Last Saturday, Norristown-native and award-winning author Jerry Spinelli spoke at Elmwood Park Zoo during their Read Across America festivities. He could have spent the majority of the time discussing his long and successful career that spans almost four decades. Instead, he spent an equal amount of time, perhaps more, examining failure.
“I think life is much more about losing and how we deal with losing than it is about winning,” said Spinelli. “If I were curriculum director of Norristown schools, you couldn’t graduate with out taking courses called ‘Beginning Failure’ and ‘Advanced Failure.’ When you graduate and got out in the real world and bump into the inevitable failure, instead of falling to pieces, you’re okay with it because you have already made friends with failure.”
He started his talk followed by a question-and-answer session in the zoo’s Canopy Gardens by saying he recently started three books but at about 75 pages in, tossed them.
“It’s the way it goes sometimes,” he said.
Some may think a writer like Spinelli spins yarns easily and his next three books are completed. Why is he throwing away stuff? Why is he talking about failure?
Before he introduced you to your friend, Maniac Magee he was friends with failure. His first few novels were rejected and he had five published books before Maniac Magee.
Despite the rejections and the lack of overnight success he continued. Not only did he share an office with a pet rat – which Spinelli extolled their wonderful traits – he shared it with an invincible coworker.
He isn’t alone. The most innovative and successful people have chosen to work with, not stop working, despite failure.
If you choose writing as a profession, you two will become very familiar with each other.
It’s not just writing. It’s anything you are passionate about. If you are obsessed with fulfilling your potential you will come across immense hurdles and sometimes fail.
We root for the underdog as evidenced in our regional pride for the Eagles-postseason persona. We just don’t want to be them.
We love Rocky and share the movie quote, “But it isn’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
But we don’t want to get hit too hard.
Little League season is approaching which means parents will be clamoring for their children to be assigned to the “best” coaches and “best” teams.
They will learn more from being on the Bad News Bears. How will they react when teammates run to third instead of first, when the pitcher walks the bases loaded, or when their best friend strikes out for the third time in the game?
Do they go into a shell and stay silent?
“Hey pitcher, let’s get this next one you got this!”
Are they sympathetic or take a few not-too-nice verbal barbs?
There are lessons in losing. Do you want to learn them now or later because I don’t know anyone who goes through life undefeated?
Think about fielding a ground ball.
It goes through your legs.
The coach tells you to get in better position. Put your glove on the ground. Get lower.
The next ground ball hits your glove and ricochets into the outfield.
“Move your body. Square up to the ball.”
This time the ball bounces off your glove and hits you on the chin.
It hurts. You might be bleeding. This is where the thought of quitting creeps in. Do I even want to play this sport?
Another ground ball is coming your way. It hits your glove, but you squeeze it too late and it pops out.
“Better,” the coach encourages. “Hold on to it.”
All technically failed attempts but each showed improvement.
The ball rolls in your direction, you take one step to your right and it nestles into your lowered glove.
“Let’s do a few more,” you say to the coach.
Failure on the baseball diamond or in the workplace depends on your attitude. It can either defeat you or be the motivation to move forward.
The most rewarding, impactful things are never easy and require courage to even attempt.
It is often said to not meet your heroes because you are bound to be disappointed. Growing up in Norristown, I read Spinelli’s books in my hot-pink bedroom and it made my dream of becoming a writer not-so-far fetched. Here was someone on a book cover from my town, writing about places I went to all the time!
In recent years, I’ve had the wonderful experience of meeting Spinelli and speaking with him about writing. He is one of the most humble, genuine, kind people I have had the pleasure of knowing.
On Saturday, he proved again why he is one of my heroes.
Spinelli and I share not only a hometown, but a mutual friend – failure. I might have marveled at the Newberry-Medal on his book when I was a girl but today, I’m more impressed to learn about how hard he continues to work to master his craft.
“Katie, it’s time to wake up,” my mother said in a singsong voice, stroking my hair.
As my first alarm clock, this was how she woke me for school. She walked to the window and opened the curtains to “let the Lord in” and did a musical number like a real-life Disney princess. At least that’s what it seemed like from under the covers – someone way too excited and awake in the morning praising everything from the Sandman’s visit to the glorious morn.
I simply made intelligible sounds that she was finally able to interpret as “five more minutes.”
“It’s time to wake up. Come on,” she said with a hint of pleading.
Thirty-some years later, I’m still not a morning person.
I’m also not a fan of the motivational quotes people love to post every morning. They serve their purpose at times but are another person’s genius. Most of them are extremely overused – rise and shine, rise and grind, good morning sunshine.
I’’m pretty harsh in the morning.
When Vincent DePaul, founder and owner of Gangster Vegan Organics, video posts began to pop in my newsfeed every morning, I watched them daily despite him mentioning the morning, my sworn enemy. They didn’t make me want to smash my phone. Or go back to bed. They made me think. It gave me a jolt more powerful than the cold brew coffee I require.
