I used the name Gretchen Grossman on my memoir cover because I didn’t necessarily want former students reading my book. Also I recognized that the alliteration of my maiden name looked attractive on the cover.
I taught school in inner-city Chicago and several other smaller cities. I taught in private, parochial, public, and magnet schools, preschool through 8th grade but mostly 6th grade, everything from ESL to art, music, humanities, and the regular curriculum. Such a tremendous amount of labor, I was pretty much like a workhorse, but a happy workhorse. Still, I’m surprised I survived.
I knew that students loved performance art and because I’m a kid at heart I too love performance art. Since it was critical for me to be happy every single day, I taught students a lot of the things that I adored and that I lived and breathed for. My 6th graders put on plays including a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. We plastered school hallways with weekly artistic creations. Occasionally there would be murals-in-progress hanging off ceilings or walls making students wonder what was coming next, or tables filled with sculptures, or portfolios of research on famous artists propped up in the trophy case, trophies set aside slightly. We also worked incredibly hard at all the subject matter otherwise known as the regular curriculum but I made it rich with poetry, creative writing, improvisation, experiments, research, history of language, and even ethnic dancing.
My daily curriculum was ready to go before the start of each day for 34 years, all plans and materials at least fairly well organized. I wanted students engaged the entire time they were under my care. I sound too good to be true I’m sure. Seriously, I was the right person born at the right time with the right talents and teaching was a perfect fit for me. But I can’t take all the credit. My various principals were from the old days when discipline was intact and interference between administration and faculty didn’t exist unless there were problems. I did have plenty of those. Like the day a student broke his arm jumping off playground equipment or parents angry at me for something. Unbelievably I had a student put a pitchfork prong through his sneaker and nearly through his big toe. My fault of course since a pitchfork was totally inappropriate even for our butterfly garden and these kids were only 11 years old. The boy was fine. He’s fine today and all is well.
I had 3 purses stolen right out of my desk drawer and file cabinet in my Chicago teaching days. I had a knife pulled on me as a substitute teacher and when I spoke to the student I said, “Jose, give me the knife please. You can pick it up with your parents in the principal’s office after school.” My voice was strong but I was shaking on the inside. Jose gave me the knife and class went back to the books. Another time when I was substituting in Chicago, I returned to my class after lunch and the 8th graders were all snickering. What had happened was that they decided to throw the class dictionaries out the window, about 30 of them. The principal made the kids go outside and clean up the school yard for an hour. Teachers have enough stories to write books forever.
I taught alongside wonderful colleagues and got close to many of them through the years. They taught me so much about teaching and life. I’m forever grateful that I’ve had such good friends.
I never told another soul about my personal story because even friends would look away from me the minute I’d mention bits and pieces of it.
Once I retired from teaching, I woke up every morning thanking God but wondering, “Why did I become a nun?” “Why did I marry the man that I did.”
The person who deserves credit for urging me to write a book belongs to a college professor named Ahmed Riahi-Belkaoui, currently a UIC professor of Ethics in Business, my interpretation. I was in Chicago one Saturday morning after I retired in May of 2006 and I was about to order coffee and breakfast at Caffe’ BACI on Michigan Avenue when a fellow stepped in line right in front of me.
“Sir, you just stepped right in front of me. It’s my turn to order,” I said not so nicely.
“Oh Madam, I am so so sorry, so sorry, excuse me, please,” he said in his attractive accent which annoyed me even more. Since I had barked at him I immediately felt badly and decided to pay for his breakfast and try to start my day over a little bit better.
And what did that produce? He came over and asked if he could join me at my table. I said, “Sure.”
I was absorbed in eating while he talked on and on about how great a Catholic he and his family were, holding teaching positions in Catholic Universities, high rankings in their various Churches, and what seemed like an awful lot of other things connected with his faith. He never let up so that when I’d had about enough I interrupted him and said, “Listen. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools for 12 years, became a nun after high school, lasted five years, left, met and married an ex-seminarian, we had two sons, then I had an affair and got a divorce. My husband moved to New York to find himself. Then he got AIDS and died.”
“Madam!” he said flabbergasted. “You have the next best seller!” He grabbed a napkin and began writing on it. “Here’s my name,” he said. “When you get home look me up on amazon.com and see who you’ve just had breakfast with. You need to write a book,” he said several more times. We finished up breakfast and left the cafe, both going our separate ways, me with a filled tummy and that napkin safely tucked in a pocket of my purse. I headed toward Grant Park’s underground parking lot. Then within 20 minutes I was bound for the expressway and headed back home.
