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I have my stories which I have been telling about Joan forever. Joan is my good ex-wife. We got married when we were way too young, hoping to become adults, and had gone our separate ways 9 years later when the time had come. In the meantime, we had helped each other grow up. When people have worried to me about how they couldn’t afford to walk away from a soul-killing job, and couldn't take the cut in salary that change in career might entail, I have a story.

Joan and I were living on our two salaries. I was working full-time at the community mental health center while doing my doctoral course work, and Joan was teaching at an elementary school in Queens. We were comfortable with our relatively spartan existence when it became clear that I was never going to get my Ph.D. if I kept working full time. I cut back to half time. A quarter of our income disappeared. Joan didn’t flinch.

A couple of months later, Joan knew that she needed to make a change. She gave up her teaching job for a volunteer position at the UN with the Sierra Club. We were now living on 25% of our income from a year earlier. We were fine.

Joan and I have remained friends. Living in different cities, we seldom see each other, but we talk on the phone, usually twice a year on our birthdays.

I have always appreciated how much Joan grew after she “got rid of me.” That has been my way of teasing myself. By the time we split up, Joan’s volunteer position had morphed into a full-time job. She went on to law school, and then went on to work for a Brooklyn assemblywoman. Joan ended up as the Counsel for the Assembly Committee on Women when her assemblywoman became chair. I was impressed.

When Paco and I made a road trip to Albany, hoping to raise money from Paco’s pals in the legislature, I told him as we walked the halls, “We have to see if we can find Joan.” We checked her assemblywoman’s office, but Joan wasn’t there. “Could you tell her Ken Byalin stopped by?” And we left, continuing our unsuccessful, money-seeking meandering.

It was probably an hour later that we saw Joan coming toward us down the hall. I’m not sure how long it had been since I’d seen her. First a hug, and then I introduced Paco.

Paco was always a character, and that day he was in rare form. “Ken never told me that his first wife was so beautiful.”

That was pure, vintage Paco. Joan didn’t miss a beat, smiling, “You must be Puerto Rican.”

We all laughed. “Wow, how Joan has changed and grown,” I thought. When we were married, Paco would have thrown her off stride. I could still imagine her blushing.

On my birthday phone call this winter, Joan and I were reminiscing. I was sharing memories of people she had taught with. They had cropped up in various ways in my first novel or perhaps in a blog. One colleague and her husband stood out, but I couldn’t remember their names. Joan couldn’t either.

Laughing together, Joan shared a reflection which I had never heard before, never anticipated. Teaching, it turned out, was her best job. She told me the story, parts of which I’d heard before. Her boss — I’d forgotten this if I’d ever known it — had become chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee which oversaw the Family Court system. Vaguely, I remembered that. I had the feeling that Joan had told me this when I was still doing mental health evaluations for the Staten Island Family Court.

Neither Joan nor her boss knew anything about the Family Court. To get some first-hand experience, Joan had volunteered as guardian ad litem. I had worked with lawyers in that role, appointed by the court to represent minor children, in custody battles in which the parents’ lawyers frequently saw the kids as pawns in their game. I had always liked the lawyers who spoke up for the kids.

Joan’s experience led her to volunteer at the group home where many of the kids were living while the judges sorted through their parents’ arguments. Joan led a weekly art group at the home. She loved it. It was working with those kids that Joan realized how much she had enjoyed teaching. “I just never got any help as a beginning teacher,” she explained.

I’d never heard this before, but what a resonance.

When we began building our charter school network, my knowledge of K-12 public education was limited. I had, of course, my own growing up experience. I had a bare glimpse of Morrigan’s elementary schooling. I had my mother’s teaching stories which I relied on. Joan’s experience must have been there too in the background, but it was not articulated.

But what an echo! When we wrote the first charter, two facts grounded the narrative. The first — to be expected given the mission of our schools — was the fact that students living with mental illnesses had the lowest high school graduation rate of any disability group in America. The second was that three out of five new teachers left the profession within five years. America’s public schools were not only toxic for too many students, but they were also poisonous for the majority of teachers as well.

We set out to create great schools for students and teachers. Over the years, some of my favorite teachers left us after two or three years, but they didn’t leave teaching. They left for shorter hours or shorter commutes, but they stayed in teaching. I was always proud of that.

Being a beginning teacher, a first-year teacher particularly, may be the hardest job in the world. With no experience and very little training, beginning teachers are plunged into a classroom alone. It’s so easy to get lost. 

Young teachers need nurturing. Too few get the help and support that they need.

I had never realized that Joan was one of those teacher victims of the public education system. I had always thought of her path as one which had taken her higher, but I am seeing it now as a path which took her away from her true calling. What a loss for so many kids, even if she went on to do good in so many other ways.

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I loved Joan. I miss her. You, Ken have a gift for lovely wives,

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