She breezes past my desk in the English office like a model on a runway — hips swinging, heels clacking on the linoleum. Today she’s wearing skinny jeans tucked into her leather knee-high boots and a black sweater hugging her waist. She’s nearly 5 foot 8 and has such perfectly chiseled features that I find myself quickly looking away. I don’t want to be caught staring.
Five years ago, I left a tenured teaching position (and husband) in Michigan to move to New York to start a new life. But I never expected this: The new man in my life has worked out well. The new job has not. This is the second time since giving up tenure that I’m being replaced by someone younger — and cheaper.
Only women my age who wear Eileen Fisher ensembles and thick rubber-soled shoes understand. All I have to say to my girlfriends is, “knee-high boots, four-inch heels,” and they scream: “We hate her.”
The truth is, I can’t really say anything bad about Alex, who’s smart, hard-working, and liked and respected by her students and the teachers in our department. Except maybe she’s too pretty or dresses too sexy to be a high school English teacher. I imagine she’s the daughter of movie stars: Glenn Close and Kevin Kline or Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Some days, she wears pencil skirts and stiletto heels. Other days, she looks almost ordinary in her flared wool trousers and Dansko clogs. But no, she’s never ordinary.
I Google Alex with the same fervor that I Googled Sarah Palin when she became John McCain’s running mate and I spent hours digging for gossip. I find only Alex’s shadowy Facebook silhouette and have to wonder why I’m doing this. My obsession is clearly overdetermined. This is not a reaction to an educational system that values cost over experience. It is a visceral feeling that I’m being superseded by an astonishingly beautiful young woman. She is happy and thriving and wanted — and I am not.
In past years, my principal has told me by December that he wanted me back the following year. This year, no word in December, or January, or February. In March I realize Alex and I will be vying for the one open position in the English department. (The woman on leave whom I was replacing will return in September.)
Now, when I go to the principal’s office to speak about this or that, he doesn’t make eye contact. He is in a hurry to get back to his e-mail or to his next scheduled meeting.
New York State law prohibits discrimination based on age, and so we are told the job will be posted and we will have to apply for it and go through an interview process (to be fair!), despite our administration’s knowing me and my work for almost three years and their knowing Alex and her work for the last seven months. Surely they know whom they want. Surely any process we go through will be a charade to prevent a lawsuit.
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I’ll be 59 in two weeks. Ten or fifteen years ago, I realized I could not remotely rely on my youth and looks to get by. I no longer had an Oil of Olay complexion or a size 6 figure. I couldn’t get away with wearing short skirts or tight sweaters or acting cute or coy. I’d have to depend on other qualities, the ones my grandmother said you could see in the dark: personality, intelligence and character.
I consider cutting years off my résumé. Maybe I’ll be hired if they think they don’t have to pay me so much. (Compensation scales based on years of experience allow me to make twice what first- and second-year teachers earn.) The recession isn’t helping; districts are paring activities and staff. Nationally, according to the New York Times, 150,000 teachers may lose their jobs this year. Some districts have already received more than 450 applications for each advertised position.
In the last few months, I’ve applied for dozens of jobs. No response — except for automated e-mails thanking me for applying and advising they will call if they’re interested. One school asked me to call to set up a pre-screening interview. When I called within 20 minutes of receiving the e-mail, the secretary said, “All slots are already taken.” And that was for an interview for an interview!
I think of the Hillary Clintons and Ruth Bader Ginsbergs — women over 60 who are still active and vibrant and employed at a level they deserve. I worry I’ll have to do what I did when I graduated from college: answer phones, make coffee, and type carbon copies that have to be retyped if there are mistakes. I imagine working as a proofreader — editing and correcting the grammar of my grown-up students. I imagine myself behind the counter of a coffee bar or bookstore. Or taping up signs with my phone number on little flaps offering to walk dogs or tutor.
As I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, my mother encouraged me to date boys on the golf team and to wear pale pink lipstick; my father encouraged me to be a nurse, a librarian, a dental hygienist or a teacher — the kinds of jobs women could have until they got married and had children. In high school I bought into that dream. I even skipped chemistry and physics to take three semesters of weaving and three of sewing so I could be more “domestic.” Yes. I did use that word.
