Birkenstocks and Blazers – Published in American Writers Review 2020 – July 2020
I checked myself out in the hallway mirror one last time, smiled at the confident face staring back at me and air kissed myself good-bye. “You’ve got this, girl.”
I was ready, eager to enter the full-time work force. Today was to be my interview, debut lesson, for the new language arts teaching position at Tall Oaks School. I felt more than confident. I had been substitute teaching for almost a year. And aside from my one lower school experience, I was always happy to be in the classroom.
Lower school teaching awakened an unknown, shameful intolerance in me. Potty talk, runny noses and small children other than my own crawling into my lap was way outside my comfort zone.
Today I was prepared, dressed in my tan, linen skirt and far too expensive, black and gold striped Ann Taylor knit top. I’d read somewhere to dress for a position one step above the one you’re applying for. And that I did, right down to my pink leather pumps.
I’m sure I raised a few eyebrows on this progressive school campus trapped in a 1960s time warp. The frizzy, gray-haired teacher population, male and female, donned oversized, tie-dyed attire and Birkenstocks twelve months of the year, only adding colorful socks to the fashion statement throughout the winter months.
They were a physically embracing group, a little too close for my comfort, but I had grown less rigid in their arms and learned to wrap mine around others when enveloped in theirs. They were diehard environmentalists, naturalists, focused on diversity, and they were quilters—none of which I truly identified with. In fact, when asked to join their quilter’s club, I had to confess, my knowledge of blankets was limited to machine made down comforters.
I hadn’t gone gray yet, and I did use a hair dryer and flat iron to tame my Kramer-from-Seinfeld like curls. And yes, I’d have to admit if asked, the blush in my cheeks was not natural. But they liked me. They liked my adaptability, flexibility, my humor. I could substitute in any subject area other than math, where my skills remain limited to supermarket addition. And making change is still a challenge.
Today was my day to show off my teaching talent, but as I stood in front of the classroom, an unexpected butterfly migration overwhelmed me, and a trickle of perspiration slipped from my underarm and tickled my side as it rolled into my bra. Oh God, did I remember to put on deodorant?
The lesson began with a newspaper scavenger hunt. I had seven pairs of students searching the headline news, weather forecasts, sports results, comics and obituaries. They attacked the papers like wild dogs for fifteen minutes before I gave the next direction to reassemble their papers.
As they struggled putting their scattered pages and news sections back in order, I introduced my favorite mantra—Organization is the key to success.
The forty-five-minute class was splendid. My underarms dried and my confidence was restored. The observing Middle School Head, who sat in the corner watching, smiling, taking copious notes throughout the lesson, invited me back to her office for the follow-up talk.
Yes, I thought, ready to accept my new full-time job, my first since my twenty-year hiatus from the teaching world to raise my four children. While I had dabbled in interior design for years, I continued to hear the classroom calling from the private school sector where I was limited due to my psychology degree rather than teaching certification.
Subbing was the first step, wetting my toes, preparing me for full emersion when I could once again decorate my own classroom, create my own lessons, inspire my own students and take pride in their growth, and mine too. I loved breaking into voices, accents, song and dance, surprising students with my multiple talents while they unknowingly gobbled up grammar rules, built their vocabularies and a love of literature.
Now seated in the Middle School Head’s cramped and cluttered office, I pulled my knees to the side so we wouldn’t touch. “So,” she began without the traditional hug, but with a broad, toothy smile, “wonderful lesson.”
“Thanks,” I thought so too. So, let’s have it. I got the job, right? I can call my husband and tell him to put the champagne on ice?
“Well,” she said breaking eye contact. My heart quickened for a terrifying moment of uncertainty. “There are a few other candidates interested in the position.”
What? A few others? Better than me? Who?
She was still talking while I was trying to figure out who these candidates, as she called them, could be. When she rose and offered me her hand to shake, rather than arms for a hug, I felt like a criminal being released from prison with best wishes from the warden. But I took her hand and said something stupid like, “Guess I’ll see you around.” And before the automatic door smacked me from behind, I turned and added, “Thank you,” which I didn’t mean at all.
I needed to run, to get away, go to my car and release the stream of obscenities running through my mind. But Elsie came running toward me, her tie-dyed moo-moo fluttering in the breeze, her cheeks bouncing as she ran to catch up to me. “Wait, so can you’re subbing for me tomorrow? Remember, I have to take my husband for his chemo treatment.”
Well, that certainly stopped me in my tracks. I bit the inside of my cheek. What the hell’s the matter with me? So self-absorbed I forgot all about their cancer. “Sure, Elsie.” I could feel my eyes welling and hoped she didn’t notice. “Is there anything else I can do? This must be a difficult time for you.”
“No, no, we’ve got this under control. He’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.” She smiled as I wiped a lone tear that slipped from eye. “Oh, and by the way, how did your lesson go today? You know we’re all rooting for you.”
“Fine…it was fine,” I said refusing to indulge in another self-pity moment. And then I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a big hug, the Tall Oaks kind of hug that offered as much comfort to me as it did to her.
For the next week I waited. Wondered. Teacher friends at Tall Oaks had already leaked who the other applicants were. No one they knew, but one was male, a high priority in this heavily dominated female field, and the other, a woman, a woman of color.
