These days I wear a handsome gold wristwatch from my employer, Manhattan Community College, CUNY. I can’t tell time on it, but I love it nonetheless and I don it first thing after my shower every morning. It is my trophy! I’ve been teaching English at the college for forty-five years . That I shower daily is ample proof of my modernity; I grew up in a one-bath-a –week, heat-your-own-water Brooklyn flat.
This luxurious watch, designed as a gift for an academician, obviously HAD to have Roman numerals! Ancients are happiest with the script of their childhood. Unfortunately, I can’t read those tiny lines etched in gold. I am legally blind.
Nevertheless, I am still a dependable member of the work force. There are so many of us survivors who are still working that a term has been coined to describe us: OLD OLDS. I ‘m fond of it; in the 1930’s my well-off Uncle Harry had a precious car he called his OLD OLDS.
The fact that I still work, that I like work and want to work troubles some people. Why don’t you sit back and smell the flowers?” the coy ones wonder. You need a hobby, the bossy ones advise. Surely your pension can’t be so small, the estimators guess.
“I like work,” I say, and I have learned that is enough. No need to try to share the esoteric pleasures of a busy day dealing with books and language and ideas and academic nonsense.
The woman who chairs my department is an African American scholar and a role model for our students, many of whom are women of diverse ethnicities. In her they see mirrored their own possibilities. My own youth offered no such hopes. In the orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn slum, I knew only two kinds of women: those who aspired solely to be wives and mothers in the Tradition, and the rigorous, non-Jewish, unmarried schoolteachers who came to civilize us, the children of immigrants.
Though I had no role models, I did have help. Oddly, it was from men, not proto-feminists but men who unaccountably went against their own religious and chauvinist convictions sometimes to help me toward independence and a career. I remember them with gratitude.
In Eastern District High School in 1944, a balding English teacher interprets THE SCARLET LETTER brilliantly. He leads us to appreciate the strength and beauty of the human spirit in Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester Prynne, forced by Puritan Boston to wear the letter “A” for adulteress. But this very teacher, who adores Hawthorne and has spent his life immersed in scholarship, has adopted his idol’s prejudices as well. Intrinsic in femininity, he argues, is lack of genius. As writers, women might be good, but can never be great. With malicious pleasure, he quotes Hawthorne’s description of a cow belonging to Margaret Fuller the bluestocking writer. “’She is very fractious and apt to kick over the milk pail…but she has a very intelligent face and seems to be of a reflective cast of character. I doubt not that she will soon perceive the expedience of being on good terms with the rest of her sisterhood.’”
We all know Hawthorne is not talking about the cow. He hates this woman writer who is presumptuous enough to go her own way. I sit silently bewildered by this injustice. I do not dare to challenge it. I am too ignorant and too cowardly.
My teacher goes on to quote Hawthorne on the women writers of his day. “’America is now given over to a d—-d mob of scribbling women, and I
should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.’” I am so glad when at last we leave Hawthorne for Dickens.
Yet, at the end of the school year, this same teacher recommends me – not a boy – for English Honors. He scribbles “Excellent!” in red pencil on my final essay, and he takes the trouble to keep me after class to urge me, “Go to college.”
“No one in my family has ever gone to college,” I tell him.
“Never mind. Don’t let your education end here. You can be quite a good writer,” he argues fiercely.
I cannot help myself. “Good but never great,” I murmur, and he flushes, recognizing his own words. “Don’t let it all end here,” he repeats. “You have a fine mind.” I am dismissed.
Confused, but inspired and grateful, I begin to think: Yes! I will go to college. I’ll go to Brooklyn College. After all, it’s free. What could be better? I am jubilant. It won’t all end here.
My parents, unfortunately, do not see it that way. They argue that I am smart enough already. That really means, “ Your mouth is too big already.” They insist that what I must do immediately after graduation is get a job and help out at home, while I wait for someone to marry me. My father speaks rhapsodically of a mythical “big” man he knows who might hire me for a clerical job. A white-collar job!
My parents are impoverished observant Jews. My mother – American-born, the eldest of seven children – never finished high school. An avid reader of romances in her youth – Sir Walter Scott, Eleanor Porter, R.D. Blackmore – she reveres education and scholarship but not for me. She takes her fixed position: Bitterly opposed.
My father, who emigrated from Hungary just in time to fight in World War I, reads and speaks Hungarian, German, Yiddish and English; he reads Hebrew as well. For years he worked as an immigration interpreter but the Depression ended that. He is a clothing presser in a factory that makes theatrical costumes. While Torah study delights him and occupies his spare time, scholarship and Judaism are, for him, synonymous – for men.