By my junior year of college I’d discovered Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and consciousness-raising groups — and soon thereafter stopped shaving. Those of us who came of age during the nascent feminist movement disdained fashion-magazine beauty. We let our hair go natural, went bra-less, wore Birkenstocks or Earth shoes and no makeup. We rallied for the right to have careers as well as families, and we worked hard to do both. Now, before we’re ready, we find ourselves replaced by our daughters’ generation.
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Interviews for the open English position at our school take place on a Thursday afternoon in early May. I get my hair cut and blown out. I take a Valium the night before so I’ll get a good night’s sleep. I lay out my clothes — freshly cleaned and pressed black slacks, a purply-pink jacket, and black Thierry Rabotin ballet flats. I wear make up (and take extra with me to apply just before the interview).
After teaching all day, I freshen up in the ladies’ room. I look in the mirror and feel overwhelmed with sadness. Tears are starting to pool. I tell myself that losing a job is not like losing a husband. But it is. Losing a job wakes all the other losses: the mother-in-law you loved, time with your children when they were young, the house that was home. I apply lipstick and somehow walk down the hall to the assistant principal’s office.
We sit around a table and talk and laugh. And then they ask me to prepare a demonstration lesson for Monday. As if they don’t know how I teach and relate to my students. The principal and assistant principal have already written at least 10 classroom observations, all surprisingly wonderful reflections of my work, for which I am grateful.
I take the demo seriously — as if my job depended on it. The kids are raising their hands, talking about the significance of the fallen tree in “All My Sons,” talking about the morality of selling cracked cylinder heads to the Army, comparing that to the faulty parts that caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, talking about what’s at stake when Kate denies the death of her son.
It’s a good lesson: My students make connections, grapple with the unfamiliar, and go against and beyond the grain of their expectations — and mine. Still, I know I won’t get rehired.
The next day I’m wearing my red Hawaiian shirt, red clogs and chinos. It’s hot and humid and my hair is curly-wild. When I pass the assistant principal, I wave hello and smile big. My buoyant mood surprises me. She returns my smile with a pout and her empathic eyes connect in a way that says, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
The principal e-mails me to come to his office after school. Good news is conveyed during school, when you don’t have to go back to the classroom upset or angry. I warn my department chair that if it’s bad news, I won’t be at the meeting after school. I know I won’t be able to bear looking at anyone, especially Alex.
The principal’s door is open. He asks me to sit and says with a calm, low voice, “I am recommending Alex for the English position.”
“I knew in February,” I say.
He looks surprised. “I guess I don’t have a poker face.”
“I have to go,” I say. “This is too painful.” Like a spurned older wife, I leave with a lump the size of a peach pit swelling in my throat.
When I get home, I pour a cordial of Macallan 12 Year single malt scotch, and another, and another. It goes down smoothly with good dark chocolate — and helps numb the pain. It’s not about the loss of a paycheck (though, yes, that matters), but loss of community, of good friends, of form to my day, of my professional identity.
And so I return to work every morning for six more weeks: waking at 5:40, in my car by 6:20, heading up the West Side Highway by 6:30, slouching toward school where I must spend the day with my soon-to-be ex-colleagues and students. I run into a teacher-friend as I come into school. She tries to reassure me that I’ll be OK, that I’ll find another job.
I go sit on a stepladder in the back of the book room — among the “Hamlets” and “Mockingbirds” and “Jane Eyres,” waiting for my breathing to steady — before going into my classroom, where for a little while, my 9th and 10th graders — full of optimism and trust — help me forget.
We’re reading excerpts from the play “Red” and looking at Rothko paintings. I smile when they insist, “Any kid could paint like that!” and guide them toward discovering the incorporeal beauty of literature and art.
Later, I’m at one of the English-office computers checking e-mail when Alex approaches, rests her lithe arm on top of the brown Formica carrel, and says, “Hey, Beth. I know it’s awkward. I just want to say that.” Her face is animated, her blue eyes radiant.
“It is awkward, ” I say. “I appreciate your stopping by. Congratulations.”
I avert my eyes to my wrinkling hands on the keyboard. When I glance up, she’s stepping away, one foot in front of the other, posture erect, head high. She has her career in front of her: the joys and intimacies and pitfalls and pain. I’ve been there. I’ve walked that path.
I call after her, “You’ll have fun.” And I mean it.
Beth Aviv is the author of “Bearing Witness: Teaching about the Holocaust.” She’s taught high school English for 30 years.