“Shit! I’m never gonna get it. Diversity’s a high priority at Tall Oaks.” I found myself whining to my husband, Ben, who has to be the most patient person in the world, but even he was growing weary with me.
He didn’t understand. I needed this job. It was matter of pride. For twenty years I’d been a stay-at-home-mom, an also, an appendage on his arm. Too often when being introduced, he was questioned about his career, while I stood by collecting dust mites, grumbling inside, desperately wanting to interject, and I’m a brain surgeon. Oops, there goes my pager. Gotta run.
With every passing day my confidence sank deeper, but with Ben’s encouragement I busied myself subbing at Regency Park, an all-girls school where I was also in high demand.
The difference between these two schools led to my closet divide between Birkenstocks and Blazers. Impeccable dress was required at Regency Park. “Preferable but not required” as their rule books stated, “knee-length skirts or dresses, stockings and a blazer no matter the season. Slacks only on the coldest days, but never anything resembling jeans. And never, never any cleavage reveal.”
While I wasn’t one of the peasant skirt, moo-moo, Birkenstockers of Tall Oaks, I felt more at home there where the motto was Imagine – Explore – Create. Quite the opposite of the rigid ruled Regency Park where debutant decorum was in order.
I had secretly dubbed the principal of the girls’ school Mrs. Grundy. She looked and acted just like the principal from the Archie comic books and always appeared when least expected. Her sourpuss and scrawny little body seemed to pop out of lockers as I passed through hallways. Twirling her long index finger at me, she’d note yet another rule infraction I hadn’t addressed.
“Keep your lines straight, ladies. No talking in the hallways, ladies.” The girls with more serious infractions, untucked white shirt tails from their blue, plaid skirts or God forbid polished fingernails were plucked from the line and sent directly to the office, I feared for a ruler lashing, but was thankful when they returned unscathed.
Imagine my panic when called to Mrs. Grundy’s office myself. Had she sniffed out my covered but polished toenails, was my skirt too short or had I slouched at the daily morning meeting?
Ha! None of the above. A ninth-grade history teaching position was opening, and she wanted me for the job. No lesson debut, no other candidates to compete with. Hired today if I was ready to sign.
“Well, thank you,” I said still trying to transition from fear to flatter. “I’ll have to give that some thought and get back to you.”
She stared back, railroad tracks deepening between her brows. “Opportunities like this don’t come along very often Mrs. West. I’m sure you know the high esteem in which our staff is held in this community. Please take your time, but get back to me before the end of the week as I will be forced to publish an advertisement for this position after that.”
“Oh, certainly, Mrs. Wilshire, and thank you.” I stood and reached out my clammy hand. After a weak disingenuous shake, I thanked her again and left.
My Tall Oaks undercover informant told me the man had bombed the interview. Put his arm around one of the students while explaining directions. Ew, that’s a big no, no. Guess I don’t have to worry about that candidate.
But the woman, the woman of color, seemed to be well received. Rumor had it she’d been offered the job, but hadn’t accepted yet.
I was venting more frustration at Ben that night over cocktails. He sat pretending to listen while focusing on the television news. “I hope she turns down the offer. I mean, she can get a job anywhere. Every school’s looking for diversity. And who wants to be the token person of color anyway?”
“Oh God, did I really say that?” I stabbed a toothpick into a gefilte fish ball and smothered it with horseradish sauce before popping it into my mouth. My eyes welled not just from the punishing burn scorching my throat, rising up through nose. Between gasps, I managed to squeak out, “Are you listening? …This is about my future…my happiness here.”
“Right, sorry. Take it easy. Don’t give up yet. I think you’ll get it.”
“You do?” I almost felt relief, like he knew something I didn’t.
D-day arrived without word from Tall Oaks. I checked my phone for messages one last time. Nothing. I picked up the phone and dialed Regency Park School.
“Hi, Mrs. Wilshire, yes, it’s me, Mrs. West.” Everyone was so damn formal there while at Tall Oaks everyone went by their first name; faculty, students, parents. I didn’t even know their last names. At Regency Park, I didn’t know anyone’s first name.
“So, can we welcome you to our staff?” She started before I could speak.
“Well, I have another offer,” I bit my cheek punishing myself for the lie, then continued, “and I’m considering it as well.”
“Oh… And when do you plan on making a decision?” I could hear the surprise in her voice as it raised an octave.
Hmmm, I had to stall. “By the end of next week?” I knew answering the question with a question sounded weak, seeking her mercy. But I was too.
“Well,” I could hear her breathing heavily now. “That’s too late for me. Our ad will be posted this weekend. If the job is still available when you’re ready, I will reconsider you for the position. Thank you for calling and goodbye, Mrs. West.”
Ooh, I think I hurt her feelings. But who cares. I don’t want to work at that stinkin’ school, anyway. I just want the job at Tall Oaks.
Ben came home and found me curled up on the sofa dripping tears into my chardonnay.
“Bad news,” he said leaning down to kiss me. “Woman-of-Color accepted the job?”
I laughed at how even he fell into using the moniker. “No, not yet, but I’m sure she will.”
“Well, let’s both drown ourselves in Chardonnay then,” he said as he poured himself a glass, then dipped the last gefilte fish ball in the horseradish sauce before popping it into his mouth.
My cell phone rang.
I recognized the Tall Oaks number, and chugged the remains of my misery wine before answering.
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