Second Act: Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

I read something recently that said sometimes our fear of loneliness is bigger than our fear of the unknown. Those words were certainly true in my case when I took a huge leap out of my comfort zone into my second act to become a New York Teaching Fellow.

I’d been living in Connecticut and working as a teaching assistant at a large residential school for troubled adolescents for 8 years when I saw the ad for the Teaching Fellows in the Sunday New York Times. I had started working at that school soon after my divorce. My long career as a claims adjuster simultaneously came to an abrupt end when I could no longer focus on my work. I had been married to my husband for 15 years, had 2 children with him, didn’t want a divorce and all but had a nervous breakdown when my marriage ended. Getting a job at that residential school saved me; it was so entirely different a work environment than my corporate world had been that I had to wake up from my sad state and develop a whole new skill set and way of relating to colleagues and students.

So, back to that Sunday New York Times ad. Initial group interviews were being held on a Saturday a couple of weekends hence. They were being held at a high school that was one block from where my Dad’s apartment was located on Fourteenth Street. I thought about applying. My children were pretty much grown. My daughter was living on her own and my son was in his senior year of high school. He would graduate just as my teacher training began in the coming summer. My present apartment lease was a month to month so I could move out at any time. I hadn’t remarried so I was free as a bird in my single state. And I was lonely at times and starting to get a bit bored with being a teaching assistant. I was 51 years old and at somewhat of a standstill in my life.

I called my father, always so wise and thoughtful when I needed his advice. He encouraged me to apply. In fact, he seemed more excited than I was. I could stay with him during the application weekend, and I knew his supportive presence would buoy me up. His closing words were, “It’s worth a chance, Janice.”

I took that chance and not long after that group interview and then a private one later that same day, I was accepted into the Fellowship. It came with a 2-year commitment to teach in a large urban school and enrollment in a Masters in Education graduate program at no cost to me. ‘What’s not to like?’ as they say in New York. I accepted the offer, moved in with my Dad and the next two years were among the best two years of my life.

teaching class - second act

I learned a lot about second acts with that experience. After finishing my fellowship, I happened into my second act almost by accident. One quiet Sunday afternoon sitting with a cup of tea and casually perusing the Sunday papers. I wasn’t even consciously looking for a second act but almost without thinking about it, I submitted my online application right after talking with my Dad.

The interview packet that arrived a few days later instructed me to prepare a 15-minute lesson plan that I would be “teaching” to a small group of fellow applicants. A blackboard would be provided but I should bring my own materials beyond that. As a teaching assistant, I was only required to maintain order and control in the classroom and I never developed lesson plans. But I came up with a plan to teach what a poetic couplet is about. I brought a couple of pieces of chalk to the interview. Other applicants were arriving with boxes of visual aids and handouts to go along with their lesson plans.

I realized I hadn’t researched or prepared very well. I was very lucky that my simple lesson plan was well received by the interview panel and somehow led to a hiring offer. I would advise anyone though to prepare and research as much as possible when considering a second act and don’t trust the outcome to luck. The Fellowship needed something I had to offer. To this day I don’t know exactly what it was but I definitely should have been better prepared. The year I entered the Fellowship there were 2100 applicants. I was one of 325 accepted.

My other best piece of advice is don’t assume that the present you is going to stay just the way you are. In fact, you may not want to. I assumed that due to my age I probably wouldn’t make any new friends among my colleagues all of whom looked like recent college grads on that interview Saturday. I was so wrong!

It turned out that there were all ages in my teaching cohort, which was a group of us that taught in the same school by day and attended the same evening graduate classes. Because we were together for most of our weekdays and evenings there was a wonderful esprit de corps among us. We helped each other adjust to our new careers as teachers and for many of us our new big city living environment. Those of us who were born-and-bred New Yorkers helped those of us who weren’t with the most basic advice about subway routes, how to cross the street without getting run over by those crazy New York drivers and how to navigate a pedestrian crowded sidewalk with an open umbrella during a vicious rainstorm….yes, that’s a thing! I made friends of all ages, that sixteen years later, I still count among my closest.

central park second act

By stepping out of my comfort zone into my second act, I changed from a somewhat lonely divorced empty nester to a “City person”… adventurous enough to go anywhere by myself on the subway and knowledgeable about how to get there. I discovered new restaurants with new cuisines (Kosher Indian is also a thing for those that didn’t know!), famous museums that I could explore time and again, weekend walks around the Central Park reservoir or a stroll through Chinatown and decompressing at the South Sea Seaport every Friday after a long work week.

A few months into my second act I almost didn’t recognize myself in that happy, savvy city person I had become. I wish you luck in your second act!


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