I first walked into a classroom as a bona fide teacher in September 1970, and by January or so, I was settling in. The butterflies I’d felt in the first few weeks were gone. I’d figured out lesson plans. Figured out the supply closet. Figured out parent conferences, the drop-offs and the pickups. And figured out the pecking order in the all-important teachers’ coffee room.
I was a first-year teacher at Riverdale Elementary School in Riverdale, New Jersey. I loved these children, and I loved this work. Finally, here I was. Twenty-one years old, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.
I grew up in Oklahoma, the baby girl in a family of boys. Like every other girl I knew, I was sure I would go to high school, learn to drive a car, get married, and have kids. I knew the plan. Living that plan was what it meant to grow up.
But I had one more part to my plan: teach school. Since second grade, I had wanted to be a teacher. When my teacher, Mrs. Lee, had put me in charge of extra reading practice for a handful of second graders, I was hooked. There would be no stopping me.
For years, I lined up my dollies—Terry Lee, Suzi, Sammy, Toni, Nursey, Lady, the Storybook Dolls, and all the rest—and taught school for hours and hours. Of course, Sammy was always the bad boy and the Storybook Dolls were empty-headed, but I wasn’t discouraged. I kept right on teaching.
The road had been bumpy. My mother didn’t want me to go to work (“just marry a man who is a good provider”). We didn’t have money for college (“college is for other people”). I found a way to go to college anyhow, but I got married at nineteen and dropped out (“I always knew you would”). I found a commuter college that I could afford, but my husband got transferred before I could graduate (“his job is important”).
But I never gave up my dream of becoming a teacher. I’d done well at that commuter college, and when my husband was transferred to New Jersey, I finished up with correspondence courses. I got my diploma in the mail—the first in my family to get a college degree. Now I had a big dog named Thor and a medium-sized husband named Jim and I was a full-fledged teacher. Woo-hoo!
I’d even figured out how to look like a teacher.
I had always looked young—I mean really young. In high school I was routinely mistaken for a much younger kid. In college I was twice mistaken for a sixth grader. I was tall and skinny, with a figure like an ironing board. And even at twenty-one I wasn’t doing much better. I had long, straight hair—the fashion of the time—but I decided it made me look even younger. So when I interviewed with the principal for the job at Riverdale, I wore a short, curly wig that I’d bought for $19.95 at Sears. I thought it gave me an older, more professional look. Every morning when I got ready for school, the last thing I did was twist up my long, straight hair and pull on the wig. I looked at myself in the mirror. There I was, outfitted in my skirt and blouse, pantyhose and heels, and I thought, “Betsy girl, you are a teacher.”
Jim was older than I was. When he finished college and snagged a job at IBM, his folks gave him a graduation present: a shiny Brittany Blue Mustang with a white vinyl top. It had a big throaty engine and a light rear end that made it fishtail even on modest turns. It guzzled gas and the insurance was more than we could afford, but Jim didn’t care. I sometimes thought it was possible he loved that car more than he loved me. But that was okay—the car was a beauty, and I got to drive it!
Riverdale Elementary was a big old brick building in northern New Jersey. It was a long drive from our house in Rockaway, so I got up extra early on school days. We left Thor to protect the house (or so we told him), I dropped Jim off at IBM, and then I hit the curvy back roads, slipping and sliding my way to school. Sometimes, even in the dead of winter, I lowered the windows, let the cold wind blow, and just laughed out loud.
I had work that mattered, work that touched other lives. Most of the children I worked with were very young, four- to six-year-olds, with special needs. Several had little or no language. Cerebral palsy. Profound hearing loss. Developmental delays. But these children weren’t defined by what they couldn’t do. Like students everywhere, they were learners. We sang and played word games. We identified pictures and practiced the b-b-b sound. We laughed over silly jokes. Every child, every class was about a little spark—some connection that brought a girl or boy a little closer to mastering the world around them.
I had watered this dream for so long, and now here I was. And it was even better than I’d imagined. Yes, I was a teacher. Okay, just barely, but I was in the door.
And then, in February, I started feeling tired, really tired. My doctor had me pee in a cup, and the next day his office called to say that I was pregnant. The baby would come in the late summer.
I’d always figured I would have kids. After all, just about every woman I knew had kids. All except Aunt Bee, one of my mother’s sisters, and that was always described as “sad.” So, yeah, eventually I’d have kids. But now?
For weeks, I didn’t think much about the changes that were coming. I still rolled out of bed every teaching day and headed off to Riverdale. But by the end of the day, I was so tired I would nearly doze off on the drive back home. More than once, I’d hit the front door, let Thor out, and fall asleep on the couch. Sometimes Jim and Thor left me there until morning.
By the time the spring flowers were in full bloom, I was back on my feet. The exhaustion had passed; I was ready to tackle the world. My teaching reviews were good, and in April my contract was renewed for the next academic year. I could see the whole plan beginning to unfold. Things were just going to get better and better.
I started getting ready for the baby. Painting a bedroom. Buying a crib. Thinking about who would take care of the baby while I taught school. By late May, I could still fit into most of my clothes, but only barely. I began to look like an ironing board with a bump.
I hadn’t made a big deal out of being pregnant. Except for the other teachers, I didn’t know a lot of working women, and beyond knowing that I’d have to arrange for childcare during the next school year, I didn’t think much about how having a baby would affect my job.
One day, the principal asked me to come by his office.
This was the office where I’d been interviewed for the job the summer before. High ceiling, tall windows, two heavy wooden chairs across from the principal’s desk. I don’t think I’d been back there since I’d been hired. The place made me a little jumpy.
Oh, come on, I thought. You’re a teacher now. Sit up straight. Smile. You love your kids and your kids love you.
In came the principal. He gave me an absentminded hello, then got straight to the point. “Are you expecting a baby?”
I was stunned. Yeah, the bump showed, but why was he asking me about this? The baby was due in August. I figured this was between Jim and Thor and me. This guy never talked to me about anything, so why this?
But he was waiting for an answer. “Um,” I said. “Yes.”
And in the space of a couple of minutes it was over. My job was gone. The principal told me I could finish up the last few weeks of the school year as long I didn’t “look too pregnant,” and then I was to clear out. He would hire someone else for next year. He stood up and wished me luck.
I sat in the parking lot, in the Brittany Blue Mustang with the big engine, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel. Dazed, I just stared into space, the tears dropping off my chin and onto my blouse. Soon the school year would be over. No more teaching. No more off-key songs and silly jokes and the b-b-b sound. No more little sparks. Just like that, my dream crashed and burned.
And sure, in the end everything worked out for me. Three months later, Amelia was born, a gorgeous baby with a cheerful disposition. Five years later her colicky-but-bright-eyed brother Alex came along. Eventually, I headed back to school, got a law degree, and became a professor. So I did fine.
But motherhood—well, motherhood changed everything.
NO PREGNANT WOMEN
I know that when women write about motherhood, they often wax poetic about having a baby. And for me, too, it was a profound experience. Here was this little creature I hadn’t even known the day before she was born, and now, after holding her in my arms for the first time, I would have gladly died for her. I remember lots of dreams about fires and floods and how I always, always saved my baby.
The changes weren’t all sunny. I remember the crushing sense of responsibility and the fear that if I got this wrong, this tiny little person would be hurt. I remember the endless hours of crying—the baby’s and mine. I remember feeling desperately alone.
Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Warren