“Peace and love. It’s your boy Vinny Vegan, a.k.a the Gangster Vegan you woke up today, you are a miracle, it is a miracle in itself. You are extraordinary. Go do extraordinary things,” DePaul starts each video. He then talks for about a minute on the things currently on his mind. But they all have similar themes. DePaul, a Norristown native, makes no secret of his past struggles, his move to Los Angeles and return, his transformation, and the extraordinary benefits of a plant based diet.
With close to 20,000 Instagram followers, he has not only attracted customers who rave about Gangster Vegan Organic’s juices and bowls but a community of support. There are also “haters.” How can there not be? Look around. What’s more convenient? A cheeseburger or a fresh squeezed juice (with no sugar added).
Talking about just eating plants when you live in an area covered with cheesesteaks, hoagie and pizza joints isn’t exactly a popular opinion.
DePaul cries tears of joy recalling when he got pulled out of the “gangster lifestyle” in the mid-thirties. He changed his ways and admits it was hard. He sees that it’s difficult for adults to change even their diet because they are set in their ways. It’s why he makes a strong effort to reach the younger generation. DePaul conducts various “Feed the Kids” events in Norristown at schools and churches to provide children a free vegan meal.
He went through the Norristown public school system and ate the food the kids still eat today. He wishes someone would have visited and offered a plethora of fruits and grain bowls. He doesn’t preach veganism but instead, gives them something they might not otherwise have the experience of tasting. He also takes time to serve vegan meals in area hospitals and prisons. It is where DePaul noticed that schools, hospitals and prisons are all serving the same food.
“There is a direct connection. They are feeding them poison. Keep them rowdy and violent,” commented DePaul. “It’s a hard battle to fight. If I can get into one classroom and one class. We have to actually “gangster” our way through all of the poison, just to find access to real food.”
It isn’t limited to food. DePaul believes that people are heavily influenced by a culture that glorifies violence among many other vices. He implores people to stop worshipping their phone, television, movies, rappers, and athletes and to start worshipping God.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s easy to get lost in my phone, social media, and television. It’s very hard to reconnect and get back with God and nature. I’m not bashing these things but when you aren’t connected to anything else, you get lost in a whirlwind of confusion.”
DePaul recently returned from a spiritual retreat to the Amazon jungle in Peru. He calls the much-needed excursion the best trip he’s ever taken.
“I detached from this life and reconnected back to nature and God,” said DePaul. “It is very easy to get away from with all the technology and running a business. I came back with clarity and a peace of mind. I’m ready to move forward on some things.”
One of those things is the expansion of the Norristown location. Gangster Vegan Organics is in the final phases to move into the recently closed neighboring Joe’s Seafood. It would double the size of their current space.
“I love where I grew up and I love where I’m from,” said DePaul on a recent afternoon at his West Main Street store which opened in 2014. He has also opened a location in Phoenixville. “I’m planting seeds here that I may never see grow and it’s part of the mission.”
DePaul should know some of the seeds are blooming around him right now. While I am not a vegan, through his morning messages DePaul has not only made me think, but take action.
I read food labels more closely. If I can’t pronounce it, I know I shouldn’t eat it.
Just because high fructose corn syrup is in everything, doesn’t mean it has to be in me.
I feel better after eating fruits and veggies.
Instead of grabbing a midafternoon cold-brew, the Redman (a juice with strawberry, apple, orange and lemon) at Gangster Vegan was a much better option.
And he almost made me a morning person.
If anything, that shows that miracles are possible and we have the rest of the day to make them happen.
“Sometimes we get caught up in our stuff and don’t realize that waking up is a miracle. “A lot of people didn’t wake up today,” said DePaul. “It could be a smile or a hug. It doesn’t have to be monetarily. We are all dealing with things. But we are here another day, lets make the best of it.”
NORRISTOWN – Judge Gregory Scott knows about the powers books possess.
Not only from a judicial perspective and the “throw the book at him” cliché.
Growing up in poverty in Norristown, Scott spent hours after school at the Norristown Public Library where he did his homework and read. Inside the pages of books, he was transported to far away lands and key points in history. He would go onto make history himself in 2015 when, at 28-years-old, he became the youngest sitting judge in Pennsylvania. He also is the first African-American district judge.
“I didn’t know I was in poverty. My vacations were in a book. I would go to the library travel section and go to Paris, Italy and London. I envisioned myself in those places,” recalled Scott.
On a windy, snowy Friday afternoon, Scott visited Marshall Street Elementary School. It isn’t only an alma mater, it is a place where his love of reading was developed and it allowed him to give back to his former teacher, Donna Freeman.
