December 31st – a day that makes it impossible not to reflect on the previous 364 days. We’re home now and brainstorming how to spend our last day of 2019 (spoiler alert – we went hiking and ate an early dinner at Chuy’s). Our holiday season was fairly low-key and family-centric with road trips down to northern Georgia for Thanksgiving and the North Carolina coast after Christmas. It is likely our last year living on the same coast as our families so we made an effort to spend time with our extended family – a goal which we happily met. Clay and I also celebrated 15 years of marriage, which feels mind-boggling. How can we be married for over 15 years when we feel like we’re barely in our mid-20s?

I felt compelled to write here today, despite only publishing 47 posts on And Then We Laughed in 2019. One of the gifts I received from Clay for Christmas was a hand stamped leather cover for my journal that I’ve been keeping in my purse for the past several months. Ironically, 2019 is probably the year I’ve written the most words – they just haven’t been in this space. 2019 was a pretty good year and as a whole, I enjoyed it more than 2018. I kicked off the year with an honest post about dealing with envy as a military spouse. I still have to remind myself that comparison is the thief of joy but I’m definitely more content with decisions beyond our control. I wrote a handful of military posts this year – I wrote about Clay’s promotion and I wrote about what we liked best at each duty station thus far. I shared a conversation I had with Allyson wondering if we were seasoned spouses and I shared a lot about our AGR experience. I wrote about education and the military child, the fight to end the widow’s tax (which is now set to be eliminated by 2023), and a look at the military housing crisis.

On the professional front, I said yes to a long-term full-time substitute position at my children’s school back in April. It was a fantastic and humbling learning experience, so when the school district offered me a part-time position at the central office for the 2019/2020 school year, I gladly accepted. I am able to put my instructional design and content development skills to use and I only work when my children are in school, which I absolutely love.

We were able to travel a fair amount in 2019 and tried our best to maximize our free time outside of work, sports, and volunteer committments. The four of us took another stab at New York City in February and managed to get one full day of sightseeing in before norovirus infiltrated our Manhattan hotel room. Thankfully when I went back for a weekend with my Fort Drum girls I managed to remain healthy (woohoo!). After a dark and gloomy winter in the DC area, we spent Spring Break at Amelia Island at my parent’s condo after a stop in Savannah and Clay and I even managed to sneak away to St. Augustine for the night. We spent the long Memorial Day weekend outside of Philadelphia at my sister’s place. In June, we took advantage of the Waves of Honor promotion and spent a long weekend at Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg. And for the 4th of July, we went down to Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina and soaked in a lot of beach time and time with family.

At the end of July, we went to Germany and Austria and fell in love with the Bavarian Alps. We hiked, ate, and drank our way through Munich and Salzburg and left a little piece of our hearts in the countryside. In August, we squeezed in one last summer trip and spent a long weekend in Charlottesville and the Shenandoah National Park. Earlier this year, I wrote about why our family hasn’t gone to Walt Disney World yet and wouldn’t you know, this fall we booked a Disney World vacation for January 2020. The world (or Mickey…) works in mysterious ways.

Clay and I vowed to experience more live music in 2019. While we didn’t get to see too many shows, we attended more concerts in 2019 then we did in 2018, so I can’t complain. We saw Sister Hazel, some friends and I went to the Tim McGraw and John Meacham Songs of America book tour, and we finally saw Jack White when we went to a Raconteurs show. The two of us loved seeing The Head and the Heart and we all enjoyed attending the National Symphony Holiday Pops Concert with Leslie Odom Jr. as a family.

We were able to attend many Washington Nationals games as a family and cheer them on to a World Series win. GO NATS! Going to Nats games will likely be what we miss the most when we PCS – it doesn’t get much better than an afternoon or evening at the ball park. While the team won’t be the same, we can’t wait to attend more games during the first half of 2020!

On a personal note, I am ending 2019 feeling healthier than I did in 2018 – both mentally and physically. However, I learned that what worked for me in my late 20’s and early 30’s is not working for me on the downhill slide toward 40. I have some inches to lose and I know that my cardiovascular health could be better. I have made some changes in the past month that I look forward to continuing in 2020. It’s not about losing weight or a number on the scale. I am an able-bodied healthy woman and I have no excuse for not being in the best shape that my lifestyle allows.