Four hours later having had plenty of time to ponder what he’d said as I was driving down to Central Illinois, I arrived home and looked him up on amazon. Amazon listed him as having published more than 20 books. In a few days I began to get organized. I wrote my book. It was finished in two years.
I found Alice Peck, an independent editor living in New York. She loved my story and we worked together for a couple of years. When I queried agents, many said I had a strong story but that in some places it was lacking as a sweeping narrative. I found another editor closer to home, Valerie Romack, who helped me in an entirely different way for 6 months. I queried a few more agents again and then decided to self-publish with CreateSpace since I wasn’t getting any younger. Alice’s husband, Duane Stapp who works for Martha Stewart, designed my interior and cover, although the collage of the church and girl with braids on the front is mine.
My book, website, and social media all sort of came live about the same time in March of 2014. I’ve been actively promoting my memoir ever since, except on the days when I’m not chained to my computer trying to figure out how to improve all my sites making them look more professional. I’ve been interviewed on tv, on radio, spoken to 6 book clubs, and been an invited guest to private clubs in town. I’ll be speaking to a group at our local library in September. My husband would be so proud of me since I used to be so shy and now I’ve overcome that, to some extent.
I have a small garden and a two-story house to take care of. Several times a year I travel to NY to see my son or San Francisco to see my four-year-old granddaughter, the cutest redhead on the planet.
Since the birth of my granddaughter, I’ve taught myself how to make dolls, knit blankets, and quilt, and memorized 127 German sentences since both her mother’s and father’s sides have that lineage. I’ve made her 12 books that are pretty cute and make friends say, “You’re so talented.”
My memoir has three stories in it. My childhood, the nunnery, and my marriage. The childhood part tells about the charming side of my family life growing up, as well as the frightening aspects the Catholic Church teachings had on me as a little kid. I wrote this part from a child’s perspective since I still remember my reactions quite vividly. I wrote about my place in the lineup of siblings, dead last, and some things we did that related to who I was, how being the youngest affected me, and how I understood stuff. For years, the nuns drilled into us school kids never to use the word stuff. So whenever I get the opportunity I say stuff. We thought we were an ordinary family but I’ve since learned that we were pretty sheltered compared to other kids we knew whose lives had more drama than ours. Some people would describe our lives as highly disciplined. But to us, all that consistency was laced with the charm of our mother who was Irish and darling. My German father carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, never missed a day of work in over 40 years, was rock solid in his faith, character, integrity, and responsibility. The marriage of Irish and German was tense and unacknowledged. But we had a near idyllic upbringing.
The convent part I wrote as I was living it back then, as a teenager living in anxiety mode under threats of sin and damnation. I accidentally ended up in the convent. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. Once there I couldn’t get myself out until after I allowed 5 years of misery to steal away from center and grounding. I’d become such an angry individual with always denying my true self its love for a bigger life, that that experience changed my gentle nature into something of a bad ass, pardon my profanity. When I left the convent it was like beginning my life over from where I’d left off when I entered. I now liken it to the journey an addict travels when getting clean and sober. I’d been
addicted to amiability. At 22 I felt like I was still 17 on the inside, appearing strong from the perspective of onlookers until I opened my mouth with the conversation of one who was dreadfully behind in development. I was always and forever asking questions as if I didn’t have a clue but more than likely mistrusting of my instincts since I’d deceived them so horribly.
The marriage part I wrote as the adult I had become. It’s my favorite part because during that time period I felt i grew the most profoundly in heart and soul. Our little family of 4 lived on the Near West Side in a great Italian neighborhood in Chicago and I became a mother. My marriage was unusual I think, entertaining, enlightening, but confusing and frightening. I can’t believe my husband and I produced two children, sons. He was the most exciting person I’d met in my life and my starving psyche from the convent years rushed to him like a fine feast of celebration and delight that he embodied. Ours lacked the ingredient to keep us together most unfortunately. Now I miss him as much as I miss my parents. Our grown sons miss him too perhaps more than they know, but how could I know.
A psychologist read and reviewed my book, then stated that the reason I remembered details so well, proved how profoundly I was impacted living through it.
When I reread what I just wrote here it sounds so boastful, but let me say that I have had a ton of Jewish group therapy, most of it from a couple year’s program called The Human Potential Movement, which comes out of the Esalen Institute in the Big Sur with leaders such as Virginia Satir and Carl Rogers. Powerful stuff, it got me to go inward and find out who I was and what I was made of. After disliking myself for decades, it was a relief to learn that I’m just as wonderful as anyone else on the planet and shouldn’t hide under a rock or keep quiet when I something to offer. It still sounds terribly self-centered and narcissistic for me though.
Here are my social media links
Hope to meet you all there: