Casting Off

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Cast Off

1 – To throw away or aside
2 – To throw out a lure or bait
3 – To complete the final row of stitches
4 – To set sail

I have cast off my identity as a teacher – the person who I was for thirty-four years. I walked away from the classroom at age fifty-five with a partial pension and no plan for the future except the possibilities of life without alarms clocks that sound at 6:OO AM, bells that ring every 50 minutes, lunches that begin at 10:13 or 2:03, and the connection to and interaction with hundreds of people in an intimate setting on a daily basis.

I loved being a teacher and I had a very fulfilling career. But one day, about three years ago, I began hearing a voice from somewhere deep inside insisting, “Mrs. Pincus doesn’t live here anymore” and another softer, just as resonant one urging, “Let me out.”

I started teaching when I was 21 years old. I wasn’t Mrs. Pincus then. I was “Miss Rose” or “Miss Frozenfrogs” to the students who actually attempted to pronounce my full name.

Becoming a teacher was a casting off of sorts too – a walking away from poverty, from uncertainty and the volatility of my childhood and adolescence, into the comfort of a stable and predictable routine.

Mrs. Pincus is Dead
Long Live Mrs. Pincus.

In a spurt of existential angst fueled by a propensity for melodrama, I fashioned a ritual to say good bye to my former self. I bought a batch of multi-colored helium balloons, and attached to each a picture of my teacher self in my different classrooms, and with students from all the phases of my career.


Looking at these pictures, I could watch my hair styles change, along with my clothing. Platform shoes and flowered shirts with tight curly permed hair in the Seventies, gave way to maternity dresses with bows in the back in the early Eighties, followed by colorful shoulder padded blazers and big hair morphing into the sleek sweater sets and straight tresses of the new millennium.

Once, a long time ago, a student told me how much he appreciated that I always got dressed up to come to school. He pointed out “the slobs” to me – mostly aging white guys in worn out jeans with uncombed hair and smudges on their glasses.

“They don’t respect us,” he said, meaning the African American students I taught for most of my career. “If they did, they’d never come to work looking like that. The way you look makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s like you care.”

That was one of the countless memories and life lessons that came back to me two years ago as I sat alone in my garden, letting go of one balloon after the other. I watched them rise high above the trees and as each one disappeared, I said good-bye to the parts of myself that made up Mrs. Pincus.

If only.

Life doesn’t work that way. I may have tried to kill her, or imagined that she had died prior to the retirement party my husband had made for me, where nearly one hundred people including former students of all ages and stages of my career joined friends, family and colleagues to celebrate my career.

I come to praise Marsha Pincus not to bury her.

Yet.

Old selves, even ones we have tried to banish, find their way back home, dragged to our doorsteps by those who need to remember us as we were.

They write to me on Facebook. Sometimes the messages come in the middle of the night.

“Mrs. Pincus, you helped me become the man I am today.” ( I did??)

“Mrs. Pincus, if it weren’t for you, I would never have learned to believe in myself. ( Really??)

When I was at the AERA conference last week in New Orleans, feeling alienated from what I was hearing at the talks and presentations by the education elite, I skipped out and found a Tarot Card reader. Before he even had me select a single card, before I said anything about myself, he looked me in the eye sternly and said, “Why aren’t you writing about it?”

I’ve been talking about writing this story for a very long time. Pam, a former student of mine with a newly minted PhD. has been encouraging me. But she knows the emotional toll it will take to tell it real.

“Get yourself right first,” she wisely said. “You’re too shaky to do this right now.”

This.

Retrieving the selves we all left behind.

Twenty years ago, they wrote plays in my class. The plays they wrote were about their lives as they were being lived in that moment. Teenagers, they were struggling to have their voices heard, wrestling with important and life altering decisions, trying their best to make sense of their pasts, and hopefully constructing their futures. Their plays went on to win contests and receive professional productions on local and national stages.

What a roaring.

In her dissertation, Pam revisited the process she went through in writing her play and claimed that she never would have even imaged herself capable of writing a dissertation had she not been affirmed as a playwright.

Another student, a few years ago, had called me and asked if I could find a copy of the play he’d written in 1988. “I feel like Oedipus,” he said. “ I don’t have all of the information I need about myself. I have a feeling there’s some clue to the mystery of my life hidden in my play.”

“Get yourself right,” Pam said. “Gather yourself and make yourself whole, then come to us, and we will make this journey together.”

To re-cast our lost selves.

To write ourselves whole.

The painting, Lunch With Marsha (above) was painted by Tobi Zion February, 2011.

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  1. A very poignant piece that certainly resonates with me. I have felt all these emotions and have only imagined a final ritual, though I did engage in one when I let it go my final year.
    So much of your constructed identity is tied up in the role of teacher that it will probably always be with you. That is, you will never stop being the organic teacher that you are. Just live with that. My my, Marsha, you did start young. I always wondered why you looked so good after putting in 34 years! I imagine you have former students that look older than you do. I have one or two; you must have many more. Your insight and experience are gold. I trust you will find a way to write and continue to impact what's going on today. It's got to feel liberating to play the gadfly role. Just stay healthy and keep me posted on what and when you decide to write more about your time in the classroom.
    My Best,
    Bruce

  2. I certainly see the casting off metaphor. It feels like floating adrift without moorings. Teaching is so much more than a job. It, when done properly, is as you said being a part of a community. It is a community of different power relationships but a community none the less. Reinventing oneself is easier said than done. I, like you, spent my entire adult life in this role of teacher. In closing out my parent's house there were newspaper clips about my public career. This isn't like being an accountant or lawyer. Everywhere I go I hear my name. Living in a community near where many of my students live I can't walk out the door without hearing Mr. Meketon. Your descriptions are most apt and they resonate with me. I've spent all of my time trying to avoid the loss rather than confront it. Perhaps you are braver than I am.

  3. The interesting thread throughout your piece and the two responses, both from teachers with similar stories, is about separating from the past, from your teacher careers and moving to new places. Obviously, not an easy task for those so tied to that community. Is there a balance? Can the new lifestyle co-exist with the bits and pieces of the past?

    Maybe the act of casting off completely is not workable, not practical for those who were so enmeshed with the vibrant youth in our schools.

  4. I always believed that teaching wasn't a job, it was part of who I was, my essence. It impacted how I saw the world, how I raised my children, pretty much everything that made me…well… me. So, when you move on from that it has to shake your core. But it never leaves you or you don't leave it entirely. You just morph into your next phase of being who you are. While that happens, consider entering some writing competitions because you do have a gift. Here's one to consider: http://www.writersdigest.com/annual
    Good luck and get writing! – Debby

  5. Very, heart-felt, emotional piece which I see as the prelude to your story, your experience through all phases of teaching. Your gift of teaching was clearly evident in the class room;I think you need to document the process of learning you went through for others who are interested in becoming teachers.

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