Turning 70: The Late Middle Years

I have been celebrating my recent 70th birthday in bits and pieces…by choice. When I turned 60, my family gave me a wonderful surprise party with all my close friends present. Turning 70, however, felt different. It was cause for celebration, but I was in a quieter mood. Unable to make a decision regarding a party, I settled into mini-celebrations instead, so I could spend quality time, at intervals, with friends and family. So far it has worked out splendidly. I’ve been having a few quiet lunches with old friends, a splendid dinner this past weekend with immediate family members, and more lunch dates on the horizon. My family has begun referring to this as my “Jubilee Year.”

Having also decided to write this mini-autobiography in small installments, I am enjoying reflecting on chunks of my life in preparation for writing the next installment. Like any author, I am guilty of picking and choosing the incidents in my life I choose to portray and the details I do or do not include. But mostly, this is a very abridged but honest accounting of my life as seen through the lens of turning 70. Who knows? My 80th birthday rendition might be completely different! (Certainly more risque, because at 80, what do you have to lose?)

So where were we…. Ah, yes. Early 40’s….unemployed, discouraged, two young children I am hopelessly in love with, a husband struggling to provide, and no clue where to turn. At a similarly devastating turning point in my early 20s (see my previous post), I sank into a deep depression which took me several years to overcome. Now twenty years later, I knew I had to take charge of my life and create a new narrative, one that would allow me to succeed rather than give up.

I soon began work as an adjunct teaching a basic Communications course at a community college. I wasn’t making much money, but I was developing confidence. A few semesters went by until I hit a wall. As a favor to my chairman, I had agreed to travel to a a second campus where they needed an additional instructor for the same class. Within weeks of my arrival I was approached by the department chair who asked me abruptly for my resume. I complied and a week or two later, he told me I could no longer teach the course because my Master’s degree was not in the field of Communications. (Mine was in English). I knew he was “out to get me” from his demeanor and lack of civility, so I began to devise a plan.

Someone had once impressed upon me the importance of visualization in achieving one’s goals. I began to visualize how I would conduct myself in my final meeting with this ogre. I thought through the entire process, knowing it would end in the culmination of my job. But instead of being humiliated, I would turn the tables on him. The day of our final meeting, I requested that we meet in a classroom rather than his office (to get him off his throne). As we sat at student desks, side byside, he passed me my evaluation to sign, and I said, “no problem.” I read his evaluation (which was less than enthusiastic, as I had known it would be) and signed it. I think he was surprised at how easy it all seemed. Then I turned to him, looked him directly in the eye and said, “There’s something I want to say before we leave.”

“I have spoken to many of your colleagues including the Dean and several of your peers, and they all agree on one thing…that it is a shame that I had to run into you because you are considered a b—–d by all of them.” His threw his head back, shoved his palm in front of my face and, red-faced, stammered, “Don’t say another word.” I replied, “I’ve said all I had to say,” and with great self-control and dignity I left the room.” Mission accomplished. I was taking back my life.

I was given a new home in the English Department of the community college as a consolation prize and taught there at night almost every semester for the next 20 years. But I still needed a full-time job. I had ended my career at Stony Brook working in a writing center for engineers, where I became interested in teaching second-language learners. I researched opportunities for getting a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and ended up eventually in the TESOL program at Stony Brook where I had also gotten my BA in English, and my Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. It took me three years and was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but I did complete the program. The third time’s the charm they say. In my final semester, I applied for a job on LI, was hired and taught ESL there for the next twenty-two years.

Finally I had a career I could sink my teeth into. I love cultural diversity and learning languages, so I was meant for the job. I also believed I could make the most difference in a young immigrant’s life by teaching them at an early age. No one told me I would be considered the bottom of the teacher pecking order in terms of prestige, resources, support of any kind and no appreciation whatsoever for all my efforts, but I enjoyed my students so much, ten to fifteen years flew by. Toward the end of that period, the isolation of being an ESL teacher was beginning to take its toll on me. I was running out of steam and enthusiasm.

Then, one day, she walked through the door. M. was a literacy coach hired by the district to convince the elementary classroom teachers that they needed to revise their methods for teaching reading and writing. Determined not to be excluded from this major undertaking, I asked to be included in the monthly training that was being offered to the mainstream classroom teachers. I became really excited about the ideas and methods that our consultant was sharing and demonstrating and got my second wind as an ESL teacher.

Long story short, I began to include the new methods I was learning in my own practice as an ESL teacher in an effort to make my teaching more compatible with what was being taught in the classrooms. The kids loved the new changes, and I felt renewed. The consultant actually appreciated my efforts and told me so. She also told my principals what a good job I was doing. She invited me to “present” my work with her at an upcoming literacy conference and then there was no stopping me. I was no longer the oft-forgotten and certainly under-appreciated teacher in the ESL room. I was enjoying teaching again, making a name for myself and in 2009 was actually awarded the honor of Most Outstanding ESL teacher of the Year by a local college, and ESL Teacher of the Year by NYS TESOL.

