Out with the Old

by

08/21/2008

Park Slope, Brooklyn, 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

“I probably should have done this ten years ago.” This was the theme that ran through my mind when I replayed the decision to leave my profession and take up teaching at the age of 49. But then getting out of the garment business was no easy feat. I felt like The Godfather’s Michael Corleone trying to escape from the family business—“I keep trying to get out but they keep pulling me back in.” When I finally decided to make the transition from manufacturing girls’ dresses to teaching elementary education, it seemed logical in spite of the fact that it meant going back to school for my masters. I was accepted into the NYC Teaching Fellows program where the cost of my degree in education would be paid for provided that I spent two years teaching in one of the many “high need” public schools located throughout New York City.

I was psyched. I liked the idea of the support system provided by the Teaching Fellows program and knew that I would not be alone among a small percentage of other career-changers. I needed to focus on this fact as it had been close to thirty years since my now bunioned feet had walked through a college campus. I was assigned to Brooklyn College, which was fine with me as my commute from Prospect Heights was under thirty minutes.

But some things never change. It didn’t take long for me to notice that I was still the type of person/student who was reluctant to bond with the other students. I was shy and hesitant to join the cliques that were quickly forming. My cohort members seemed to possess a sense of desperation, leading them to glom on to those with whom they felt the slightest rapport. Sure it would be nice to develop camaraderie but for me the need wasn’t that urgent. Instead, the familiar feeling of being an outsider returned, even if it was self-inflicted, reminiscent of my earlier schooldays at the Yeshiva where my mixed background (Italian father, Jewish mother) differentiated me from the other students.

I decided to take an atypical approach outside my comfort zone, and make an effort to mingle. During a class break, I approached a young woman who mentioned in her “getting to know you” speech given during the initial class, that she had grown up in Park Slope. “So, you’re a neighbor of mine,” I said, trying my best to sound cheerful and friendly. “I live in Prospect Heights,” I added.

“Oh, yeah, I grew up on 6th Street,” she said pleasantly.

“I lived on 3rd street when I first moved to The Slope in 1981,” I replied.

“That’s a while ago,” she said. “I wasn’t born until 1982.”

I desperately tried to keep my smile from forming into a grimace as I thought, “Now was that really necessary?” As far as I was concerned, the conversation was over. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on what she was saying anyway.

Most people I spoke to about my decision to start a new career at this chronological turning point were very supportive. Even my parents came up with positive and encouraging things to say, in spite of the fact that they were concerned about my traveling to neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York. My father was raised in East New York during the 1930s and 1940s and although he had not been back to the area, he knew, as we had been trained in the lingo of the program, that they were neighborhoods facing huge challenges.

Although the Fellows Program provided support in many areas, after the vigorous seven-week training, we were expected to find our own teaching positions for the upcoming school year. I sent out numerous résumés but nothing had panned out. Taking a proactive approach, I decided to visit some schools in the surrounding area to hand-deliver my résumé and perhaps even get to meet some of the principals in person.

I put on a nice pair of slacks, a short-sleeved sweater, and some sensible but stylish sandals, and set out on foot to an elementary school I had read about on Carroll Street between third and fourth avenues. I opted to walk along Sixth Avenue, preferring this tree-lined and less hectic route. It was a beautiful summer afternoon and I was feeling grateful and happy, allowing myself to enjoy the moment, pushing aside the pressures of the job search and nerve-wracking thoughts of the vigorous school program that lay ahead.

I passed four construction workers who were refinishing the steps leading up to a brownstone. My eyes immediately focused on the ground in front of me in an effort to avoid eye contact—a survival skill I had unconsciously developed as a means of becoming invisible dating back from my classroom days when I didn’t want the teacher to call on me. But this time it didn’t work. I was almost completely past them when one man said, “Oh man, you must have been really hot a few years ago.”

I was mortified. It was fortunate that he couldn’t see my expression of disbelief mixed with outrage at this left-handed compliment. I couldn’t decide whether to say, “Thank you” or take the opportunity to display my agility (that was not completely gone) by swirling around and delivering a nice swift kick.

Not sure of how to respond and stymied by this sharp blow to my ego, I kept walking. But my blissful moment from only a few minutes earlier was gone. I was like a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon with a bad leak. I was wondering if I could ask him to clarify—“Excuse me but when you said I must have been hot a few years ago, did you mean like two years or more like six years?” Because after all, it made a difference. As I was fantasizing my reply, I heard his voice again, “Did you see her? She must have been about 42 or 43. She looked damn good,” he told his co-workers.

And although the damage had been done, being mistaken for a woman approximately 6 years younger than I actually was, did soften the blow. I was happy to take comfort wherever I could find it. As painful as it was to admit, this was my reality. Any compliments directed to me would now come with a disclaimer. I was a middle-aged woman in fairly good shape, for her age. In spite of the way I pictured myself, I was no longer a woman in her twenties or thirties. No matter if I was embarking on a new profession, reinventing myself, starting on a path that perhaps I should have taken back when I was just out of college, I had to face the facts. In a few months, I would be turning fifty. I was back in school, about to go through the hell of first year teaching and all the lessons I would learn, having chosen a profession that was not known for making anyone rich. Actually, I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be.

Fran Giuffre is a freelance writer from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday and this web site. She is currently teaching elementary education in Brownsville.

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