2019 was a pretty good year but I look forward to what 2020 will bring. Bring. It. On!

Education and the Military Child

It’s the time of year when the barren branches of trees glisten with lights and the everyone seems just a smidgen more friendly toward one another. It’s also the time of year when many military families embark on an adventure filled with broken promises, crazy turns, and changed orders that is not-so-officially titled, “Where Will We Go Next?” While some such families will be able to share with their families during holiday gatherings what their new adventure will be, others may not find out until spring or even later. Yes – it can be an exciting time, but it can also be filled with anxiety as visions of sugar plum fairies in a variety of potential new locations dance in our heads.

We’re due for another move this upcoming summer. And no – we don’t know where yet. This move will have our son attending his fourth elementary school and our daughter attending her second, which are standard numbers among military children. We have a list of potential places we could go next (not that any of them are guaranteed) so I’ve been casually researching and anxiously awaiting to hear where we will spend our next two years. Now that our children are getting older, the impact of our frequent moves is greater than ever before. And now more than ever, we’re factoring the quality of schools into our research. I’ve spent most of my professional career working in the education field via one realm or another. I’ve taught preschool and college courses and everything in between. I’ve designed both in-person and online courses, I’ve created content, and I’ve collected and interpreted education data. And I have some thoughts on the education system as a whole and how military children are impacted by the status quo.

According to the Department of Defense, there are more than 2.7 million active-duty military family members who are well-versed in the outdated adage, “If Uncle Sam wanted you to have a family, he would’ve issued you one.” When I married my husband 15 years ago, I literally became a card-carrying member of an organization that is seemingly both celebrated (“Thank you for your service!”) and somewhat misunderstood (“You’re lucky you get free housing!”) by the general population. My husband is at the point in his career where retirement is within manageable reach, should he decide that 20 years of military service is more than enough for our family. I’ve often said that our decision to remain an active-duty family is based on a simple equation – if the perceived benefits outweigh the drawbacks, he’ll continue to serve. On paper – it appears to be a simple equation but like most things, the reality is much murkier.

One of the biggest drawbacks for many military families is the lack of educational consistency due to multiple moves throughout the adolescence of military children. Simple put – moving is hard and the way education is practiced in our country doesn’t seem to make it any easier for our children. While some families choose to homeschool their children in effort to maintain consistency despite moving every 2-3 years, they only represent 9.2% of military families who responded to the Military Family Advisory Network’s 2018 survey. This means that over 90% of military families surveyed have children who attend local schools (on-post, off-post, private, or DODEA).

Is education a military readiness issue?

Earlier this year, the idea that quality education for children is a military readiness issue raised a few eyebrows when the Commander of Air University, Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, stated he has difficulty recruiting faculty because they do not want to move their families away from high-performing schools in economically booming areas to the low-performing schools in Montgomery, Alabama (source). It’s not uncommon for families to choose to live apart from their service member in order for the military family to remain in a school district – whether it be for school performance reasons or secondary education reasons, such wishing not to impact GPA, class ranking, or IB vs. AP course load; all of which can affect college placement. And many families choose to leave the military earlier than otherwise planned for education reasons because maintaining two households for an undetermined amount of time is neither viable nor preferable.

What is being done about these inconsistencies?

Well – it is not a secret that education standards are inconsistent from state to state and highly nomadic populations, such as the military, suffer the most from such inconsistencies. Recently, the DoD, National Center for Interstate Compacts, and Council of State Governments developed an interstate compact in order to address the educational transition issues of military children called the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. In attempt to address the eligibility, enrollment, placement, and graduation issues encountered by military families, the compact “provides for a detailed governance structure at both the state and national levels with built-in enforcement and compliance mechanisms.” (source). Only time will determine the success of this coalition, but it is movement in the right direction – after all, the first step is admitting there is a problem. In the meantime, we will continue to do what we do best – research and hope we’re not doing our children a disservice.

What about school rankings?

