I was 17, a first-year, first semester student at a New York State Teachers College in 1953, one of eight girls sharing an attic dorm room in what used to be a mansion. We were a mixed group—two Jews, two Blacks, two Catholics, two Protestants. There was only one bathroom, which meant we had to learn to get along well enough to share shower and toilet time, especially in the morning. We made a schedule based on when our earliest classes began. We even learned to deal with emergencies: “I need to go. Now!”
In 1956, I worked as a summer recreational therapist at Creedmoor, a mental hospital in New York City. Although I was only 19-years-old, I was in charge of a building of 300 women. My job was to take out a group, play games with them, then bring them back—the same number, in good shape—meaning no fights among them or with me. Since I knew nothing about mental illness, I treated everyone as if they were mentally healthy, which seemed to work well.
A friend who taught at a high school two hours south of my home called me on a Friday morning, in a panic, asking me to please do her a huge favor and lead a storymaking class that afternoon. The desperation in her voice as she explained the situation made it hard for me to say no. The session would be the last class of the day. The eleventh graders had had a substitute teacher for two weeks, who’d suddenly quit because she couldn’t control the class. None of the other teachers wanted to face these students—a group notorious for discipline problems. No one was willing to risk getting a black mark on their record. Reluctantly, I agreed, but to say I wasn’t looking forward to teaching it was an understatement.
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.