I stood at the podium looking out over a banquet hall filled with my colleagues. Since I had no prepared remarks, I was trying to come up with something. What did I want to say?
The executive director of the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), for whom I had worked for the last 9 years, had just introduced me by offering some left-handed compliments, noting my penchant for speaking my mind. Happily for him, the reason we were in the banquet hall was that I was retiring.
The party wasn’t only for me. A colleague, who had worked for NYSSBA for over twenty years, was also being honored. He had already been introduced and made heartfelt remarks about how much he enjoyed his career. He was genuinely moved and spoke haltingly, emotionally about his appreciation for the organization.
When my turn came to take the podium, I wasn’t at all sure what I felt. In the weeks leading up to the luncheon I couldn’t get myself to focus on writing remarks. After all, most of the reason that I was retiring at age 55 was that I was unhappy in my work. I was tired of fighting the good fight and getting nowhere. I couldn’t very well stand up and say that, despite my penchant for speaking my mind. I made innocuous remarks, thanking the people who I did enjoy working with and I wished everyone well. It was time for me to turn the page and start a new phase of my life.
It is unlikely that anyone reaches 55 years of age without starting over a few times. Whether the impetus is retirement, a relationship ending, or moving to a new city or changing jobs, it is almost impossible to avoid starting over in the course of a life. Some might actually seek out new starts, finding the prospect exciting and challenging. I am not one of those people. I like the idea of change in theory, but the reality is hard.
When district lines were redrawn when I was a child in Brooklyn and I had to attend a different junior high school than my elementary school classmates, I struggled. When my then fiancé, now husband, was accepted to medical school in Pittsburgh and I uprooted from New York City to join him, I had a tough time adjusting. When budget cuts closed the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review, where I worked and enjoyed my job, I was angry and resented having to find a new job.
While those new starts were thrust upon me, the decision to retire as soon as I was eligible was a choice I made. After much ruminating, and discussion with Gary (husband, see above), I decided to retire, collect my minimal pension, and pursue writing. Perhaps that sounds simple. It wasn’t.
The decision was fraught on many levels. For one thing, I worried about how my retiring from paid employment would affect my marriage. Gary and I have spent a lot of time negotiating the balance of our relationship – balance in terms of finances, child care and household responsibilities, and attention to each other. Other than the first 8 years of our 33 year marriage (and counting), Gary has been the major breadwinner.
I supported Gary through medical school and continued to work when we started our family, but once he was in medical practice, he earned far more than I did. Gary never held that over my head, he wasn’t one of those husbands who begrudged me a new pair of shoes. He didn’t review the credit card statements. But, that isn’t the point. The point is that Gary works very hard, long, stressful hours. I think he felt a sense of relief, of shared burden, when I was working (for pay, that is).
Having grown up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I bought the idea that women could have it all – family, marriage and career – hook, line and sinker. I wanted a career, I believed I should have a career. I felt like a failure when I finally admitted to myself that I could not balance it all. I thought it would get easier when the kids got to be school-age, but it didn’t. The running refrain in my head at the time was that I was doing a shitty job wherever I was – at home or at work.
Although I had a lot invested in my identity as a career woman, the reality was that I was working for the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance in a job that made me feel like I was living in a Kafka novel. It was not the vision I had for myself when I started the master’s program in public administration and policy at Columbia University. I thought I would help people by pursuing a career in public service, hopefully in education policy. Somehow I found myself in a job that was as far from helping people as one could get. I had to do some serious mental gymnastics to connect what I was doing to the public good.
When it became financially feasible for me to stop working and stay home with the kids, I did. I thought long and hard before doing it. I still held on to the idea that I should be doing something productive to help people and get paid for it. I considered looking for a new (more satisfying) job, but the truth was, with the demands of Gary’s career and two young children, I felt like working full time might lead me to a nervous breakdown. I was already well on my way to one. So, I stopped. I spent the next 11 years mostly staying home.
I told myself when I stopped work that I would write. Now that I was home, I thought I would try writing a fictionalized version of my childhood. I always wanted to write – I was always composing sentences in my head, describing the scenery or people I observed. At various times in my life, I wrote in a journal but I never moved beyond that. I thought I was finally ready to do it. I wasn’t. If I shared my writing I would subject myself to judgment that was too close to the bone, too close to judging my worth as a person. I couldn’t expose myself in that way, even under the guise of writing fiction.
