something I've done before on and off, over the last fifteen years, but the form and setting are quite different. I'm teaching! I am an adjunct instructor at the Southern Maine Community College. Not in creative writing, as you might expect, but lecturing on Technical Communications, an interesting field of "soft skills" encompassing writing to audiences, running meetings, making oral presentations and creating documents and websites collaboratively.

"Julia," I hear you ask, "Haven't you been a full-time writer since 2001? What do you know about running meetings?"

Good question, astute reader. The answer is, I'm tapdancing as fast as I can to keep up. Now, a  lot of the ground covered by "Technical Communications" consists of plain common sense things most of us have learned by our fifties if we have any work or volunteer experience at all. For instance, I delivered an hour lecture last night on cultural variables to be aware of when dealing with people and businesses from different countries - something most of you would have been able to do if you'd A) been paying attention to the news over the years and B) seen the great Michael Keaton/Gedde Watanabe flick Gung Ho.

For the most technical subjects, I'm breaking a sweat reading ahead in the textbook and looking up articles online. I was expressing my worries to Jeff Cohen when we were setting up his blog visit yesterday. "I'm only one chapter ahead of my students!" I said. 

"Don't worry," he replied, from the vantage point of seventeen years teaching undergrads. "Your students are one chapter behind where you think they are."

My students are the other reason I'm able to carry this off. Southern Maine Community College is located in Maine's largest and most diverse metro region, the greater Portland area. Like a lot of community colleges, it has a large share of nontraditional students, older adults (older then the usual 18-22 year olds) who've been in the working world and are back in school to retool or add on to their occupations. I'm teaching two sections of technical communications, and in both classes I've got people who have been employed by (or are still at) large tech firms, high-end manufacturing companies, and regional corporations. 

They're adding their invaluable experience to our classroom discussions, and also helping to confirm to the rest of the students - largely engineering and comp sci majors - that squishy stuff like ethical standards, clear writing and generosity toward coworkers really, truly are important in the working world.

Having an actual job - as opposed to my work-from-home career - is good for me, I think. It's forcing me to be more organized and to stay focused. I'm juggling more than I've had to since I had  multiple kids in school, not to mention the novelty of actually having the meet *ahem* deadlines.

I got the job, more or less, when a friend who was retiring from the position asked me out to lunch last fall. "I want you to take over the class I teach," she told me over pizza and beer. "You need to do something to get out of the house now Youngest is away at university." She was right. I have the world's shortest work week - an hour Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and two hours Wednesday evening - but I genuinely enjoy being in the college environment. I like talking to my students. I've enjoyed meeting my department head and the faculty liaison, and I'm considering attending the monthly adjunct happy hour(!)

One of the most eye-opening aspects of all this has been how well I've taken the whole thing in stride. The last time I stepped back into the workforce after a long absence I was in my mid-thirties, looking for a job after being a stay-at-home mom for five years. I remember agonizing over how to apply, what to say, what to put in and leave out of my resume. I didn't think I had anything to offer the business or legal world. In the end, I joined a temp agency because they literally won't turn anyone down. It took a year of temping to build up my confidence to seriously approach law firms for a real, career-oriented position.

This time, I simply thought about what my friend said, agreed, and sent an email to the woman who ran the department. I pulled together a "resume" in less than an hour, and our face-to-face meeting was relaxed. I felt as if I was as much interviewing her about the position as she was interviewing me about my qualifications. What a difference two decades can make! I wouldn't mind being a redhead again, and I'd love to have my thirty-something knees back (oh, how I used to ski!) but I wouldn't give up the confidence I've earned since then for Jessica Chastian's hair and a pair of bionic joints.

How about you, dear readers? Have any of you jump-started your life with a new thing?

66 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Julia . . . your teaching work sounds so exciting!

    I can’t say that I’ve ever jump-started my life with something new, but I’d like to think I would have enough confidence in myself to be able to do it . . . .

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    1. I'm discovering it's never too late, Joan!