It was Read Across America Day in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and Freeman had a day planned for her fourth graders around the theme, “Dr. Seuss travels through Black History Month with us.” It featured visits and readings from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Scott, Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence and Norristown community advocate Buck Jones.
“Black History is American history. I think it’s great schools can integrate it into their teaching curriculum,” said Lawrence, a devout fan of Dr. Seuss, who donned the signature Seuss “Cat in the Hat” headwear. “Dr. Seuss teaches kids and adults a love of reading. He teaches about life, too,”
Scott spoke about the challenges of running for judge, the duties of his position and what inspires him. The students, equipped with biographies of their guests, asked informed question of Scott and the other visitors. For Freeman, it is integral her students ask questions of what they are reading.
“I encourage them to ask questions and not sit and wait. Questioning empowers you,” said Freeman.
Scott explained to student, dressed in pajamas for the special day, the importance why he makes time to give back.
“I’m successful in part because of a woman like Ms. Freeman. I used to think she was really hard but you’ll appreciate it later,” said Scott. “If she calls and asks me to do something it will get my attention. I think very highly of her. Those types of people who help you, you want to pay them back.”
‘I’m not here for you to like me,” said Freeman. “I’m here to make sure you are educated and can walk out as a strong student.”
Freeman, a first grader teacher when Scott was a student, recalled how he always wore a suit and tie, even in grade school.
“He was always meticulous about everything he did. I always knew he was going to go far,” said Freeman.
“Ms. Freeman made a mark on my life. The time she spent with me has helped shape me,” said Scott. “It’s important to show kids who grow up in the community where I was raised, and still live in, that you can be successful and not be a football player or basketball player and be successful by doing good things.”
Norristown Area School District held events in each school to celebrate Read Across America Day.
Al Pacino won his only Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as retired Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in the 1992 film, Scent of a Woman.
One of the main reasons Pacino claimed the coveted prize was his iconic speech at the end of the movie. A blind Slade enters the packed auditorium of a prestigious prep school to defend his aid-for-the-weekend Charlie (Chris O’Donnell) who as at risk for wrongly being expelled.
Much like Philadelphia Eagles folk hero Jason Kelce, Pacino’s character Slade goes on a rant as he calls out various people.
“And if you think you’re preparing these minnows for manhood, you better think again,” he says to the school’s administration.
High schools, even the non-prestigious types, are supposed to prepare their students for adulthood. There is not much time in between algebra, Shakespeare and chemistry class for such lessons to be crammed in. It is why extracurriculars are so important. The added hours give adults more time to teach lessons that don’t require a whiteboard or a Power Point presentation. After the final bell, teenagers are choosing to forego a gaming system or hours on Snapchat to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
High school kids are still minnows – their brains and bodies not yet fully developed.
Still, people put too much stock on the wins and losses of high school sports often forgetting that these are children playing a game. Certain sports get the “losing program” label based on their record. However, if you looked beyond wins and losses, you may find a team full of honor students or community service volunteers.
Would you still use the word “losers” to describe them?
Norristown Area Aquatics Head Coach Beth O’Neil is candid when she speaks about the high school boys and girls swim teams. Many of its members have never swam competitively before joining. There are also a number of special needs students on the squad, many of whom swim in events and earn a varsity letter.
At most meets, the Eagles are outnumbered and outswam. O’Neil’s encourages her swimmers to not focus on where they place but improving their times from meet-to-meet.
A graduate of Norristown High School and coach for over twenty years, O’Neil is aware of the school’s reputation.
“We know when we walk out of wherever we swam we are holding our heads high. We are representing Norristown. We are going to say we are doing the best job we can and we are going to be adults. That’s what I try to groom,” commented O’Neil.
Integrity is often defined as what you do when no one is watching, even when it may work to your disadvantage.
At the February 1st swim meet between Plymouth Whitemarsh and Norristown not many people were watching. “Friday night lights” aside, few people outside of parents are spectators of high school sports. Media coverage usually only goes to the top teams and the blue-chip athletes.
It was the Colonials final home swim meet, and Head Coach Kevin Golebiewski wanted to get “Mike,” a senior who was diagnosed with autism as a child, his first win. He had been a dedicated swimmer for three years and only swims in the C-Relay.
Golebiewski loaded the relay with his fastest swimmers and anchored with “Mike.” When “Mike” dove into the water he was three-quarters ahead of everyone else.
“I thought for sure he was going to get first win ever,” said Golebiewski.
But with about six yards left, the Norristown swimmer, Alex Waskiewicz, caught “Mike.”
The driving force in every swimmer is to touch the wall first. Heck, it is the fuel behind every athlete in any competition. Be first. Be the best.
The years of training and swim meets eventually make it instinct. Even if you are overmatched, every fiber of your body tells you to touch the wall first.
When Waskiewicz caught “Mike,” he was just doing what he had been doing since he was started swimming at six-years-old with O’Neil at Markley Farms.
