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.
Phyllis, your photo is so beautiful, it’s hard to imagine that you struggled with self-image as a young girl! I can relate, though. I was always somewhat timid; although I also made great strides in my career, my timidity held me back. It’s something I’m still working on, so I admire your success in harnessing it!
Dear Phyllis, this is such a transparent reflection of a lady who blossomed into a butterfly who proudly shares to encourage, support and mentor others, Thsnk you for sharing your story. Trish
Trish, remember when we met and you shared Wise Women Write with me? Thank you for launching my first efforts in “telling my truth” and continuing to be a dear friend and supporter. Phyllis
It continues to be something I work on, which is why I decided to “bare my soul” in this essay. Facing it head on was challenging but cathartic. My best to you.
Phyllis, You have always been a shero and role model for me and everyone else you have worked with. I am so proud of your writing and the person you have become. You never stop learning and growing! Congrats! Nedda
Nedda, do you know how much you have encouraged me to keep on keeping on? I love that you pushed me when I first retired (one of three), telling me I had much more to do and accomplish. You are a special friend and I continue to grow because you won’t let me stay planted. You never let a friend down. Love you, Phyllis
Nedda, do you how much you have encouraged me to keep on keeping on? You said I was not finished and had much more to accomplish, when I tried to retire the first time, one of three. You continue to challenge me to grow, because you won’t let me stay planted. Thank you, dear friend. Phyllis
I love this journey through time! You’re a strong woman with the best mug ever 🙂
Windy, thank you for being my teacher, encourager, and my friend. Our writing sessions have brought me here. Thank you for all you do to encourage all writers. Phyllis
So inspiring! It is important to acknowledge and honor what it took to get us where we are. Thank you, Phyllis, for the reminder!
Phyllis! I love reading your writing, and this essay is beautiful! Miss being in class with you.