Episode 32: Visiting with Michelle Gonzales of Champaign, IL, and her story, “Classroom of Life”
SSPP ep 32 Michelle Gonzales “Classroom of Life”
Michelle Gonzalez joins Kerry and Jenette to reminisce about her live performance in February of 2020, and her experiences since sharing her story “Classroom of Life.” As a former school teacher, Michelle shares how she has chosen to view the world through the lens of a perpetual student, always growing and learning to live with heart.
ANNOUNCER: Raising women’s voices. One story at a time.
Welcome to The She Said Project Podcast.
JENETTE JURCZYK: Welcome once again to a new episode of The She Said Project Podcast where we get together and talk to women about their personal stories and the impact that they have when they get bold and brave and share them with an audience. Kerry Rossow, you are one of the founders of That’s What She Said. I’m Jenette Jurczyk, the National Director, and we are here to catch up with some of these women who have been in the show. When you created That’s What She Said it was meant to be a live performance. While 2020 has certainly had an impact on live shows everywhere, but we are so grateful that we still had one in February of 2020 before the world went upside down. Do you remember that night?
KERRY ROSSOW: I really do feel like it was… it’s sort of ominous to think back to it now because you feel like, you know, the world was about to catch fire and we had that one amazing night just beforehand and it was an amazing group of women. And so, as everything keeps getting pushed back, pushed back, and we start thinking of new and different ways to share women’s stories, I do keep thinking of that one, because it was our last show and it was so special and just before things turned upside down—so I’m excited that today we have someone from that show.
JENETTE: Hanging out with us in our Zoom studio: our guest today is Michelle Gonzalez, who not just appeared in the February 2020 live show—she opened the show. She was the first story of the night to grab the microphone and speak from the heart. Hello, Michelle.
MICHELLE GONZALES: Hello ladies. Thanks for having me.
JENETTE: It wasn’t scary at all? Going first that night, was it?
MICHELLE: You know, the best part about it was once I finished, it was over and I was able to enjoy the rest of the show. So I was fine with it.
JENETTE: Silver lining. You shared a lot of information that night. Your story was called “Classroom of Life” but you covered so many different moments and lessons learned along the way in your journey. Tell us what your process was, what you were thinking about when you were trying to figure out what you were going to share.
MICHELLE: Well, when you asked me, it was only a couple weeks after I had gotten some big news and I wasn’t sure I was going to include that in my speech but as you know, the speech that I delivered was the third draft of a speech that I wrote—thanks to Jenette and her editing skills, I had to rewrite and rewrite, which was fine because what I ended up with was exactly what I guess I had to say. That was my story and it was really a kind of an introspective journey for me, but I hadn’t anticipated when you asked if I could do it, you know? Cuz when you asked if I could do it, I was like, oh my gosh, I’m so nervous. This is going to be crazy. What am I going to talk about? But as time went on and my story evolved, it was remarkable just how it came to fruition. And I was able to touch on all the important aspects of my life that I wanted to say.
KERRY: Something that I thought was really interesting, even though I had known you in many different ways for many different years, what really became clear to me when we were going through this process and in your rewrites and then, even your final piece was how hard it was for you to, you know, you’ve taught other people, you’ve promoted other people. You’ve always been about the outward and the giving and the building up of other people and how we had to keep saying, “you, your story” and the biggest takeaway that we’ll listen to here in a minute, one of the phrases you used about your story was “girls, check your girls” and I said that, I’ve thought that so many times since and thought about—as you had changes in your life, and since the show—thinking, you know, that you really, for once you stood up and just told yours, even though you kept trying to point to other people.
JENETTE: You sure did! We had to rein you in. It’s about you.
MICHELLE: “It’s about you, it’s about you.” [laughing] You kept saying, over and over.
JENETTE: That is so hard to for so many women we have come to learn—that when you’re given permission to talk about you in front of other people. That’s hard to do. But you did a phenomenal job. So let’s go ahead and remember that night: we’re all going to take a listen to your actual performance, live, on stage in the February 2020 performance of That’s What She Said in Champaign, Illinois, here is Michelle Gonzalez with her story, “Classroom of Life.”
MICHELLE: (recorded February 2020) (5:11) Good evening, boys and girls. Welcome to my class.
