Stop Signs

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli
Stop Signs

With a double major in theatre and telecommunications, I graduated college without any sort of plan or inkling as to what to do next. I collected my diploma and promptly moved back home with my mom and step-dad, got a job waiting tables, waiting I suppose, for the future to reveal itself.

That waitress job soon turned into an assistant manager job, and it occurred to me that if I wasn’t careful I would find myself ten years into a restaurant career I didn’t want, unsure of how I’d gotten there. Lacking a better idea, I decided that I would go back to school to become a teacher. I found a masters program that excited me, set my sights toward that, and declared my future found.

The future, however, wasn’t ready to lay down quite so easily. I did not get accepted into the program. Theatre and telecommunications apparently weren’t compelling enough degrees on which to build a teaching career. I felt completely lost. The singular plan I had for my life got met with a giant Stop Sign before I even began, and I could not see past it.

I’m not sure what it took to get me moving—some good advice from friends and family, a stubborn determination to find a way—but eventually I found a different road toward that future plan I had built for myself (getting yet another bachelors degree, this time in English, and then finally, acceptance into the masters program. Because, you know, three liberal arts degrees must surely be better than one).

And then, once I finally got to my decided-upon-future, I decided I didn’t like it there after all. Becoming a classroom teacher was not the path for me.  And so: Stop Sign.

When something doesn’t go the way we’ve planned, or when an unexpected problem rears its ugly head, it can completely block our vision and cloud our imagination of what’s possible. Those Stop Signs can literally stop us in our tracks, with no sense of how to move forward. Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Imagine all the Stop Signs he must have encountered along his relentless pursuit for Civil Rights. But, those Stop Signs weren’t an end to his mission, but rather a moment to pause, and reflect, and grow, and continue on – maybe in different ways, but moving all the same—so much so that his vision carried on without him; even death was not a Stop Sign for that which he believed in so strongly.

The day has another meaning for me, as well. Seven years ago on MLK day I suffered a miscarriage. At that time, and for quite some time afterwards, all I could see was a gigantic glaring red Stop Sign. Yet last night, on this MLK day, I sat beside the tub and watched my two beautiful children laugh and play together in a sea of bubbles.

The time at the Stop Sign can be bad. It can be confusing and hard and sad and ugly. But the Stop Sign doesn’t need to mean STOP unless we let it. Instead, sometimes they are there to bring light to a problem that we simply need to work through, and in those cases we just need to get out a sledgehammer and whack the hell out of it until we break through to the other side. Other times, the Stop Signs are there as life’s reminder that we don’t get to control, always, the road we travel. In those cases we need to look around at the other roads available, though sometimes they are very hard to see, or trust, at first. But, as Dr. King said “You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”

Are you facing a stop sign? Take a deep breath and then look away from it. Look around it, underneath it, beside it. Consider whether it’s time to bring out the sledgehammer or simply look for another road, but keep moving… what’s on the other side just might surprise you.


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Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.