Learning Curve

Learning Curve

Preparing for the first day of school, new teacher Naomi Rubinstein thinks she has found her calling

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It’s a sticky summer day, and the halls of Potomac Elementary School are unnaturally quiet. In a few weeks, hundreds of kids will burst through the main doors of this white brick building, carrying freshly sharpened pencils and new lunchboxes. Some parents will wipe away a tear as their children step over the threshold into kindergarten, while other parents will secretly rejoice that summer has finally ended.

But right now, the classrooms are empty and still. Except for one.

Inside Classroom 5, Naomi Rubinstein looks around as a smile slowly spreads across her face. The walls are painted yellow, sunlight filters in through two windows, and a blue-gray carpet covers the floor.

Naomi has big plans for that carpet.

Naomi is 27 years old, and this will be her first year as a teacher. She is nervous, excited, and most of all, happy. Happy because after three years of working 80 or 90-hour weeks as a financial analyst in New York City, she has finally found the job she believes she was meant to do all along: teach fourth grade.

Not that Naomi wasn’t successful in New York. Straight out of college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she pulled down a salary that approached six figures. She analyzed European stocks, jetted to London for meetings, and often took a company limousine to her apartment when she finished her workday— at 3 a.m. When her boyfriend came up from D.C. one weekend and proposed to her during their morning jog around Central Park, she couldn’t even linger to have breakfast with him afterward.

“I had,” she says softly, and with a trace of sadness, “no life.”

When, she sometimes wonders, did the first exhilarating thought enter her mind, telling her things didn’t have to be like this? Was it during a conversation with her new mother-in-law, Judy Rubinstein, who adored her job as a second-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary School in Rockville? Was it when Naomi began to feel a nagging sense of unease that she was working too hard, yet giving too little back to the community? Certainly any lingering doubts about switching careers had vanished by the time Naomi began student teaching in Harlem and met a sad little girl whose aunt had just died.

“I think I became a support system for her,” Naomi says, recalling how she read the little girl books and comforted her with talks during the school day. And it’s clear that this accomplishment—while maybe not as glamorous as the 4.0 GPA she achieved at Hunter College while getting her master’s degree in Childhood Education after quitting her job—really matters to her.

So last spring, while wrapping up her accelerated 18-month master’s program, Naomi began sending her résumé out to the same Montgomery County public school system she went through while growing up in Rockville. Naomi, who attended Wayside Elementary and Julius West Middle School, before graduating from Richard Montgomery High School in 1996, knew she’d be taking a big pay cut: The salary for Montgomery County teachers with master’s degrees is roughly $45,000. But somehow, that didn’t matter a bit.

Linda Goldberg, the silver-haired, high-energy principal of Potomac Elementary, couldn’t be more happy than if she’d won the lottery—which in a way, she feels like she has.

When she glimpsed Naomi’s résumé, Goldberg knew she wanted to snap her up—and she knew a lot of other principals would, too, “She would’ve had dozens of offers. Dozens!” Goldberg says, almost gleefully.

So, when Goldberg went to New York to visit her son last spring, she tucked Naomi’s phone number into her purse. The two women met at a coffee shop, and an hour later, Goldberg was completely won over by Naomi’s work ethic, kindness and enthusiasm for teaching. Two other schools also quickly offered Naomi a job, but by midsummer she made her decision: She wanted to work at Potomac Elementary.

And now, on this muggy summer day, Goldberg has invited Naomi to the school to pick out her classroom.

It was the blue-gray carpet that sealed Naomi’s choice. It makes the room seem so cozy and inviting, and Naomi can envision her fourth-graders gathered in a circle on the carpet as she reads them a book. “Reading should be cherished,” she says.

Naomi is a bit anxious about the responsibility she carries on her slim shoulders, because she cares so much about the students she hasn’t even met yet. “I want to have a sense of community and warmth and comfort in my class,” she continues. “I want kids to know they can raise their hands if they don’t understand something. I want my students to know that everyone in the classroom is a friend.”

Now it’s time to leave Classroom 5 to the maintenance workers who are painting and cleaning it.

Naomi can’t wait to come back.

Chevy Chase writer Sarah Pekkanen has written for the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, Washingtonian and People.

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