As a little girl in Missouri, Penny Kyle thought that teaching was “the greatest thing.” Seventy-plus years later, nestled in the study of her 1930s Tudor house in Detroit, she adds wryly, “I didn’t know any better. Well, teaching isn’t the greatest thing. It’s low pay, and it’s very difficult work.”
A full-time middle-school teacher, she finds the hardest part is being accountable for the actions of others: “You are held responsible for whether that child learns or not. You are held responsible for how that child acts in the classroom. When you go into teaching, you don’t know that.” Yet she likes the kids, appreciates the routine, and cherishes the financial autonomy.
Growing up, everyone Kyle knew in black society was a teacher or a professional, “because there was so much racism in the job market. If you got to be a doctor or a lawyer, you’d be sure of getting a job, because you could work for yourself.” Schools were segregated, so teaching was also sanctioned. Her first position was as a physical education instructor in a junior high in Royal Township, a black community outside Detroit. Within a year she’d married William Kyle, a physician 11 years her senior who was eager to have kids. Three sons followed in three years, and her husband did not want her to work. “We had a lot of controversy about that,” she allowed. “So I did stay home, for the most part.”
Dr. Kyle made good money and he was generous, but as the breadwinner he handled all the finances. Instead of letting his wife pay the household bills the way her mother had, he handed them over to his medical office assistant. “I just felt dumb and stupid, because I wasn’t doing anything. I just idolized the women that I saw working. I thought perhaps they were smarter than I was,” his wife admitted. Their oldest son Chip used to say, “If my mommy and daddy ever get divorced, I’m going with Daddy, cause he’s the one with the money.”
A loyal wife and mother, Kyle stayed home until the boys were college age, then enrolled in a masters program at Wayne State and got her teaching certificate renewed. “Billy was not in favor of it to begin with, but I’d gotten more backbone, and then he did become supportive. And when I started to work the second time, I just felt good getting up in the morning, being in the rush hour traffic. I had a better opinion of myself,” she recalled. Given college tuition, five cars, and car insurance for three males in their 20’s, the extra income came in handy. One thing she did with it was buy Chip a car, “and that was something, you know, because my husband was buying all the cars,” she recounted with a smile.
After 32 years teaching high-school phys ed, Kyle retired in 1992 at age 63. Then she put in five years as the office manager for her youngest son, who had joined his father’s medical practice. Then it was home again, to “a lot of babysitting” for her four preschool-aged grandchildren, “and I said, “Hmm, other people workin’, and they’re getting paid.’” This time around, cutbacks in the Detroit school system have reduced Kyle’s options. She has to work as the “building sub” (a full-time substitute teacher) wherever she’s assigned, five days a week, with no benefits or contract. “I didn’t like the idea to begin with, but full-time is more money, and if you get in a nice school, the kids get to know you,” she told me. These days she’s teaching social studies and filling in for a vacancy, which is harder because she has to plan lessons, grade students, and hold parent-teacher conferences. “They should have a contract teacher in the job, but because it’s so cheap they’ll often use people like me, pay me two cents a day. It’s unfair to the kids,” Kyle ruefully pointed out.
The teacher feels more competent than ever in the classroom. “I’m older and I have more sense. If the kids don’t want to do something, I just say, ‘Well, it’s your choice. If you don’t want to do the assignment, just be quiet.’ Before, I would say, ‘If you don’t do it, this is going to happen and this is going to happen.’ They all come around and do it.” Kyle’s attitude towards the nature of the job has also grown more philosophical. “Don’t let it drive you crazy if things in the classroom don’t go the way you think they should, cause there’s only so much you can do as a substitute teacher,” she counseled with a shrug of her narrow shoulders.
Kyle doesn’t look anywhere near her age, but as she observed with a laugh, “They all — kids, teachers, administrators — want to know how old I am.” You can hear her stock reply on the audio clip below. The information’s readily available (for starters, Kyle has to show her driver’s license every time she enters the building) but she doesn’t think their knowing it would make much difference. “I’m already perceived differently,” she commented tartly. “I’m probably the oldest person in the building, everywhere I go. It doesn’t bother me, because I’d rather be alive than dead!”
Kyle has no retirement plans and says she works because she wants to. “I enjoy the extra money,” she added. “It makes life easier, it makes me happier, and I like to do things for people that are dear to me.” Still, there’s ambivalence. If she were retired, “my life wouldn’t be so rushy-rushy, and I could do more of the things that I like doing.” That list includes golfing, cooking, exercising a back injured in childhood, and above all, spending more time with the grandchildren her schedule now allows little time for. “This is what happened in life, and I’m dealing with it,” she mused. “I think if I had more money I wouldn’t work.” Then, in the next breath, “But I don’t know. I like working.”
There’s nothing equivocal in her immediate response to another question, one that typically inspires considerable reflection. What one thing in her life would she have done differently? “I would have worked instead of staying home,” she replied instantly. “You’re more independent, you have more autonomy, and it makes you a better person, because you learn to defend yourself and you just get to be stronger.” I wonder if this diminutive, self-effacing woman is far stronger than she knows. She’s equally quick with advice for my generation: “Save your money. You’re going to need it.”
Billy & Penny Kyle