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  2. Good for you! I jumped started into technical documentation - software technical writing - in my forties. I took a nine-month intensive certificate course in the evenings meant for career changers. All but one of the fourteen of us had at least some gray hair. I'd been home with little boys for five years and I loved being out in the working world again, plus I was really good at it. A plus? I can write out recipes and directions like a pro! It was a wonderful career for the next nearly twenty years - until I jump started again by diving into writing fiction full time.

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    1. The thing I love most about my teaching gig is that ot's definitely part-time. It's been taking up more of my working day than I planned so far, but I suspect that will settle down once I've got me feet firmly underneath me.

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  3. Oh Julia, I am so jealous! But how wonderful for you - and for those lucky students!

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  4. Congratulations, Julia! Teaching is a wonderful experience, which I fell into in my mid-40s at the urging of a friend. He said I should apply for a short-term summer contract; I said I couldn't possibly teach; he said, of course I could. So I did...and the Chair hired me on the basis of my resume. Wow, that was confidence boosting -- at a time when I was trying to find my professional feet after having had my corporate job terminated on me (my position was moved to Toronto, but I wasn't). I was always nervous entering the classroom those first few months, always behind in my prep, and somewhat daunted by the students' expectations; but, I loved it anyway. And I'm still teaching now, 12+ years later. I'll work out my formal career in this position at a local college, then take my skills and knowledge and parlay them into my own teaching in the community -- well, that's the plan, anyway.

    I want to encourage each of us to have confidence in ourselves; if we don't believe we can do something, who will? Yay, us! That's my current cheer. Onwards!

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  5. This is wonderful, Julia. You sound so happy about having this interaction and challenge.

    Isn't teaching the best? I taught for twenty years, learning something new with nearly every class. My students' questions made me think about things I knew in my bones, but had not had to really explain. It was a humbling experience, but also so rewarding. That was a leap into the unknown for me, as well. It had never occurred to me to teach, until friends began urging me to do so, even providing students for me to start out with.

    It sounds as if you are finding deep wells of knowledge within yourself, too.

    My oldest daughter taught nursing for six years, and more than half her students were nontraditional. A lot of former teachers were going into nursing at the time. Future job path possibility!

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    1. I find I really enjoy the setting. I'm a great believer in the community college system - I think those schools can make more of a measurable difference in someone's life than many ivy-walled name brand universities can.

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  6. Julia, congratulations! Some of my most interesting teaching was done at Georgia State when it was strictly a commuter college. I taught at night and my students were very diverse, ranging in age from 18 to 65, and all coming from a full day of work elsewhere (as was I0. I was teaching in my field but it was wonderful because they were so varied and determined to learn (as opposed to the high school students I had had all day).

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    1. The diversity of the student body makes it very interesting, and enriches the class enormously. I think if I had a bunch of 18 or 9 years olds, we'd all be a lot more bored!

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  7. Gosh, I've changed careers many time. Elementary school teacher. College professor. Corporate writer. Training consultant for high tech. Freelance writer. Novelist. Julia, your students are SO LUCKY to get you! And you'll love teaching. Though it is exhausting and you do have to stay on top of the paperwork. Nontraditional students are usually quite serious about school.

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    1. They are VERY serious, and really know what they want, which I'm loving. I'm a bit of an extrovert (no surprise there!) and I find the four hours a week interacting with the students gives me a boost for the whole rest of the week.

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  8. Your post is spot on! In September my dream job (that I thought I would have for the rest of my working career) ended abruptly with much attending drama. The company closed; bankruptcy is in the works. Why was it my dream job? I worked from home. I had a great working relationship with the owner, my boss, and because of this great modern technology, I could work from anywhere I had my laptop and my portable printer.
    As I've mentioned before, I'm past the age where most are enjoying retirement and it was signing up with a temp agency that saved me! I'm on a six month assignment in an office that is thrilled to get all my experience for 1/2 price. I'm in an office for 40 hours a week for the first time in ten years. I'd forgotten what the daily exchange with others contributes. And, my knees are killing me because employee parking is on the third level of the parking structure that has no elevator.
    All this to say, life has a way of giving you what you didn't know you needed if you can get past the panic!