When researching schools associated with possible places they could be sent next, many military families rely on word-of-mouth reviews and data-based websites like GreatSchools, SchoolDigger, and Niche. The websites differ in data sources and methodologies, which explains the varying systems of rating/ranking and they all have plenty of critics, who are quick to point out that it is impossible to judge the quality of education from a simple digestible number or letter. One study even theorizes that online school ratings accelerate housing segregation (source). Yes – nothing can replace the gut feeling received when touring a school and speaking with the administration, but those are luxuries many military families cannot afford, especially when moving 2000+ miles away and needing to secure housing as soon as possible. At the end of the day, it can feel like we’re rolling the dice with our children’s education – like most things military-related, many of us hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Is education a prize to be won?

I read an analogy once that really resonated with me – education in the United States is considered a prize to be won rather than a means for personal growth and professional fulfillment. Students are measured by predetermined benchmarks from Kindergarten onward and by the time they reach high school, they’re continuously ranked against each other as they compete for class placement in hopes of impressing college admissions representatives. Mental health professionals are calling the prevalence of anxiety among high school students an epidemic. While research and antidote evidence points to social media and the need to maintain a certain image as contributing factors, it’s not difficult to see how the increasing education pressures in middle school and high school also contribute to the epidemic. And when it comes to eligibility, enrollment, and placement issues that often arise when a high school-aged military child moves one state to another (or country), the anxiety is that much more heightened.

 “In a battle, it’s not the sharpness of the blade that matters but the skill of the fighter

There is a part of me that wonders if all this stress over class placement and GPA is worth it in the end. Over the years, economists have found that for most students, there isn’t a distinguishable salary boost between attending a super-selective college/university and a ‘regular’ college/university after adjusting for student characteristics (source). Simply put, the talent and ambitions of an individual student will determine success, not necessarily where they choose to pursue their post-secondary education. On the same page, an interesting Chicago Tribune article asked 10 CEOs whether they think where one goes to college really matters…spoiler – the majority said no, not really (source). Characteristics such as work ethic, people skills, confidence, and the desire to improve matter far more than the name of the school on the diploma. That’s not to say that students shouldn’t try their best and work toward an academic goal but perhaps the pressure placed on high-school students to achieve at all costs and compete against one another isn’t the best approach to post-secondary education.

My children are still at the age when going to school is not a chore – they’re excited to learn and be in the classroom environment. Both my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed school and still find ourselves engaging in academic pursuits today so it is extremely important for us to encourage their passion for learning and maintain their excitement for new experiences. Perhaps it is because we both went to ‘just’ a state school for college (Go Clemson Tigers!), but it really isn’t a goal of ours for our children to attend an elite college or university. If that is their goal down the road, we will support them but we will not push them into an ivy-covered brick wall. It is much more important to us that our children have a lifelong thirst for learning, an adventurous spirit, and not live in a world where they are making fear-based decisions and playing it safe. Perhaps that is why we don’t necessarily view them attending multiple schools as a bad thing.

“Adventure should be 80 percent ‘I think this is manageable,’ but it’s good to have that last 20 percent where you’re right outside your comfort zone. Still safe, but outside your comfort zone.” – Bear Grylls

While fewer children are staying in one school district for their entire education than 30 years ago, military children still move three times as frequently their civilian counterparts (source) This provides them with opportunities to step out of their comfort zone and experience other cultures and traditions – whether they be regionally within our own country or outside of our borders. In a study sponsored by Student & Youth Travel Association, the majority of teachers polled believe travel is a positive influence on education and enhances understanding of the curriculum (source). Yes – traveling to a new location is quite different than moving there but perhaps the benefits of being exposed to diverse cultures outweigh the drawbacks associated with switching schools. There are aspects to military life that can’t be ignored when it comes to the mental health of military children. Each child is unique and there is no ‘right’ answer when it comes to making education choices within the constraints of the military lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean military children can’t be celebrated for their resiliency and adaptability, both of which are admirable traits that are beneficial well into adulthood. That being said, there are undeniable obstacles military children face in regards to their education and it is up to each family to decide if those drawbacks outweigh the benefits of the military lifestyle.

Our upcoming move will not be our last. It’s tough to say what we will do when our oldest enters high school in five years. Maybe that will be the perfect time to put our nomadic lifestyle behind us or maybe we’ll decide as a family to continue calling various places home around the world. As of right now, they’re excited for the opportunity on the horizon and looking forward to the new adventure. There will probably be a few hiccups when they adjust to their new school and there is no doubt that we will miss their current school but with each move, we learn new things about ourselves individually and collectively as a family. We find life in the 20% outside of our comfort zone – it can be infuriating, exhilarating, and exhausting. I’d be lying if I said that our children’s education isn’t giving me pause about where we see ourselves in 5-10 years. But for now, we’re enjoying the ride. Bumps and all.

