"You're Gonna Be a Teacher, You're Gonna Be a Doctor"
story by Chai Cooper-Stone
"You're Gonna Be A Teacher..."
About the Writer
"You're Gonna Be a Teacher,
You're Gonna Be a Doctor"
The day rises and with it come the parents to work and the kids to school. While the other kids are busy passing notes and playing catch and hopscotch, one girl is heavily soaking up her teacher's words. This is a girl who is being raised by a single mother in the tenements of New York. This is a girl who at the age of sixteen, has a boyfriend she will sneak out to see and ride with him on his motorcycle. This is a girl who is forced to go to an all women's college, but finds love, fun and unbeknown to her, a future, a few blocks away. This was Gladys. This is Gladys Foster.
A slightly chilly Tuesday afternoon wind billowed under an overhang, pushing the scarf around a woman’s neck further up, borne from necessity of warmth. She stood, extending her shaky, prominently veined hand for a handshake and introduced herself—“I’m Gladys, nice to meet you.” (Gladys would shake my hand once more before the end of the day but on much more somber terms).
She led the way through a pair of automatic doors into a decently furnished lobby of the assisted living home. Gladys introduced the front-desk workers, then led the way to the elevator and into the apartment she shared with her husband. The apartment is heavily furnished with religious and flowery artwork. They are nothing out of the ordinary, yet they were bitterly beautiful, like the mind of the owner, as I came to know her in a few visits.
As she placed her coat on a bed-like couch in the foyer, she talked a steady stream, eager to share her stories, exactly what I had come to hear. “Let’s get down to brass tacks” she said, interlacing her fingers as she did, as if she were an accountant about to tell me I was going to lose the house. She began by saying that she and her husband had been living at the home, The Arbors in Newport News, Virginia, for four years. Before that, ten years in Wilmington N.C., and fifty years in Winston-Salem before that.
The tale she began to tell was one of mild adventure, lending images of pioneers along the Oregon trail and strong women leading clans of scrappy survivors to better lands and better times. Her family lived in Manhattan, New York, from the time she was born in 1935, to the time her parents divorce in 1939.
Gladys said one of her first memories was of her mother sitting her and her brother down on the nice leather couch in their living room and telling them, “Gladys, you’re gonna be a teacher and Bernard, you’re gonna be a doctor." Gladys laughed and proceeded to say that her mother would repeat to them this phrase a few times a week until they were off on their own. Gladys’ face fell somber right after saying such, proceeding to mutter incomprehensible words to herself as she stared at the table. Her mind apparently being in another place, another time. Next—back to her parents’ divorce when she was four.
Her father was a wealthy grocery store owner and so their family was accustomed to having a large apartment, a butler, and a personal chef. Once the divorce occurred, Gladys’ mother took Gladys and her brother to a small floor-level, single-room apartment in Brooklyn, because that is the only place her mother could afford. Gladys reminisced about the apartment with a shudder and a chuckle, relaying to me how the apartment was roach- and bedbug-infested and how her mother would light a candle to burn the nests, and purchase Jo paste, which looked like mayonnaise, to spray for the roaches. Apparently the smell was so incredibly rancid that her brother would never eat mayonnaise again. Gladys laughed and said she used to eat mayo sandwiches all the time, much to her brother's chagrin.
Today, her own apartment is spotless with every tablecloth perfectly centered, every glass cleaned and put away immediately, not even work left out on the surfaces for later use. She hated their tenements of the past with such vigor that her current one would of course have to be as far from them as possible. Even so, her mother supported the kids with any jobs she could find which habitually would be stenography, public-toilet cleaning and housekeeping. I asked Gladys why her mother hadn’t gone to her parents for financial help and Gladys told me that she had. She went to her parents and asked for some money to help support her until she got back on her feet. But she found no help there.
Gladys continued on by making a necessary move out of Brooklyn, and was then lucky to meet an evangelist from North Carolina, Mrs. Pickett, who invited their family to come down and live in Salem, North Carolina. Her mother accepted the offer and moved down with Gladys on the condition that Bernard would stay behind and once settled, would follow them down south. Bernard did as he was told until his mother had gotten a house. The house was a step up from the previous tenement, if only in hygiene. Still, no running water, no heat, and a dilapidated outhouse was what they had to deal with.
It’s important, at this point in the story, to explain a few aspects of what has happened so far. Gladys heavily respected her mother for bucking up and taking care of them by taking whatever job would pay, even if the end result wasn’t pretty. Bernard, on the other hand, Gladys said, began to resent their mother and what he perceived as the strangling control she exerted over her kids. Bernard told Gladys that if he ever got out of poverty and the family, he was never coming back.
Soon upon arriving in North Carolina, Gladys got a job babysitting for a podiatrist who, upon hearing her mother’s incessant repetition of her hopes that her children would become a teacher and a doctor, offered to teach Bernard podiatry. He accepted quickly. He would need to work in a factory eight hours a day to afford podiatry school, where he would study at night, both of which he did. Bernard met a home economics teacher with whom he quickly fell in love, as did she with him. This teacher thought Bernard’s mother was much too controlling of him and he agreed.
It was at this point Gladys told me that she had become determined not to alienate her kids. She did not want herself and her son to have the same relationship as Bernard and their mother. Her eyes became bright and watercolor-esque as she remarked that she hoped her kids didn’t feel pushed, prodded, and pressured to live the life Gladys would want for them. While it may be sad that Gladys did not have a happy, carefree childhood, the hardships she endured gave her the skills to ensure that her own kids would have a better childhood and life than her own.
Her mother sent Gladys to WCUNC (the University of North Carolina, Greensboro) in 1952 which, at the time, was an all-women’s college. Her mother didn’t want boys to get in the way of her dreams of Gladys becoming a teacher. Gladys had no say in this at all and went along with it because, without a full education, she felt she would be stuck in poverty forever.
She got Straight D’s her first year about which her mother wasn’t too happy, but she blamed it on the lackluster social scene and the strangling conditions of college, which was loads more difficult than her high school had been. Sophomore year she got C’s and B’s, and by Junior year she was on honor roll. Senior year is the year she met her future husband, Frank. In her senior year Gladys began working at Reynolds Tobacco Company to try and make enough money to get an apartment of her own while looking for a teaching job. She had to take the bus to-and-from work because she didn’t have a car of her own. Her future husband noticed this and offered her a ride one day. She agreed and through said ride, found out they were living a few blocks away from each other. They started riding to and from work together every day. Soon enough he asked her on a date and they fell in love. Gladys laughed heartily as she recalled the moment she thought their relationship would end, and then the moment she knew it wouldn’t. She told Frank that she wanted to go to Florida to “sow her wild oats” and attend grad school. He smiled and told Gladys that they would “sow their wild oats together”...and they have been ever since. ◊
Young Gladys Foster was told by her mother—many, many times—that she will become teacher, just as her brother was told that he would become a doctor. Mrs. Foster sat down with the author to tell him a story of how things worked out years later.