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    1. "If you can get past the panic" is spot on, Lyda! I enjoyed the temping I did very muh, back in the day, and it sounds like you are as well. Good for you for making lemonade out of the proverbial lemons!

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  9. Congratulations, Julia! All the best, you will be awesome as a teacher.

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  10. Congratulations, Julia! I haven't really changed careers - well, I thought I was going to be a teacher and wound up a technical writer. I don't think that counts.

    I love teaching--as long as students are engaged and it sounds like yours are.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. They are, Mary/Liz, and it feels like JUST enough time - it's a cool, interesting new thing, but I still have the bulk of my time for writing.

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  11. Great news, Julia! And do become part of the community (happy hour!! Not meetings) on Sunday I was “elected” Junior Warden and part of the Vestry at my Episcopal parish. Don’t ask me for any definitions or job descriptions! But I am feeling energized.

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    1. Denise Ann, at our church, the Junior Warden is responsible for building maintenance, which means he's the one who gets called when the ice blocks the drains. Watch out!

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  12. Good for you, for stepping out and trying something different. The routine alone will be a huge help in keeping you focused and organizing your time. And kudos to the "old girl" network for offering you the job in the first place. Will you cover networking in your class?

    I spent 30 years as a business writer of one sort or another, before I landed my current job. Over those years I'd written a lot of words about people who do interesting things, and I decided I'd like to do some interesting things myself. The job I have now is actually what I trained for back in college, but I hadn't done it in ages, so it was kind of a jump start. It got me out of the house and into a community that would wonder if I didn't show up every day. It caused me to move from the country into a place where there was high-speed internet and home pizza delivery. It replaced freelance income with a regular paycheck. It was a good thing all around. I hope your new job is good for you, too.

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    1. It is, Gigi. It's going to be nice getting a regular paycheck again - Ross's regular income dod a lot to smooth out the highs and lows you get when you're paid by the publisher 2 - 4 times per year. And, as my friend pointed out, the structure is very good for me. As much as I love my house, staying home every day is not optimal for me.

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  13. Congratulations, Julia! I noticed that authors often have been teachers too. I have the career that I have always wanted since college - working in a law firm. I got the job through a friend who heard that the law firm next door was looking to hire someone.

    Diana

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    1. Now, see, the threat of having to go back to the law is what's kept me writing books all these years! :-)

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  14. Congratulations, Julia! And how brave of you to get out in the Maine winter to go to a job. The thing about teaching, in my opinion anyway, is that you get even more than you give. And it's about time you got more. I know the past few years have been incredibly difficult. You deserve to be doing something that brings you joy.

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    1. Thank you, Ann. I have a feeling this is going to be one of those situations where I get far more than I give.

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  15. Congrats on the new job! I'm sure you're doing wonderfully. And it sounds like you have an interactive class, which definitely helps.

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  16. Congrats, Julia! This is wonderful and your students are lucky to have you as a professor. I love it! Sadly, I haven't done anything even remotely as cool, but I've got another three years in the trenches with kids at home, so maybe then...

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    1. Believe me, Jenn, I wouldn't have tackled this even when it was only Youngest in the house finishing up high school. With three kids, tThe driving alone was practically a full-time job over the years.

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  17. Nothing new in my life at the moment, but best of luck to you as you continue to pursue this new thing for you.

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  18. When I retired almost four years ago from an HR management career, I was looking for things to do that wouldn't be too demanding but would keep me engaged. One of those "things" that fell in my lap was becoming the newsletter editor for the NorCal chapter of Sisters in Crime, a volunteer role. I had joined the previous year as a reader member (I'm not an author, nor do I have any aspirations to be one), and I noticed that the chapter newsletter had ceased a few years earlier. Having helmed some newsletters during my career, I offered to help out and ended up taking on the whole thing myself.

    What a wonderful decision that has turned out to be! From a few pages, The Stiletta has now evolved into a 30+-page quarterly publication, and I have made so many friends in the process. Our authors have been so generous in submitting articles, photos, suggestions, and the like, making my job as newsletter "wrangler" relatively easy.

