Late Bloomers are guest blog posts at A is for Aging—sharing thoughts and insights from individuals who have launched notable creative efforts in the arts in their Third Age.
Author Letty Sustrin
My life as a “Late Bloomer.” It’s a trip down memory lane, starting in 1938 when my identical twin sister, Sheila, and I were born. My “Baby Sister” as I was born first. I think we had conversations while in mother’s womb—making the decision that we would be elementary school teachers.
By the time we entered Kindergarten our dolls became our students, and we were the “Twin Teachers.” This pattern of teaching and helping others followed us through school and college. Having parents who were avid readers, books became an important part of our lives.
I remember vividly when we were four years old. Our parents took Sheila and I to the Grand Army Plaza Library in Brooklyn. We wanted our own library cards. The librarian looked at this set of skinny twin sisters and asked, “Can you write your name in script? We said “No.” She told our parents that printing our names was not acceptable. They needed a legitimate signature. We went home and practiced with mom. The next weekend found us back at the library, signing our names in script and getting our own library cards.
After graduation in Early Childhood from Brooklyn we looked for teaching positions. Fortune was with us. We went for an interview and the Principal said, “I think you two will be great teachers. If you’ll take a chance with me, I’ll take a chance and hire both of you as Kindergarten teachers.” Thus began 38 wonderful years teaching side-by-side.
We taught Kindergarten for 18 years, and when the school closed, we both became First Grade Teachers. We were known as being a “Great Team.”
Teachers of the Year
In 1978 Sheila and I were chosen as “Brentwood’s Teachers of the Year.” The award is usually given to only one person. Our administrator asked which one he should nominate. We told him, “We’re a team! It’s double or nothing.” We never had any sibling rivalry—I thank our parents for bringing us up right.
We nurtured our students. I like to think we were surrogate mothers to them. Their own mothers had to work full time. To this day I am close to many of our former students. After a certain age, they become your contemporaries and friends.
We retired in 1998 as the timing was perfect. It was a hard decision to make and we spent the whole summer at home crying and saying, “What did we do? Why did we retire? How are we going to spend the rest of our lives not teaching children?” It was a very traumatic time. So in September we want back to our old school as volunteers to help the PTA and the students.
Post-retirement writing careers
Sheila and I always enjoyed writing. We were on the staff of all the newspapers at schools we attended. We talked about this, and our longing to be authors. Friends said “You are too old to start writing. You need to travel and relax.” No way! That was just not our style.
We pondered what we’d like to write about. We realized—we loved teaching, we loved school, we loved kids. THAT”S WHAT OUR LIVES WERE ALL ABOUT! It was easy to create a title. The first book was, The Teacher Who Would Not Retire.
We were very much into the intergenerational scene and wanted an older, traditional teacher. One that would take care of her students like we did. It took about one and a half years to find a publisher (Blue Marlin Publications).
Writing a successful picture book series
Our main character, “Mrs. Belle” became our lucky charm. Children, educators, and seniors fell in love with her. The first book turned into a series! Illustrated by animator/cartoonist Thomas H. Bone III. Mrs. Belle had many escapades with her former pupils. Sheila and I wrote the first five books together.
After Sheila passed away in 2015, I wrote the 6th and final book of the series in her memory, The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Retires! I thought my writing career was over. But I began to find pennies wherever I went, and whenever I felt I needed my sister. I started collecting them.
Then, one day I went to the cemetery to visit her grave, and as I turned away, there in the front of her grave was an old penny laying in the grass. I started to cry, and when I got home I called my cousin to tell her what happened. She told me to write about it. My publisher agreed I should write the story.
Thus, my new book A Penny from My Sister was born.
New Book: A Penny from My Sister
I am very excited about this new book. It’s about a grandmother whose twin sister passed away in childhood. The grandmother tells her grandchildren of how she would find pennies. The pennies made her feel that her sister was watching over her. It is a sweet book, not sad, but it shows that “memories are forever.” Beautifully illustrated by Peter Catalanotto. With the tragedies due to the Covid-19 virus, I hope my book will help the children and their families cope with losses and remember their loved ones.
Volunteer work in my eighties
I am currently a mentor for kids in the Brentwood schools. We seniors in the group work with children who need attention to give them confidence. During the Covid-19 crisis I’ve been a Pen Pal with my 10 year old student. So that he knows he is thought of and cared about. Life is truly still exciting and fruitful, even at age 81.
Images used with permission of the author.
Late Bloomers defy age stereotypes and help show us the way to tap into our creativity using life experience, energy and positive attitudes.
Find more late bloomers guest posts here.
(For further resources, see books Secrets to Becoming a Late Bloomer: Extraordinary ordinary people on the art of staying creative, alive and aware in mid-life and beyond by Connie Goldman & Richard Mahler; The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life by Gene D. Cohen M.D.; What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life by Bruce Frankel.)
“Creativity keeps us fresh, keeps us alive, keeps us moving forward.”
(Rollo May, psychotherapist and author of Courage to Create.)