Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Casting Off


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.


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.”


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.