Stretching My Mind

I’m writing this post from the waiting room of a car dealership, which is a poppin’ place the day before Thanksgiving. Last week, one of my brand-new tires on my brand-new car managed to pick up a screw on the sidewall. A new tire was special ordered and it finally arrived, which means the kids and I are spending the morning with Subaru’s finest while Clay works a ‘half-day’ (don’t you love how in the military a ‘half-day’ is still at least 8 hours..). We’re leaving for Georgia late this afternoon/evening, which means we will be in good company among millions of other last minute travelers. Nothing says the holidays like spending hours in the car, right?

Speaking of holidays – over the weekend, Clay and I watched Holiday in the Wild, a Netflix Original movie with Rob Lowe and Kristen Davis. We watched it with the intention of rolling our eyes and snarking on the amount of cheese often associated with such Hallmark-esque Christmas movies. The movie certainly wasn’t without such faults, but wouldn’t you know – the gorgeous African landscape (the movie was filmed in South Africa and Zambia) and the decent acting held our attention. Spoiler – Chris Traeger and Charlotte York fall in love, end up together, and save the elephants. Merry Christmas, indeed. And while I’ve been wanting to visit Africa for awhile, now the pull is even greater. We’ve decided to wait until the kids are a little older – it’s a bucket list item of mine to hike Kilimanjaro as a family when the kids are in college. Who needs Spring Break at the beach when you can summit Africa’s highest peak with your parents?

We spent this past Sunday afternoon hiking at Great Falls Park, which is one of my favorite places in the area this time of year. Nestled within the urban sprawl of Washington, DC is 800 acres of protected land along the Potomac. We love to climb the rocks that pepper the banks and explore the 15 miles of trails that follow Difficult Run. There is little I love more than rock scrambling and I am keeping my fingers crossed that the Army sends us somewhere next where I can really immerse myself into the hobby without having to drive hours into the mountains.

Now that the weather has turned, we’re reminded of how we will be settled into our not-yet-disclosed new location for the holidays next year. As much as we’re going to miss certain aspects of our life in the nation’s capital and the people we’ve grown to love, we’re ready for another adventure. People ask us if we’re tired of not putting down roots or if we find ourselves wanting to just stay put. Not yet. We’re still in the phase of our lives where we get caught up in the exhilarating whirlwind when embarking on a new Army-induced adventure. We’re aware of the short list of places the Army could send us next but there is no guarantee that our next locale will be one of them (the joys of the military – ha!) so I’m not devoting too much energy into research and I am actively trying not to get my hopes up (and no – Europe isn’t a possibility this time around…womp womp).

Sometimes I wonder if Clay and I’s wanderlust will negatively impact our children. We know that each move will become increasingly difficult as our children approach their middle school and high school years. While I don’t think staying in one place for that duration is the only way to raise teenagers successfully, I do think there are actions we can take that will ensure that our choices won’t have lasting adverse impacts. I suppose we will cross those bridges when and if our journey takes us there. Whenever I find myself fretting over whether we’re doing our children a disservice, I remind myself of the famed Oliver Wendell Holmes quote – “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.

There is nothing I want more for my children than for them to find joy in opportunity – to seize each day and make the most of it as if Mr. Keating is speaking directly to them. I want them to find comfort in the unexpected and value in new experiences. One of our family mottos is, “We do hard things.” Just because there may be shadows doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty in the view. We have so much to be thankful for – both known and the unknown. While it’d be nice to know what our future holds, embracing the uncertainty offers its own sense of exhilaration…we might as well enjoy it!