Instead I did a bunch of other things on a freelance basis. I became an impartial hearing officer who heard disputes between parents and school districts about services for students with disabilities. I did that sporadically for about five years, until they changed the law and required hearing officers to be lawyers. I could have continued, they grandfathered the current pool in, but it didn’t seem right to me. If the belief was that a law degree was necessary, and I could see the wisdom of that, then I decided I shouldn’t continue.
I became a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League’s World of Difference Program, a multicultural, diversity education program, and I did that on a freelance basis.
I also got involved in my kids’ school. I volunteered in their classrooms and in the library. I went to PTA meetings. After about two years of doing that I ran for the school board and was elected. I served for nine years.
When our son was in his junior year of high school and our daughter was a freshman in college, I thought it was time to go back to work full time. The pressure of two college tuitions, and my desire to get back to a career, led me to start to look for work. That turned out to be complicated. It seems that the various freelance positions I held, and serving on the school board, looked like a hole in my resume.
Finally, based on my school board service and the support of someone in the organization, I found a job with the New York State School Boards Association. I stayed for nine years. During that time, in my opinion, education reform was moving in the wrong direction. Too much emphasis on tests, misuse of the tests to evaluate teachers, charter school expansion that drained resources from public schools, Race to the Top….I could go on and on. I tried to advocate within my organization to take a stand against these policies, but I rarely made progress. After 18 years immersed in public education, and reaching age 55, I decided I had enough.
At the same time, I started to think again about writing. I had never stopped thinking about it actually. Most of my days at work were spent writing, but it wasn’t the type of writing I wanted to do. I thought maybe I was finally ready.
Lucky for me, my children knew I needed a nudge. As a retirement gift, they signed me up for a writing workshop at the Capital Region Arts Center. It was three hours each night over the course of four consecutive evenings. I was both terrified and excited.
The class started on a lovely summer evening in mid July. I was nervous about finding the Art Center and parking in Troy, so I left myself a lot of time. I am chronically early and this was no exception. The classroom was still locked, so I wandered around the Center and looked at the art exhibits. I found the vending machines. I tried to distract myself.
I went back to the classroom. I felt hopeful, but unsure of what to expect. The door was unlocked and there were a few people in the room. It turned out the workshop was led by a poet. I hadn’t written a poem in…I couldn’t remember when – probably in junior high school when we were forced to. The workshop was described as ‘generative,’ which meant that participants were able to work on whatever type of writing they wished. So, poetry wasn’t required. Phew!
There were only five other people in the class, all women, several of them looked to be about my age, the others definitely younger. The poet-leader was a young man. After brief introductions, Victorio read a poem to us, which was in the form of a letter to oneself. After he read it, he asked us to take 20 minutes and write something to ourselves. The six of us spread out in the room. I took a spot on the windowsill, looking out on the Hudson River.
I did not have difficulty finding words. I wouldn’t call it a poem, it was prose, but it wasn’t a narrative either. I wrote freely. I surprised myself.
After 20 minutes, we came back together. Victorio didn’t ask for a volunteer to read first. He simply called on me. My jaw dropped; the moment of truth. I know he saw the fear in my eyes, but he didn’t flinch and he didn’t let me off the hook. I stopped thinking, looked down and read the words I had on the page. I didn’t look up until I finished.
I honestly don’t remember the substance of the comments. What I remember is that it was okay. I survived. There was criticism, all of the constructive variety. (In that I was fortunate – none of the women turned out to be jerks, and Victorio set a great example for us.) There was encouragement. And, most important, I didn’t die of exposure or embarrassment!
Driving home that night, I was almost giddy. It felt like a burden had been lifted. Ahhh, liberation…..I could finally try to do what I had always wanted to do. In that moment I certainly didn’t know if I would ever be published (and still don’t), but it didn’t matter. I didn’t know where the process would bring me, but I knew something had changed inside. I had begun a new path.
Maybe it wasn’t really starting over at all. Maybe it was a coming home of sorts, coming home to myself.