I take the Brooklyn College entrance exam. There are bitter fights at home. I pass the exam. The battles increase in ferocity. Until – armed with the very thin bravado that comes of teenage desperation – I find a job as live-in babysitter near the college, a room, breakfast and dinner in exchange for various domestic tasks. I move out. It is 1945. I am the first unmarried young woman from our community to do this heinous thing. My parents try to conceal their disgrace; they do not acknowledge to anyone that I am not living at home. When the men in the synagogue ask questions, my father is evasive. He is mortally embarrassed.
My mother does not relent. My father, slowly at first and then with increasing kindness, surreptitiously sends me a few dollars when he can and sometimes he sends me a salami. He begins to ask an occasional question about what I am studying. He is fascinated by much of it. Very gradually (and never in front of my mother) he becomes proud that I am a “college girl,” a phrase that is a delectable sweet on his lips. Periodically, he garners a remnant of cloth in his factory and sews me a skirt or a pair of slacks. Since the fabrics are meant for theatrical extravaganzas and he is a presser not a skilled tailor, my garments tend toward the bizarre, but I am grateful for them.
I work weekends roasting nuts in the window of the huge Planter’s Peanuts store opposite Duffy Square in Manhattan. I am violating the Sabbath. I understand how much this hurts my father, but he does not hassle me about it. It is my only source of income.
In 1949 I graduate. He comes to the Commencement Exercises, and Miracle of Miracles, he brings my mother along! The day makes him happy though he is troubled by my decision to go to graduate school. “Enough is enough,” he says then wisely lets it drop . During the graduation he is one of those embarrassing fathers who hurries up and down the aisles snapping countless pictures. What a bright and glorious day he makes for me on that field in Flatbush!
One other man looms as an unexpected source of strength during my college days, my late brother-in-law, a massive ex-football player and an unlikely figure in any feminist’s pantheon. A truck-driver, he had to quit high school during hard times and he works in his father’s meat delivery business. They work in the late hours of the night and in the early morning delivering meat to the city’s small restaurants.
This man, married to my sweet gentle sister, finds me argumentative and softheaded politically, an altogether peculiar sister-in-law careening toward spinsterhood on the academic track. “Too smart for your own good,” he sums me up. We differ on practically everything in arguments that are frequent, loud, long, and good-natured, for that is his temperament. He is not a man to hold grudges.
Late one night, in 1947, he finally brings himself to believe what I have been saying all along – that I want to be a writer more than anything in the world. “A writer should have a typewriter,” he tells my sister, as he gets into his work clothes to set forth to deliver meat. And he goes out and buys me one. I mean goes out literally. At 2:oo A.M. he buys me a Smith Corona portable from a street peddler near the wholesale meat markets on Tenth Avenue.
“It’s probably hot,” he assures me with glee. “The guy took off like a bird the minute I gave him his money.”
Who knows? My brother-in-law always spends too much, and when we protest at his extravagance he invariably defends his purchases by claiming he got them very cheaply because they were “hot”.
“Do me a favor,” he asks me privately. “Don’t mention outside who gave this to you. I don’t want to be known as the idiot of the neighborhood.
“Why?” I ask.
“For encouraging your pipe dreams. Just don’t talk about it. Okay?”
That typewriter stays hot for more than thirty years through college and graduate school and then through countless drafts of my books. I pass it on to my children who use it through high school.
My life moves along. After two years of graduate work in Iowa City, I return to teach junior high school in Harlem for a long time. I marry and have two children, stay at home to care for them.
Seven more years pass and I sorely miss teaching. I find part-time work at Borough of Manhattan Community College; I am ecstatic. Each semester for the next three years I pick up one or two courses, and, in emergencies, I readily substitute for colleagues. I am teaching composition, literature, and, occasionally, creative writing.
When I am almost forty years old, my husband and I decide we want one more child. I become pregnant. I continue to teach and all is well. The baby is due during the winter recess. A crisis occurs. The English Department is suddenly awarded several “faculty lines.” The college is expanding and they are beginning an immediate search for qualified, full-time faculty. I am qualified, ungainly in the last trimester of my pregnancy, but qualified! And like Barkis in DAVID COPPERFIELD I am willin’.
The Chairman of the English Department is a quiet, scholarly bachelor, a poet. Often, we talk about our favorite writers and sometimes we read one another’s work and offer criticism. He is a consummate academician and administrator, brought in years before to correct a chaotic unruly situation. He runs the Department thoughtfully and skillfully.
He sends for me. “There are new, full-time lines,” he says, “and I would gladly recommend you – except for your condition.”
“I’m absolutely fine,” I assure him.