    Especially during the past two years, as my husband struggled through a terminal illness, my work on the newsletter was a welcome distraction, giving me another purpose and some recognition from my fellow Sisters and Misters. And when my husband passed away early this month, I still had the February issue to complete. Although everyone was willing to let the issue slide a bit, I found that getting it done on time furnished me with a much-needed respite from the endless chore of notifying a huge list of companies, applying for benefits and new credit cards, scheduling meetings, waiting for packets to complete, and on and on--not to mention dwelling on the big hole that had opened up in my life.

    Oh, and I also "fell into" doing a bit of consulting work (for money!) this past year, editing and proofing a professional marketing presentation and updating a tech company's human resources handbook and making it more relevant to a startup culture.

    So I say, jump in when you can to do something you enjoy--it may have benefits even beyond what you expect.

    Congratulations, Julia. I hope it enriches your life.

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    1. I'm so sorry to hear that you have lost your husband, Margie! I know what it's like to hold someone's hand and do the best we can through those last few years or months or however long it takes. It's both a slog and a rollercoaster and, no, you don't do your mourning in advance no matter what people tell you. Lucky, indeed, that you have fallen into that newsletter. It's great to have something you have to do, no matter what, when the rest of your life is turned upside down. Be brave, and remember that people who have never even met you are here to help if we can. Hugs to you. You have my deepest sympathy.

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    2. Let me echo Gigi's words, since I've been there, too. It's a long, hard road the first year, and having something - a job, a volunteer position, a kid or a pet - that makes you get up every morning and keep moving is a HUGE help. Be kind to yourself. Do the stuff you truly need or want to do, and let other things slide. And please keep checking in here! We may be virtual, but it's a great, supportive community.

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    3. Margie, me too, echoing sympathy for your loss. Sisters in Crime is so very lucky to have "found" you--and we are delighted to have you here at JRW too!

      And Julia, Yay for you! But finish the book soon too, ok? xox

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    4. Deepest condolences, Margie, and thanks for all you do for the Sisters (and brothers!).

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    5. Thank you so much. I enjoy reading this blog, Lesa Holstine's blog, and a couple of others on a daily basis because it makes me feel like part of a community, even though I've never met most of you. I'm in San Jose, and next year Bouchercon will be in Sacramento (near where my younger son and his family live), so I'm looking forward to going to my first Bouchercon and meeting many of you there. In the meantime, I'll be attending Left Coast Crime next year in San Diego (I've been to a couple of others), so maybe I'll see you there. And yes, our wonderful and attentive sons and daughter-in-law and, of course, our adorable grandchildren (Henry, age 2 and Autumn, age 2 months) are instrumental in my healing process.

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    6. Adding my condolences, Margie. We are all here sending you virtual hugs and support. xx

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    7. Oh, thinking of you, dear Margie...you are very wonderfully brave.

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    8. Deepest condolences, Margie. I'm so sorry for your loss.

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    9. Margie, I am saddened to hear of your loss of your beloved husband. I will never forget your words of encouragement to me, not that long ago. Particularly poignant since hospice was already in your journey with him and yet you still reached out. Blessings to you as you move forward, and thank you.

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  19. I hope my students aren't reading this...

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    1. I'm going with the "Do they really care enough to Google you?" yardstick. For both of us.

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  20. When I turned 50-ish, I started a professional editing business. It was then or never, I figured, so I took the leap. Without support from friends in the mystery/crime community, my business would never have taken off, so I am ever grateful.

    My husband (a journalist, now editor) taught as an adjunct for a couple of years at a small state university. He enjoyed it but he also had a full time job, so he was glad to pass it along to someone else, as your friend did with you, Julia. He's got that experience in his back pocket now, which never hurts.

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    1. Being part-time - I'm only teaching two sections of the same course - was instrumental in my choice to accept the offer, Ramona. I can't imagine combining it with a 40-hour-a-week job.

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  21. Julia, I used to be a tech writer and I’ve taught tech writing for years. Let me know if I can do anything to help: cakers@umich.edu

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  22. Julia, I, too, am a huge supporter of the community college system. This job seems like an absolutely perfect fit for you, something to keep you structured, a way to make connections, without taking too much time from writing. And your students are so lucky to have you!!!

    My big jump start was writing and (amazingly) selling my first novel. I've never looked back from that!

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  23. Congratulations, Julia! I've been teaching part-time at a community college for ten years now, and I love it. It's the perfect job to complement writing. It gives structure to your week, and you will meet so many interesting (and crazy!) students who will give you lots of raw material for your writing. Have fun!

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    1. Thanks, Susan. It does seem to be just the right size to fit in with my writing life.

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  24. Congratulations! But be careful... I started as an adjunct at the community college in 2007 and now am full-time faculty with all kinds of Obligations and Commitments. Don't let this happen to you! :-D I forget which of the "Jane Haddam" Gregor Demarkian series it was, but one dealt extensively with the plight of the adjunct college instructor, actually a very moving and accurate portrayal for those of us who aren't fortunate enough to be doing it just to get out of the house. I'll be interested to see whether your experience is similar to mine in being absolutely flabbergasted to learn how many completely illiterate individuals there are graduating from high school. At first, I was pretty judgey, but now I figure if they actually went to school for 12 or 13 years with someone shoving reading and writing at them all the time and they still can't read and write, it's probably not just because they weren't paying attention. And nobody seems to know how to help these folks. I can't imagine how awful it would be not to be able to read. And on that cheery note -- enjoy! As my colleague says, no matter how bad it gets, every 16 weeks, you get a do-over!

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    1. Kristi, I do have one advantage -all my students have to have taken and passed English Comp 101 as a prerequisite. Now THAT'S a class I wouldn't want to teach!

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  25. Congratulations on your teaching job, Julia. I retired from teaching rather unexpectedly in May. I spent 25 years in one school district and the interview was being introduced to the principal by a friend and chatting for a few minutes. I haven't looked for work yet. Pretty happy doing ministry. But early retirement does not equal funding your previous lifestyle, so I've been just looking around. One thing that's pretty available out there in the area of remote jobs is teaching English to Chinese students. I just spent 30 minutes looking over info about VIPKids. Evidently, you have to do a mock lesson. I watched a video of a sample lesson by someone who has been teaching with VIPKids for 18 months. I've always been an extravagant, over the top kind of teacher. It takes a lot to compete with video games, but I was pretty intimidated by the video. I would really have to work hard at slowing to turtle speed when saying words. Also, it sounds more like what one with do with a pre-schooler (which these students are not.) Her mannerisms were pretty annoying to me, and I'm not sure how well I would do. So - for the moment I closed the window and did not start the application process. I'm feeling like a coward. I'm 62 and have never had to compete for a job, and modeling a lesson with no student on the other side of the camera scares the heck out of me. I'll take a few days, not buy any new clothes or eat out, and decide in a couple of weeks if this is essential to my future solvency.

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    1. Judy, one thing I know from the many, many teachers of my acquaintance is that there is ALWAYS some sort of teaching work out there.

      Just as an FYI, several of our local school districts have recently upped substitute pay because there's such a shortage of substitute teachers!

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  26. Running in late..and applauding like mad! You are a PERFECT teacher. Perfect in every way. You are the Mary Poppins of teacher--smart and funny and magical. Lucky lucky students! (And I didn't start writing fiction until I was 55.) YAAAY!

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  27. Coming in late today, but I had to congratulate you, Julia. It sounds like the perfect situation for you, and it sounds as if you are truly enjoying it. I always loved the uniqueness that each student brought to a classroom, some more than others (haha). Getting out and mixing it up with students of different ages and faculty is bound to be good for you. Have a great semester, Professor!

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  28. this seems to be an area of need- I know most of my high school students are missing many of the "soft skills" older generations were taught through life skills, home ec and other courses which included a lot of common sense topics that get missed in the digital age

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    1. Too many schools just can't afford those additional classes nowadays, Josephine. Either there's not enough money on the budget or they can't spare teaching time when everyone is prepping for the next mandated test. I'm grateful Youngest was able to take a money management course in high school - it really helped her think realistically about budgeting, etc.

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