I stayed at my teaching job for five more years. In the third year, the new Common Core Standards were thrust upon LI teachers, and teaching, as we knew it, changed abruptly for all of us. The freedom to decide as a professional what to teach and how to teach it was virtually eliminated, replaced by a curriculum devised by higher-education academics and business professionals who had no knowledge of how to teach young children in classrooms that are diverse, and often contain many children with cognitive disabilities and/or emotional baggage. My students, who also couldn’t yet read or write in English, “underperformed” on the NY State tests, and suddenly I was labeled a Developing (underperforming) teacher. I knew it was over; a year later I resigned.

My glorious teaching career was over. I dove into it with complete enthusiasm, worked hard to become the best ESL teacher I could be, enjoyed the creativity and freedom I was afforded for most of my career, achieved professional status in my field on my own and left feeling saddened by the turn of events. But little did I know that I was soon to face an even bigger challenge.

(To be continued…thanks for hanging in there with me, friends.)


20 thoughts on “Turning 70: The Late Middle Years”

  1. thats so unfortunate that NYS does that with the state test scores – i dealt with that – none of my kids were going to pass! i taught in nyc south bronx – those kids did not give a crap about the state tests. Can’t wait to read more!!!!


    1. Hats off to you for tackling such a challenging population in the South Bronx. I was lucky. My students were challenging but they were good kids. The saddest part was that they were doing their best, but under the “new rules” it was never going to be good enough. (I guess the same sentence applies to me.) Glad you’re enjoying the story so far.


    1. I have another Jubilee lunch date this week. It’s the perfect way to get through a week…looking forward to each mini celebration. Of course, they won’t go on forever…but I’ll think of something to replace them!


    1. I’m so glad I’m not boring the hell out of everyone. Wouldn’t it be amazing for each of us to write a mini-bio that we would revisit in 10 years?! I am fascinated about how the point of view changes over time.


    1. Thank you for your Jubilee wish. I will try to make the most of this important milestone, and I plan to keep writing. It has probably been the most positive change in my life since retirement.


  2. Still hanging in, enjoying your mini-autobiography. I, too, was ESL certified and loved teaching immigrant students-mostly Spanish. I remember my first year in Houston (before ESL certification) when I came home after my first day of school in a Spanish neighborhood and pronounced to my husband that I could not believe someone would have the audacity to name their kid Jesus! He promptly corrected me on the pronunciation. 🙂 I have loved everything about the Spanish culture since we moved to Texas and enjoyed my ESL students as well even though my task was quite challenging-my school believed in the submersion philosophy-put them into a regular classroom to ‘sink or swim’. Most all of my little fishies swam! I love that memory that was prompted by your post today.


    1. It would be so much fun to chat with you in person. I love meeting other ESL teachers…we are different from others! Well, your school was actually ahead of its time, as staying in the mainstream classroom, called “immersion,” has again become the new norm. But I always thought the kinder, gentler way to teach the kids was to provide an hour or two a day when they got some TLC and language-focused instruction. Thanks for sharing your story and for hanging in there with mine.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Because I worked in an independent school, I only know the devastation that the CC wrought through stories like yours. I had a neighbor who I’m sure was a marvelous teacher and who resigned because of the restrictions too. Love hearing your story, Barbara, the ups and downs that made you you!


    1. Yes, the details of this story are mine. I realize that each of us could write our own story and we’d all be fascinated by each and every one of them. And yes, again, it is the ups and downs and how we roll with them (or not) that determine the outcome! Thanks for appreciating and responding.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m coming to this party a little late, but will read the previous posts too. What a career! You are a brave person to make your career a joy instead of a just a job. Happy jubilee year to you!


    1. Hi Elsie! I’ve missed you. (Where have you been?) As to my career, I was burnt out so much I wanted to figure out a way to reenergize myself. I was just lucky my lovely mentor walked into my school and welcomed me the way she did.


  5. They say that attitude is everything. Your story proves it. Instead of being defeated by those who would knock you down, you looked at setbacks as a way to grow. Good for you. Can’t wait to read the racy parts coming in 10 years. 🙂


  6. There is such a strong current of strength and bravery in you – I’m so enjoying learning how both come in to play in your life story. And, I loved the way you handled that b____ – I’ll bet he never forgot you!


    1. That’s my hope! 🙂 I just had a deep conversation with my 35-year-old son about family matters. I pretty much ended up saying I had to learn everything on my own with no support from parents, no therapist, no mentor. At times I was overwhelmed, but it did make me stronger. Thanks for the compliment about strength and bravery. It is much appreciated.


  7. I am completely engrossed in your story. To hear your tale of ups and downs, I feel so not alone. Is that true for us all? In any case, keep writing and celebrating your jubilee year!


    1. The words every writer wants to hear…”I am completely engrossed in your story…I feel so not alone.” Thank you for giving me the encouragement to go on. I definitely plan to keep writing; it’s made a huge difference in my life since I began almost two years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

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