“I know you are – now,” he says gravely, “but remember, when I came here this Department was anarchic? There was a lot of irresponsibility and excessive absence. I need to be sure that anyone we hire will be here every teaching day. “If this baby . . .?” He rubs his chin pensively, conjuring up fearful scenarios.
“The baby isn’t due till Christmas break. I promise you I will be here every teaching day.”
He is listening, but I can sense his uncertainty.
“It’s a commitment I can honorably make. I respect the way you run the Department.”
He taps a pencil and ponders. I know that I have been absolutely reliable so far. And that he is a fair person. I count on him.
He gets up smiling and comes round the desk to give me his hand. “I’m with you,” he says. “We writers have to look out for one another. But I’m the easy part. Now we only have to convince the Dean.”
The Dean of Faculty is a cold, courtly scholar of the very old school. His hair, his eyes and his suits are iron gray. He has never been seen – even on the hottest days of summer – without a vest as well as his jacket. Legends about his conservatism, his inflexibility, and his integrity abound. He is an institution within our institution. I tremble at the prospect, but I want the job.
First, my Chairman goes to see him and presents my application and curriculum vitae. He argues my case: academic achievements, professional experience, publications, years of part-timing and loyalty to the school. He offers fresh copies of my books for the Dean’s perusal.
Right off, the Dean says no. He is adamant. Most appalling to him is the unseemliness of a woman in my condition standing in front of a class. All around the country, women are wearing miniskirts but the Dean has not noticed changes.
My advocate argues for me with such fervor that he wears the Dean down to the point where he promises, at least, to consider my candidacy. “Look at her books,” my colleague urges. “Her condition is irrelevant. She’s a valuable teacher.”
No one could have done more for me. A whole week passes and I am in despair. Then a formal letter comes requesting that I appear for an interview.
I don my most flowing maternity dress, a pale blue cotton creation of endless pleats and fabric, which cannot do very much for me because this is a large baby I am carrying. I do my hair in what I consider a neat and scholarly style, and I take pains with my make-up and grooming.
The Dean comes to greet me at his office door and almost carries me to a large chair. He moves to sit behind his vast, polished desk on which there is a single, rather thin set of papers in a folder – my file.
“Mrs. Klass,” he says, “I have been looking at your vitae.” There is a long pause during which he puts on his glasses and riffles through the few papers. “It is seven years since you left your last full-time employment. How can you account for those seven years?” An implicit accusation of malingering, of idleness, hovers in the air.
“Well,” I begin, “I had two children and I stayed home to raise them. I wrote a number of books, two of which were published.”
Elbows on the desk, he presses his hands together palm-to-palm. The silence is awesome as he weighs these activities of mine.
“Actually, those were pretty busy and productive years,” I follow up, “if you count two children and two books.”
He reflects on this challenge. “I count children and books,” he finally responds and gives me a thin smile.
Tremors course through my body like aftershocks. I am so excited and overwhelmed, it occurs to me that I might go into premature labor right there in his immaculate lair. The thought is so unseemly it helps relax me.
“And now,” he says, “though it may be indelicate, we must talk about your condition. I believe that full-time working at this stage would be perilous for both you and the child.”
It is 1967. I know of no precedents, and I have no legal resources to help me. “I brought a note from my doctor,” I say doggedly and hand it over.
“Nonetheless” the Dean continues somberly, “I had a cousin who died in childbirth some years ago simply because she did not rest and take care of herself.”
“I rest a lot and take very good care of myself,” I assure him. “I love teaching here, and if you give me the chance I’ll do a very good job.”
“We’ll have to see,” the Dean says, rising and hastening to assist me out of the chair. I do a creditable job of getting up. “This is a highly irregular situation,” he goes on. “I wouldn’t have expected it of your Chairman. I shall have to consider its many aspects.”
I am emboldened by desperation. “It is very hard to be discriminated against – as you well know – because of a natural physical condition,” I say to this African American gentleman, looking him in the eye.
At the door, he shakes my hand firmly. “I admire your spirit. I wish you good health and an easy time of it.”
I thank him, and I repeat, “I hope children and books count enough.”
Looking a little dazed, he stands in his doorway and watches as I trundle off as light-footedly as possible.
My Chairman is in his office waiting eagerly. At his request, I reconstruct the entire interview.
“It’s hard to believe, but I think maybe you’ve got it,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “The Dean is really a fair and decent man.” He begins to grin. “I really think you’ve got it.”
He is prescient.
Indeed, I had it! And I have held onto it for forty-five years.
I am awed and grateful when I think about these men of generous spirit who defied custom and culture, who forfeited male privilege so I might realize my ambition. They went against the grain for me. Their generosity was, what Hawthorne, when he was truly great, celebrated: the strength and beauty of the human spirit.