Today we’re going to be learning about living with heart. So, what does that mean? To live with heart? First, it takes a quiet mind, a faith in the unknown, and a trust in yourself. It certainly has its challenges and it comes along with risks. But if you listen closely, these are the lessons that we’re meant to teach you along the way.
As a third grade teacher, I cherish the opportunity to connect with students. Teach them about the world around them, see them discover the gifts and talents within themselves. I remember a day when my class was presenting projects on the westward expansion they had worked on for weeks. One particular kiddo was terrified to speak in front of his peers, not that I can relate. In fact, he started with his back to the class. He didn’t want to look anyone in the eye. I thought it wasn’t going to happen at all. After offering words of encouragement and asking probing questions this student soon started to open up and by the end, the rest of the class and I were riveted and knew more about the origin and meaning behind the Native American tipi than we had ever known. Not only did the student become the teacher that day but I, the teacher, became the student.
What did I learn from that moment and the countless other moments in my classroom like this? What did that courageous student teach me? To take risks. To overcome my doubt and fear. To step outside that which I thought was my set plan for life. To live with heart.
After twelve years, I decided to step away from teaching, continuing to live as a student in this classroom of life. Following my heart was a risk, but I knew I had to have that faith in the unknown. Now, I have a job working as a legislative assistant. I learn about the leaders and the essential work they do in the community. My boss shows me what it means to be an open-minded and fair representative of this District in which we live. Yes. [applause] I serve our constituents when they need help navigating State agencies, all while learning alongside them.
A couple years ago, our office was invited to participate in Community Day for the kindergarteners at the same school where I had taught. We brought a colorful display board explaining the legislative process and tallied the votes as we asked the students to be a lawmaker and vote on whether or not they would want extra recess and a later dismissal time. Their answers were thoughtful and their reasons varied from, “I got to get my wiggles out” to “I can’t miss my Russian lesson after school!”
Not only that, I soon found out this very topic was discussed at the next school board meeting. Here I was in my new role working in state government, still learning and living with heart. Seeing those children learn about a system that serves them made me feel like I had come full circle.
As my career path was progressing, what was I learning in my personal life? Well, after a bitter divorce and becoming a single mom, I knew I had to find the strength and courage within me to overcome the darkest time of my life. How was I going to do it all by myself? How was I going to emotionally bounce back from the feelings of being an inadequate mother and wife? I realized I could not have done it without my faith in God, the love and support of my family and friends, babysitters, drivers, dog watchers, open ears and shoulders to cry on. I was never alone. This was also a time for me to discover my capacity to live with heart. My heart was in my son, my friends, my family, my faith, my community, and myself. What did I need a partner for? Being single allowed me the independence and focus toward a more authentic me. After making a career shift I had learned about extraordinary people and organizations in our area and realizing what gifts I have to offer. So what challenge laid ahead of me in this new post-divorce skin?
For six years, it was pretty much nonexistent. I had resigned to the fact I could die an old maid, and I was fine with it. Online dating wasn’t for me, and although I was constantly meeting new people, no one seemed to fit the bill. A dear friend of mine told me to spell out what I was looking for in a partner and throw it into the universe. So that’s what I did. The list was a work-in-progress for a couple years as it grew to have the obvious quality traits such as open, honest, compassionate, But as time wore on, I went on to add bonus traits such as tech-savvy and handy around the house.
Well, as fate would have it, I met someone a little over a year and a half ago. [applause] Thank you. We’re still figuring things out, but the biggest lesson was that because I followed my heart, and I was patient, the universe brought me someone who came remarkably close to possessing those quality traits I spelled out on my list. He’s a reflection of those things I value and makes me strive to be a better person. We shall see how the rest of our story unfolds. Now, don’t let me fool you into thinking we have some sort of Disney happy ending to our story. It comes with its fair share of ups and downs, twists and turns.
In fact, one plot twist happened to us last June when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m fine for the most part. The worst is behind me and having learned all the lessons I’ve learned through the challenges of my past, I knew the only option I had was to find the reasons this was happening to me. I most definitely found them. Lesson number one: to continue to practice leaning on my friends and family. One of the best pieces of advice I received for my journey was to let people help you, it helps them. So true. So true, and I am forever grateful for this reminder as I continue to apply it to today,. Second, it gave me a message to share:
Girls, check your girls. Guys, remind your girls to check their girls.
Read this sage advice to all those you love because this terrible disease is more prevalent than anyone, which is it to be. As dismal as that sounds. Remember, we also live in a time when it’s more treatable than ever. Early detection is key.
Lastly, the most significant lesson in all of this: timing. I learned there is something much bigger than me that orchestrated this all to happen when it did. I was always on the go and my body was telling me to slow down and I have. But more significantly, right in the middle of all this happening, my partner and I decided to take a big step forward as he uprooted his life and moved twelve hundred miles to live back here in his hometown. [applause] I could not have gone through this, my diagnosis, surgery, and treatment with strength and confidence without his support. I still can’t.
So, looking back at how all the pieces of my life fit together to create the story, which brought me to this very spot on which I stand, I’ve learned I must look at the world through the lens of a student, deriving the lessons from the highs and lows of this marvelous human experience as I live with heart. I choose to take risks to challenge myself, which might bring me to a low only knowing I’ll have that much higher to climb as time passes.
That’s how I will grow. That’s how I will learn, and hopefully in some small way that’s how I will teach to live with heart.
JENETTE: Yeah, absolutely! A phenomenal job of opening the show, and warming up the audience and setting the tone for the night. It was intimate, it was powerful, but you brought everybody in with you on this journey because you were a teacher, and that was such a natural metaphor to talk about, you know, being a teacher and imparting knowledge on young people and then what it has internally done for you as you go through life. Any reflections. Any thoughts on that night?
MICHELLE: Well, I’ve talked about this with you and other people that were part of my journey through this whole that’s in the process when we rehearsed it was repetitive and, you know, listening to the same speeches over and over. And we just practiced and practiced—which I understand we needed to do and it was important. But after hearing people’s speeches, two times, three times… by the tenth time, you really don’t get much reaction from the rest of the group. And so, I would deliver my speech and I just, you know, and it was fine, I’m glad I was able to practice it but I just felt like, okay you know, like I don’t know what’s going to happen that night and then the day of the show we had our dress rehearsal on stage and I remember being on that stage and having the house lights out and it was just blackness and giving my speech and, again, nothing. No reaction and just feeling so like small. And, and like, oh, I was just I was so nervous but at the same time I was ready cuz I knew we prepared for so long.
But the second, the second I got on that stage and I started and I felt the response from the audience, it was like all that nervousness shut away and the people’s responses to my talk was incredible because I didn’t expect the reaction that I got, after the things that I said, you know, cuz I hadn’t heard any reaction prior to that, in that way. And so that was—- it was a gift. And I remember turning around after I was done and looking at people next to me on the stage and I was like that was so fun, you know. And telling them how fun it was to feel that audience reaction. And I could tell—all of us, all of us on that stage, felt it because it was a, it was a magical night and everybody brought their A-game and it was really neat to see.
JENETTE: (16:20) I always tell people there is no substitute for the one-night-only live show experience when there is hundreds and hundreds of people in the audience and the energy is palpable and its…you know, Kerry and her friends have created such a beautiful thing that we get to, get to take on and create this legacy and keep it moving forward. So it’s really something special.
MICHELLE: Very supportive and loving audience—that is what I really felt—for all of us. When we spoke, you can just tell it was all about support and love and it was beautiful.
KERRY: And the beauty that each cast forms their own bond. There are great pictures from your cast, walking off the stage of you guys, dancing and laughing and high-fiving and I just think it is—it’s something you cannot explain until you’ve done it, but your group, just like all the groups before you—you know, really seemed to have a close bond. Do you keep in touch with any of the women from the show?
MICHELLE: Well, I mean, speaking of dancing… I mean Kelly Ryan made us get up and do the, what was it? What’s that called?
JENETTE: The Time Warp.
MICHELLE: The Time Warp. So I mean as soon as she said, “All of you get up!”—I, again I turned around to my neighbor [laughing] and was like, ‘That girl!’ [laughing] You know, and so, yeah, I definitely talk to, you know, the Kellys—you know, they’re dear friends of mine now and yeah, it is ... it was a really special experience.
JENETTE: (17:53) Yeah, this creates deep bonds and intimate relationships really quickly. Because when you’re sharing stories like this and having these emotional experiences, like you cut through all the small talk real fast, like you get to know someone on a deep level and it is a connection that lasts a really long time.
Speaking of photos though, I was looking through photos of many previous shows and there is not a shot of a She Said audience that doesn’t have Michelle Gonzalez in it. I have you found you in so many pictures—in the crowd, in the audience, in group shots, in the lobby, because you have been there supporting the She Said mission every step of the way and it just felt so right and just that it was your turn, you know…
MICHELLE: I was in the choir, yeah, the first show.
