There are a lot more "encore" stories than I had thought there would be!
Two weeks ago, I wrote about my own encore story in connection with encouraging others to enter a contest to win a copy of The Big Shift: Navigating the Stage Beyond Midlife by Marc Freedman. She Writes founder Kamy Wicoff and I spent our Memorial Day hours (I confess, I was by the pool and on our deck while doing this!) reading the many amazing entries. While it was a difficult task, we chose the five winners ...
Congratulations to Andrea Simon, George Wolf, James Vaughn, Lynne Juarez, and Marsha Aizumi. They will each receive a copy of The Big Shift and their entries can be read here on She Writes, and at Encore.org.
Choosing five winners from among the hundreds of amazing essays was extraordinarily difficult. Kamy and I were both moved by powerful stories of overcoming illness to launch new ventures, tales of realizing that we don't have to be limited by age, and reflections on how our definition of what's important evolves over a lifetime. These stories inspired me to remember that every day is an encore, and every moment is an opportunity to reinvent ourselves that's not to be squandered. (If you want to share your encore/reinvention story, the thread is still open, and always will be, so post away, and read others' stories, too.)
Joanne Bamberger is a writer and political/media anaylst who writes the blog, PunditMom. Her book, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizin...(Bright Sky Press, June 2011) is available for pre-sale now at Amazon.com.
This year, the year I turned 65, I became a graduate student in creative writing at The City College of New York. Although I had taken adult education courses and workshops over the years, this would be my first formal classroom experience since I graduated from Brooklyn College in 1967. After I registered for two courses in the English department, the secretary directed me to further procedures for non-matriculating students – students not seeking degrees. Overhearing this conversation, the chairperson of the English department yelled, “She is matriculated!” The secretary smiled and said, “Well, then just go to the bursar.” Clearly, I had arrived.
I can’t recall if I got my identification card before or after I registered. I do remember stating my date of birth and the assistant responding, “Wow, you don’t wear it.” Almost instantly, she took my photo and presented me with my new ID. Above my name, in bold capital letters, it said, “GRADUATE STUDENT.” I placed the card in the zippered outer compartment of my pocketbook. At the subway station, I reached into the compartment, slipped out my fare card and saw another photo of myself, this one purposely posed and made up. Underneath my name, in bold type, it said, “Senior Citizen.” I swiped it with a new assuredness and dropped it into my bag. I now had my two most important IDs pressed together, each recognizable as my likeness, each proof that I was on the threshold of a new adventure.
After a lifetime in the creative end of the apparel industry, especially knitwear, I started a new business at age 65, with a factory in New York’s economically depressed South Bronx. It was meant to be my “retirement” and income to the end of my life. After 13 years the effects of China on the industry forced me to close shop, with substantial losses.
In my late 70s, I realized very quickly that my employment prospects were zero. I managed a six-month consulting job, but when that ended I was at loose ends and deeply depressed. Through Encore.org I found a New York organization called ReServe. It pairs nonprofits with retired professionals and currently has a roster of about 225 nonprofits employing retirees part time at a modest stipend. Through ReServe I found The Blue Card – the only charity in the U.S. that aids destitute Holocaust survivors. Being one myself, technically, and with my creative and sales background, I have been the organization’s marketing director for over two years and expect to be there for many more.
My main activity has been organizing charity marathon teams and other fund-raising activities. At age 83, it has turned my life around. I love the people in the charity field, I feel needed and appreciated, and by now I am so immersed in my new career that I have already forgotten my old one.
I had spent my life chasing the almighty buck. Building and machinery maintenance, then in 1997 changing to truck driving. In March 2009 I got laid off – OMG – certain doom and collapse. Then, in desperation, I took a job driving a school bus for special needs children. Getting to know those kids, their problems and their joys, has literally changed my outlook on life. Compared to them, I have no problems. I have inconveniences. Due to my everyday contact with them, I have made a difference in their lives. Not only keeping them safe, but helping them with school problems. Math, spelling and social skills. A fourth grader now can add 3 and 4 and not use his fingers. A second grader can now read the alphabet backward. A father personally called me and thanked me for helping his son advance to riding “the big bus” – the one all the other kids ride.
No dollar sign can be put on that kind of satisfaction.
I had worked in the field of education for some 30 years, first as a teacher and then as an administrator. I will always remember the young people who would come to interview for teaching positions. As I looked over their resumes, I had a sense that life had passed me by. Although I did love my job, both it and my children had kept me close to home. Meanwhile, many of these prospective teachers had traveled all over the world. I was 60 and grieved those missed opportunities.
Then, at a party in 2000, I encountered the son of a woman who had been living and working in Ghana for two years. As he was telling me of her life I said, “Oh, how I wish I could have done that.” He replied, “It's not too late.” Those words resonated at a very deep level.
In 2001 I retired from my job with the school district. That December, I left for Namibia in sub-Saharan Africa where I spent two of the most fulfilling years of my life teaching early childhood education to young adults who were about to embark on their teaching careers.
In 2007 I went to India to support work that an Indian friend was doing in the slums. That, too, was an amazing and challenging position. Now, at 70, I'm wondering if maybe it's not too late to spend some time living and working in Vietnam. “Too late” has become a concept that I enjoy challenging!
Approaching my “golden years,” I imagined myself puttering around the house, reading, knitting and sitting in front of my computer writing a long-awaited book that brewed inside of me. But that was not to be the final chapter of this Asian mother's story. Instead I found myself compelled to talk to people about making schools safer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths and to find alternative ways for these individuals to get their high school diplomas. My dream was to start a program where bullied and harassed students would find comfort and inspiration from nurturing and empowering teachers. This hope became a reality at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, by partnering Opportunities for Learning – a public charter school – with LifeWorks, a program at the gay and lesbian center.
My passion to do this work was inspired by my transgender son who endured almost daily harassment at high school. He barely graduated, because he became so anxiety ridden that eventually he was diagnosed agoraphobic. He became a cutter and contemplated ending his life, but thankfully we found supportive individuals and organizations that helped us maneuver this maze of challenges.
So today, I am a writer, activist and education consultant. This encore chapter of my life is dedicated to a cause and community that has made it possible for me to feel joy and hope. For you see, I still have two sons and I could easily have been the mother of only one.