I have a major milestone birthday coming up, which has led me to reflect on my very circuitous path to publishing. I graduated from high school when I was fifteen, college at 19. Rather unbelievably, I was offered a job teaching second grade in a Lower East Side special service K-5 school (i.e., a school in a profoundly disadvantaged neighborhood, where just about every single kid qualified for free lunch/milk). I turned 20 a month after I began.
This hiring was not because I was such a brilliant, big-hearted young woman. There was a dire teachers’ shortage in New York City at the time. Virtually anyone with a functioning heartbeat and a modicum of (in)sanity was accepted to an accelerated education training program at NYU the summer before school started.
Armed with six weeks of instruction, colorful mini-dresses, a stash of Mallomars for snack time, and an overly optimistic attitude, I wandered into P.S. 64 and tried to make a difference. I think I probably learned more than the kids did those two years, and the experience left a lasting impression.
Some disturbing highlights (lowlights?):
There were several pregnant fourth and fifth grade girls each year, which was incredibly awful.
The assistant principal said I smiled too much. A successful teacher didn’t smile until after Thanksgiving. I found that to be an impossible (and abhorrent) goal.
The janitor got furious when I stayed after school to work. He said the empty building was too dangerous, and he didn’t want to be responsible for my safety. I could be raped or at the very least robbed. Why, just the other day someone had come in with a machete, so I could be chopped up too.
One day during school hours the door opened (Some days we were instructed to lock ourselves in, but not that particular morning.). A rock sailed through to the back of the classroom, fortunately missing any little heads. Attached to it with a rubber band was a note: Benny can’t come to school today because he has no shoes.
A discussion about trick or treating devolved into how many scary men the kids had seen in their hallways, not in costumes, but with needles in their arms.
Speaking of health, I caught chicken pox the first year and German measles the second.
But there are many better memories. Second graders are still very reachable and teachable—it’s a wonderful age, where the hard part is over and the hardest part is yet to come. They sometimes brought in their own books for story time—Spanish books. I’d taken French and German in school, so my relevant language skills were nada. But the class complemented my accent, even if I didn’t understand what I was reading.
The kids always brought me presents, some used, and some not. Someone gave me a see-through orange baby doll nightgown. New, thank heavens. I got lots of cute china knickknacks, too.
One year I had a Maria, a Marisol, a Maritza, a Magallis, and a Maribel to keep straight. As a Maggie/Margaret, I almost fit right in.
I learned to say, “Mira, mira!” when I wanted attention.
Before this job, I was used to being the youngest person in the room/group. Time eventually caught up with me. I got married, had kids, moved around the eastern seaboard with a brief detour to Ohio, had lots of varied work situations. Life rolled along, and I got a little itchy. What happened to the girl who worked on the high school yearbook and newspaper, the one who’d made the college English honorary society?
I started to write for real. My first book was published when I was 62, a time when most folks are ready to retire and wear a nightgown all day (though not see-through, and definitely not orange). This writing gig has added a whole other element to my dusty resume, and made me realize it’s never, ever too late to try something new.
And now…do you know what I’d really like to do? You’ll probably never guess—play the drums. I doubt Santa, being a sensible and frugal older gentleman, will bring me a drum kit for the garage. Hitting stuff would surely aggravate my arthritis, and the noise would make me deafer than ever and annoy the neighbors. But I can enjoy YouTube drummers rocking out.
Were you an early bloomer, late bloomer, or a hybrid? What crazy ambition do you have?
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