Illustration: The Magazine of Yoga, with detail from a photo by Joe Mabel
Public school teaching 1958, co-housing 2010
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST JOANNA HELLER
Fifty two years have passed since I graduated from Hunter College and began to teach in PS 39 in the South Bronx. A whole lot of turns in the road between then and now. Fifty two summers, fifty two winters … education philosophies come and gone …
It was a cold February day, just a few days after graduating with our teaching degrees, that Sandy and I took the el to the Prospect Ave station in the Bronx to begin our grown-up lives. Out of the safe structure of college and into the world of responsible adult.
I was not yet twenty years old and more than anything else, scared.
The view from the elevated train had me questioning everything. Vacant and partly vacant shells of apartment houses, broken glass and trash everywhere, discarded household belongings on the sidewalks and sleeping bodies in doorways. At least I hoped they were sleeping.
What was I doing here? Was this really my life career plan?
A room of one’s own
Philosophies of education, child psychology, literature, democracy… how to relate with this devastation and despair.
I had majored in psychology. I loved it. I also loved anthropology and math and a few other things. But the only thing I was really sure of was that I wanted reliably self sustaining work and a place of my own.
In Hunter College in 1958 girls talked about getting a degree, and then getting married. Some planned on teaching or nursing. Graduate school never occurred to me. Boys were the ones who did the other things. Graduate school, science, law, medicine … join the Army.
We “girls” got our bachelor degrees then we got married and had families. That was the picture that I saw.
Shocking to believe today, in 1958 moving out of our parents’ homes was by means of marriage. So I just followed the trail. Got work. Got married. Barely present with my self.
How could my vision of possibility at age twenty be so limited!
Sad to say, the inside of PS 39 turned out to fit its surroundings perfectly.
A wreck …
Leaking pipes and peeling paint, vandalized bulletin boards, broken splintered furniture, out of control children and noise levels, and despairing teachers. The principal was “out on terminal leave” – wonderfully descriptive I thought.
Sandy and I had not yet been interviewed or met anyone from the school. All we knew was that the Hunter College employment office said there were two openings in PS 39 and we should wear white gloves for the interview. !!! It sure turned out that we were right to skip the white gloves. I was so scared and overwhelmed, I didn’t collapse in laughter until much much later. White gloves?
Maybe rubber gloves … We walked into the main office and our interview consisted of: “We have a third grade class and a fourth grade class.” The assistant principal then held out two sets of keys and pointed out the room numbers on the key rings.
We were on our own.
Up the down staircase
We walked down the hall, up two flights of stairs, gingerly skirting the puddles. We located our rooms and as I walked into mine, another teacher slid out the door without a word.
When I opened the class roll book I saw that my class had defeated four teachers already that year. I was try number five. Sandy drew a third grade class and lasted for about six weeks. I managed to hold out a bit longer until the last day before the Easter vacation.
Then in utter defeat and despair, I returned my keys, announced that I was quitting, went home and climbed into bed.
With my one life
The following September, I tried again. Another P.S. Another group of 30 some odd kids needing a whole lot. Many Septembers followed and I learned some things. I hope the kids learned something too. By the way, Sandy turned to writing romance novels and still earns a terrific income.
For too many years I watched the clock and the calendar go by as I held out for weekend breaks, for holiday breaks and ultimately for the time when I would feel free to claim more of the time and space around me.
I needed to find out who I was, how I felt and how else I could live.
That was the big one. How else could I live?
Mary Oliver in “The Summer Day” clearly knew the feeling …
…Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Two: New Possibilities
That is what I am working on these days. Possibilities. I have been spending my time and focus with a wonderful group of people all looking for the same thing – a way to live that will create and nourish community as well as autonomy. Cohousing.
Cohousing, the most common form of housing in Denmark, exists in many countries and in many states here in the U.S. But none in CT yet … my state. Greenhaven Cohousing, the group Nikki and I have joined, will be building the first project in CT.
This will be an intentional community, probably 30 or so individual homes, smaller than the American average plus one house that will be larger than average, a “common house” for shared activities, with an industrial type kitchen and large dining space, spaces for yoga / meditation, workshop, library, music, and guests. There will also be jointly held outdoor space to walk, sit, play, and grow food.
A new way of life
The homes will be built to high aesthetic and environmental standards, architect designed to make the best use of space and natural light and reduce the use of fossil fuels: conserving lighting, and heating and cooling energy. The community will be pedestrian-focused, with cars parked at the outer edges.
We plan to share skills, tools and projects, and grow much of our own food.
More real life is real yoga.
Staying present with the process of nurturing the growth of the project, reaching for our edges and then a bit further, and maybe most of all, believing in possibility.
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.