Friday, July 26, 2013
The Red Leather Jacket
I worked my way through college as an English tutor, selling cosmetics in retail, and working for my parents in their restaurant. Sometimes concurrently. Each had their own complexities and taught me how to work with a variety of personalities in a variety of settings.
The director of the tutoring center at the college was an eccentric European woman. She was about a foot shorter than me, had a very thick accent, and everyone was afraid of her. Everyone guessed where she was from; everyone was afraid to ask. Finally one day, I just had to know, so I knocked on her office door and asked, "Where did you grow up?" She paused for a really long time before she responded, and then she asked me to come in, shut the door, and sit down.
I did what she asked the whole time expecting to get into trouble. Maybe it was wrong to ask personal questions? Maybe it was none of my business, and she was going to let me know? I sat there for what seemed like a lifetime, and she just sat and looked at me. Gradually I realized that her eyes were tearing up. "I forget that you students come and go. I think that everyone knows my story. I have to remember to tell people every year. It's my duty." She was a Romanian Jew who was lucky to have made it to London with her mother prior to 1940. Her brother had remained in Romania and been placed in a concentration camp. She had married a man who worked for the government, and they had eventually moved to America. She had gone to college and graduate school receiving her degrees in linguistics. "People are afraid of me. Because I'm the boss. Because they can't understand my accent. Because they think I'm always angry. Maybe I am always angry, but I think I'm just sad."
I grew close to her after that. She convinced me to become a teacher, and I think she was probably influential in getting me hired for my first teaching job. I worked at that school for 12 years, first as a student and then as an instructor. She was the most disciplined person I have ever known. She ate the exact same meal every night for dinner. She made the food in advance on the weekend, portioned it all out into individual servings, and ate them all week. Cheese tortellini. The exact same number on every plate. I asked her how she could eat the same thing night after night. She liked the routine. "I eat a big meal for lunch every day. Always something different, but for dinner, I put on my pajamas, I get comfortable, and I eat this food." We had the most in depth discussions about beauty products. When she found out I worked retail as well, she opened up to me about her love of shopping and beauty. She was 40 years older than me, but we could talk the same language. I still remember learning about alpha hydroxy acids from her. She felt that unless she could see skin peeling off, she didn't feel it was working. I went in the gentler approach myself. She loved Chanel. Shoes, bags, especially necklaces and belts. I knew that her husband had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I knew she didn't want to retire, but there was really no other way. I interviewed for her job, but someone else got it. She left a note in my mailbox one day asking if I could stop by her office during the day. At that point, I was only teaching evenings. I had a day job, a baby, a life away from the school, and after not getting her position, I knew that I would give up teaching soon. I made a point of going to see her because I didn't know if I would ever again. "I have something for you," and she handed me this red leather jacket. "I don't know why I bought it. It needs someone tall like you." I was very touched that she had thought of me.
Every time I go into the closet to get rid of this jacket, I just can't do it. She passed away not that long after leaving the school. That time in her office was the last time I saw her. I tried Googling her and got no results. The biggest lesson I learned from her: never assume, never guess, just ask. There's never any harm in asking.
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