KERRY: The very first show—she sang in the very first show. But there, even though Michelle was sort of always… somehow… she was always part of the tapestry of my life—it didn’t, it became so clear to me in one of those pictures with Michelle and a friend at the top of the staircase and the photographer just happened to get this series of shots of them hugging. And I remember thinking like that is it, that’s the whole gig of this show. It’s not just the people on stage, but the women who come to support each other and it was a year she wasn’t in the show. But it was just this great series of photos and it really sums up what the shows about, what Michelle’s about and that was the moment for me. Like, duh, of course, she needs to be on this stage.
MICHELLE: Did you hear the scream? That went along with that photo? [laughing] We screamed. So loud.
KERRY: It’s like scratch and sniff, but it’s scratch and hear.
MICHELLE: We screamed so loud when we saw each other. My friend.
JENETTE: Who was it?
MICHELLE: Her name’s Camille. She’s another teacher that I worked with. So, yeah, I didn’t know she was going to be there and so when we saw each other we were very excited.
JENETTE: Wasn’t there a surprise visitor? Another teacher who was also a previous She Said speaker, showed up on show night to surprise you?
MICHELLE: That’s right. She showed up actually at the dress rehearsal and Kerry let her get up on the stage after I delivered my speech.
JENETTE: And that was?
MICHELLE: Tyra Browning. She was my grade level partner. So she and I taught 3rd grade for seven years together at Southside school.
JENETTE: But she flew into town, right? Like she doesn’t live locally anymore…
MICHELLE: She lives in Dallas now, so she and her husband drove up to surprise me that day.. it was, it was…wow.
KERRY: So she had reached out because—since Tyra had gone through it, she knew what this experience was like—and probably a month ahead of time—she sent me a private message saying, I want to come back and support Michelle on this night and I want to, is it okay if I pop in and surprise her? And, of course, I was like, well yeah.
MICHELLE: That’s so nice. Thank you. I was very touched.
JENETTE: I’m so glad. You know, your story had many lingering messages about trusting yourself, about, you know, listening to your heart to find the right person. Kerry brought up your message about ‘girls, check your girls’ and that has resonated with so many women. In fact, I will confess—I went and had my mammogram and I sent Michelle a photo of me standing in the waiting room. “Michelle, I’m doing it! I’m doing it!”
MICHELLE: You’re not the only one!
JENETTE: See? You’re an ambassador. You are an ambassador for the girls. I love it. That’s important.
MICHELLE: It’s very important, it’s very important. But, you know, I think, I think the message is pretty clear. I think, even without my story, women, there’s definitely been an awakening about the importance of having the regular checkup and being mindful and checking yourself. So..
JENETTE: But you are such an important reminder of that—early detection can save lives—
thank goodness you are a survivor and that we get to enjoy so much more Michelle Gonzales.
MICHELLE: Thank you. Thank you.
JENETTE: So important.
MICHELLE: And I get to enjoy you! [laugh]
JENETTE: I wish we could enjoy each other more in person but this is the world that we are in right now. So I’m so grateful that we get to keep connecting—even if we have to do it on Zoom, we get to keep sharing stories. We get to keep checking in with these women who are so part of our journey in our story and that’s why we are continuing our mission of sharing women’s stories in places like The She Said Project Podcast. I’d love to thank all of our listeners for joining us and being part of this journey. This is Jenette Jurczyk and Kerry Rossow with The She Said Project Podcast. It is our honor and our pleasure to raise women’s voices and give them a microphone.
ALL: Check your girls!
ANNOUNCER: Thank you for listening to The She Said Project Podcast in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in the podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That’s What She Said, LLC. For more information on our live shows go to http://shesaidproject.com
This podcast was made possible with support from Carle and Health Alliance and presented by Sterling Wealth Management, empowering women to live their best lives.
Michelle Gonzalez joins Kerry and Jenette to reminisce about her live performance in February of 2020 and her experiences since sharing her story "Classroom of Life." As a former school teacher, Michelle shares how she has chosen to view the world through the lens of a perpetual student, always growing and learning to live with heart.
The She Said Project Podcast is recorded in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in this podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That's What She Said, LLC. Learn more at shesaidproject.com.