Waskiewicz has the instinct of a swimmer, but at that moment, he also had an intuition something bigger was happening. He slowed down, matching “Mike” stroke for stroke, and let him touch the wall first.
“I don’t think many people saw it unless you were really paying attention to what was going on. I thanked him right afterward,” said Golebiewski. “For someone to do that at such a young age, it makes you proud of what athletics is teaching these kids. It’s not always about winning and losing. It’s not always about who touches the wall first.”
Waskiewicz knew that “Mike” had special needs and said he “sort of figured” they were trying to get him the win during the last meet of his senior season.
What made him slow down?
“If I was in that situation I would want that for myself. I felt it was the right thing to do,” Waskiewicz.
He credits his parents for instilling values such as respect for others. He even admitted that what he did, “felt better than winning.”
While talking about his selfless act, the sophomore spoke in humbled, measured tones but when asked about his passion for swimming, his eyes widen and he becomes quite animated.
“I love how swimming meshes the team and individual aspects. There is something about being a family with everybody,” said Waskiewicz.
He would eventually like to break one of the individual records for Norristown High School’s pool. This season marks his first as a team captain, and he wants to pass on values to other swimmers.
“We aren’t the biggest team and we aren’t going to win most of the meets but if we have fun doing it and are respectful it’s all worth it,” commented Waskiewicz.
After the February 1st meet, Golebiewski emailed Norristown’s athletic director to praise Waskiewicz and the Norristown’s coaching staff.
The most important message O’Neil promotes is leaving a legacy. Instead of what was your fastest time or how long have your been training she asks a much different question.
“What legacy will you leave when you walk out of this building? Can you walk out of here and say I did my very best and prepared myself for the next level,” said O’Neil.
Already, Waskiewicz left a legacy with his unselfish moment of sportsmanship.
“It made me very proud of him. He’s going places,” said O’Neil.
The places Waskiewicz is going are beyond the wall of a swimming pool. But it is the lessons he learned while still a minnow that will serve him well in manhood.
NORRISTOWN – Don’t let the Muppet costumes fool you.
If you are waiting for Kermit to make a cameo during Avenue Q you are going to be either sorely disappointed…or pleasantly surprised depending on your sense of humor.
In May, the Center Theater in Norristown will be presenting Avenue Q, the raunchy, raucous, Muppet musical.
Presented by special arrangement with Music Theater International, the Broadway hit makes it’s way to DeKalb Street this spring. According to Playbill, Avenue Q ranks 24th on the list of longest running shows in Broadway history with more than 3,000 performances.
Described as, “a laugh-out-loud musical that tells the timeless story of a bright-eyed college grad named Princeton. When he arrives in the city with big dreams and a tiny bank account, he has to move into a shabby apartment all the way out on AVENUE Q. Still, the neighbors seem nice. There, he meets Kate (the girl next door), Lucy (the slut), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the internet entrepreneur), superintendent Gary Coleman and other new friends! Together, they struggle to find jobs, dates, and their ever-elusive purpose in life.”
How far is it from Sesame Street?
During recent rehearsals, the actors were practicing, “Schadenfreude,” a number about taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. It isn’t even close to the show’s most risqué tune – “The Internet is for Porn.”
“It’s Sesame Street meet South Park,” says producer Matt Durkin.
“Puppets can get away with more than a human being,” commented director Carmen Rossi.
Durkin, a 24-year-old Norristown resident who is also the co-founder of Starving Artist Prevention, was adamant in his suggestion that The King of Prussia Players next production be the wildly popular title.
When he first started researching, Durkin liked the idea of poking fun at social normalities and oversensitivity.
“Just enjoy life. I understand there are certain things that need to be brought to light but the show is also about getting a good laugh,” said Durkin.
Director Rossi conceded that the irreverent comedy is different from other musicals she has helmed such as Bye, Bye Birdie and Oliver. But it is one of her favorites.
She pointed out how the actor has to become the puppet. If it is done correctly, the audience won’t think the person is doing the voice. Also, unlike the actors who handle them, the puppets have costume changes.
“It is a little difficult. It’s a challenge but a lot of fun. Working with the actors, they are a great and talented bunch of people between singing, acting and handling the puppet.”
“It’s Muppets. Who doesn’t like to see Muppets on stage,” said Durkin. However, he recommended the two-hour show for mature 16-year-olds and up.
The cast includes: Princeton: CJ Nave, Kate Monster: Alex Gregory, Trekkie Monster: Jim Fryer, Rod: Kevin Durkin, Nicky: Rob Frankel, Lucy the Slut: Jenn Smith, Brian: Brett Brashers. Mrs. Thistletwat: Patrina Harding, Bad Idea Bear: Paula Urmson, Gary Coleman: Meredith Bell, Christmas Eve: Ashley O’Connor. Choreography by Dr. Lauren McGinnis.