by Phyllis J. Schwartz
I looked up from my sleek lacquered desk made by the state prisoner carpenters. My desk may have sent out a strong message with so much shiny black and red screaming at once. After forty years in education, I believed I was at the pinnacle of my career – the position of newly appointed Associate Superintendent in charge of School Effectiveness for Arizona.
“Hey Kim, come on in. I have a few minutes before my next meeting. Sit down. Want some coffee or water?”
“No thanks, I need a minute. I couldn’t resist buying this for you,” she said grinning, a bit of mischief in her eyes. She handed me a red gift bag with the black and white Polka-dotted ribbon. I opened the bag and pulled out a new white coffee mug, and read the black lettering as she started to giggle.
The details of your incompetence do not interest me.
“Your staff knows when it’s time to move toward your door and get back to work by your look. You don’t actually say ‘shoo, shoo’ when you’ve heard enough, but everyone knows when their time for excuses or kibitzing has come to a sudden end.” She continued smiling.
“Moi? I think I always make time to hear what you all have to say. Collaboration is big here you know.”
“Uh-huh, but not bullshit,” she said, exaggerating her exit by backing out the door tiptoeing all the way. The bubble over my head was saying, “I guess they received the message loud and clear. Haha, I win.”
I was a shy and self-conscious child, even as I entered high school. Hesitant to talk to anyone other than family, I felt I wasn’t good enough. How did I get here? The journey is marked by bruises and scars, but also successes. My experiences helped to forge a protective coating, one of mettle and inner strength.
As a child raised in New Mexico during the fifties and sixties, there were three categories of people – Caucasian, Mexican (Hispanic), or Indian (Native American). I appreciated growing up in what seemed a safer and less complicated time. It was also a time, which I didn’t realize until much later when racial and economic inequality existed in the great Southwest and elsewhere.
My father was Italian and my mother Croatian. In retrospect, I am a balanced blend of both; but as a young girl I felt I got the worst features of each – one eyebrow, a bump on the bridge of my nose, hairy arms and legs, and skin that darkened five shades under the summer sun. I also never attended kindergarten and my first grade teacher labeled me a slow learner. What I lacked was experience and my classmates teased me.
“Are you a Mexican?”
“Why do you have a bump on your nose?”
“Your Dad’s only a barber?”
“You don’t even know how to write your numbers to 100!”
If I had had an ILAC (I Am Lovable and Capable)sign to wear it would have been in shreds by the sixth grade. As a participant of one of those ‘70s workshops, I believed in this process, and although hopeful, it was not realistic and didn’t prepare people for reality. By not allowing a person to build strength to fend off the hard knocks or stinging remarks, how could she prepare for tough career choices?
One particular moment stung more than others. The summer before seventh grade I enjoyed learning how to ice skate. I skated backward, completed small jumps, and paired with a partner. My class performed in a show at the end of the session. When assigned parts, I played the part of a boy, wearing long pants and a jacket striped in scratchy cheap beige, brown, and yellow fabric. As I looked at the excited, mostly pretty blonde girls, I realized they got the fun, glittery outfits.
At that moment I felt the ugliest in middle school. How we are viewed by others often frames how we perceive ourselves.
But those awkward, disappointing moments toughened me. I struggled to play catch up academically in high school, but I worked harder and planned for a successful outcome in my endeavors. As I moved through the ranks of educational administration, I only expected from others what I would expect from myself, always looking for solutions within problems. That expectation wasn’t always appreciated. But it helped transform a timid girl who never attended kindergarten into a teacher, principal, adjunct professor, and finally, associate superintendent.
As a struggling young girl, I wasn’t certain why I had to experience it. I realize now that every time the task proved difficult, I propelled myself forward. The struggle taught me another lesson. We gain the most when we have to stretch and learn something new. And yes, sometimes learning was like hanging off the underside of a steep cliff, but by pushing myself to work hard and anticipate roadblocks, the rewards were immense.
One of my favorite times of day is the morning with my newspaper and coffee. I smile every time I pour coffee in the mug that Kim gave me. It is a reminder of how far I’ve come and how much pride I take in sharing lessons with those I’ve mentored. I am confident they too can meet the challenges ahead, and thrive.