Tales From The Walt Disney World Planning Trenches

We’re finally doing it – we’re going to Walt Disney World. In a couple of months, we will fly down to interior Florida and spend six days within the 40 square miles hailed as the Most Magical Place on Earth. Earlier this year, I wrote about all the reasons why we’ve chosen other destinations over Walt Disney World for vacations so I do have to chuckle that we’ll end up visiting Mickey less than a year after I published that post. Why the change of heart? Well – there are a handful of reasons why we decided to bite the bullet sooner rather than later…

  • Our kids really want to go. People certainly don’t accuse us of taking kid-centric vacations (pictures from our visit to Stonehenge exemplify this fact). When we visited Disneyland almost three years ago, Clay and I planned the trip with the idea of “We’re doing this for the kids…“. Well wouldn’t you know – I think Clay and I ended up enjoying our three days at Disneyland more than the kids. While our kids really do love our families adventures, they’ve mentioned a few times how they’d like to visit WDW. And truth be told, Clay and I do too.
  • Armed Forces Salute tickets aren’t getting any cheaper. Look – Disney World is not an inexpensive vacation. Disney has offered the Armed Forces Salute off-and-on since 2002 at varying discount levels. Since 2009, the Armed Forces Salute ticket prices have increased each year. We’ve always known we’d visit WDW eventually so early 2020 seems as good of a time as any to finally take the plunge. According to the WDW website, a 4-day non-park hopper ticket that allows guests to visit one park per day is $335/ticket. For comparison, we purchased 6-day Park Hopper ticket vouchers at Fort Belvoir for $301/each.
  • We want a winter escape. Washington DC is the winter is beautiful. There is nothing quite like seeing all of the monuments covered in snow. But by the end of the January/beginning of February timeframe, we’re always itching to escape somewhere warm for a little while. Only caveat? It is not cheap. When pricing tropical destinations to visit this winter, we mentioned, “Geez, visiting these places will cost more than Disney World!” We originally started to plan to visit over Spring Break (apparently we felt like being gluttons for punishment) but last week, we decided that we wanted to go as a mid-winter break from the gloomy DC weather instead.
  • We don’t know where we’re going next. We’re anxiously waiting to find out where the Army will send us this upcoming summer. We’re hopeful that we will be able to go on another big adventure this summer (Italy? Road trip up into the Canadian Rockies? Alaska? Ireland?) but with so much uncertainty tied to report dates and unknown locations, we’re bracing ourselves for the possibility of needing to scale back our big summer trip this year. We’re going to try our hardest to squeeze something in though!

The Not So Overwhelming But Still Intimidating Planning Process. This picture of Violet at Disneyland is exactly how I felt going into the Disney World planning process. Before kids, Clay and I would fly across the country without hotel reservations – instead choosing to Priceline a hotel upon landing. We loved the adventure of the unknown. And we love a good last minute trip. For example, a couple of years ago, we received our household goods and booked a vacation package to Deerfield Beach, Florida that had the four of us flying the next day. That’s how we like to roll, which is pretty much the opposite when it comes to a WDW vacation. It didn’t help that people would say things like, “Wow – you really are booking your trip last minute!” Since when is booking a trip 70-days out considered last minute?!?

So last weekend, I put out an SOS message on Facebook and within minutes, I had a bunch of people holding my hand telling me that it would be okay. By Sunday night, we had reservations to stay on-property and reservations for one sit-down meal each day. By Tuesday night, we had ticket vouchers in hand and plane tickets reserved. And now here we are – just waiting for the 60-day FastPast window to open up. We chose not to use a Disney Planner because we actually found ourselves enjoying the planning process and sitting side-by-side on our laptops researching various aspects of the trip. If that isn’t romance, I don’t know what is. In the past five days, we’ve completely planned a WDW trip, we’ve watched the first two episodes of The Imagineering Story on Disney+, and we’ve binged on related YouTube videos so we’ve pretty much jumped into the WDW pool cannonball style.

The excitement is building and we’re fully embracing the dorky Disney family vibe. Will mouse ears be involved? Yes. Will we wear coordinating Mickey shirts? You bet. Will this trip launch a yearly pilgrimage to WDW for our family? Nope. But I have no doubt that our visit to the most Magical Place on Earth will be a fantastic week for our family.

What are you MUST-DO’s at Walt Disney World? Those of you who are well-versed in Disney culture or have visiting WDW before, I’d love to hear your favorite things to do while in the parks. Is there a certain restaurant that you love? A ride that’s worth waiting in line for if a FastPast+ doesn’t work out? A certain snack that no trip to WDW would be complete without having? What is your favorite life-hack related to WDW? I’d love to hear it!