I met Marjorie Waterman in a Facebook writing group. When I heard a bit about her life’s journey, I just knew I had to ask her share it in WomanPause. Thankfully, she graciously agreed to an interview! Marjorie is an amazing example of a life-long learner. She has done important work for Job Corps, in the field of disaster relief, and as a teacher in jail. Close to 80 years young, Marjorie is still going strong! She’s written a book about her experiences working in jail; she takes Pilates classes regularly, and is always on the lookout for the next new adventure. I hope Marjorie will inspire you as much as she does me!
Diane: Good morning!
Marjorie: Good morning!
Diane: When we first spoke and you told me about your life, I said, “I have to interview this woman!” And here we are! Tell us about your years teaching in a Miami-Dade County.
Marjorie: A lot of people don’t know the difference between jail and prison. Jails are run by counties and prisons are run by state and the federal governments. Jails incarcerate people who are waiting to go to trial or who have been sentenced to 364 days or less. 365, and you go to prison.
Diane : Let me ask you a question. I’m pretty familiar with the prison system in New York but not in Florida. Are trials speedy in Florida?
Marjorie: No. Diane, I had students who were in jail as long as six years.
Diane: Awaiting trial?
Marjorie: Yeah, just waiting for trial. Sitting in jail when it wasn’t determined that they were guilty!
Diane: Right. That’s a whole other story. Tell me about how you got involved, how you got this job.
Marjorie: Well, I’ve written a book, and all that’s in my book. It’s not published yet. I’m seeking an agent at the moment. An editor contacted me. She read some of my stuff and said, “I would like to promote your book.” I was really excited, because she contacted me. That never happens!
Diane: That’s amazing.
Marjorie: Four months later, after it went to the final senior editor, they decided not to take it. That was very frustrating.
Moving to Miami
Marjorie: In the meantime, I have been trying to learn and submit to agents. I don’t like marketing myself.
But, back to the way I got involved in the jail. I was actually living in Louisville, Kentucky, working for Job Corps as administrator. I had five or six different jobs with them. I was a lab tech and an EMT, so they asked me to be the night nurse for a while. Then I was a residential supervisor. When they decided to open a center in Miami, I requested a transfer because I hate cold weather.
In Miami, I was a deputy director of the program. I did a linkage with the Department of Labor and Dade County Public Schools to provide teachers for the Job Corps. That allowed the feds to get free teachers from the state, and it allowed the school system to get the money for the students. It was a win/win situation.
While working with the school system, I became friends with a principal who offered me a job. She’s like, “You have to take a couple of classes to get certified as a teacher.” My degree was in Sociology, and I had a partial Masters in Social Work, but teaching offered better pay, better hours, better everything.
I taught at the Job Corps until Hurricane Andrew. When Andrew happened, I had just recently gotten married. My husband became the Disaster Manager for the Archdiocese of Miami. He was assigned to a disaster relief site at Saint Ann’s Mission, and he wanted me to go with him. I took a one-year leave of absence, and we operated and lived at a tent city for almost a year.
Diane: Wow. Look at you!
“He Sent Me to Jail!”
Marjorie: I did a lot of different stuff. Every skill I’d ever acquired in life was put into play.
Diane: When was the Andrew?
Marjorie: Andrew was in ’92.
Diane: ’92. Okay. So you ran a tent city for a year. Where was this?
Marjorie: It was in Naranja, Florida, right outside of Homestead, Florida. That’s where the strongest part of the storm hit. That was a whole other amazing experience.
When I came back to the school system, the new principal was mad at me. He hadn’t wanted me to take a year’s leave of absence. So he sent me to jail!. He thought he was punishing me, but it turned out to be the biggest passion of my life.
Diane: Did you feel like it was a punishment at first?
Marjorie: No. Actually, I’m the kind of person who’s really curious about things, and I’ve always liked helping people and working with all different kinds of people. I was very curious about the jail system and the prison system. I love learning about subcultures.
“The Officer Had to Bring the Students to Class in Chains”
Diane: How does a classroom work in a jail?
Marjorie: That’s a very good question. First of all, I had a one-room schoolhouse. I had students that could not read at all, or just barely, and I had students who were ready for college. There were 15 students. That was the maximum I could take because the officer had to bring the students to class in chains. They were called six-packs because there were six sets of handcuffs on each chain. He could only carry three chains, because they were really, really heavy. I also had 3 tutors per class. The officer allowed them to be handcuffed but not attached to the chains, so that allowed for a total of 18 people in class. I had 2 classes daily. Women in the morning and men in the afternoon.
The tutors didn’t happen immediately but later on, after I trained them. I needed to be able to teach everyone in the class at their proper level. There was no way I could teach from first grade to college all at the same time by myself.
Diane: Did you teach every subject?
Marjorie: Yes. The GED requires reading, math, social studies, science and writing.
“The Ironic Part Was They Thought I Was the Best Math Teacher They Ever Had”
Diane: Did you have to go back and relearn algebra?
Marjorie: I was terrible at math and was freaking out because I didn’t know how I was going to teach it. I didn’t remember fractions, decimals, or percents. So I took the books home and figured out that all math is adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. The higher levels just involved knowing the vocabulary and the rules.
I was good at vocabulary and decided I could learn the rules. I figured out a way to teach myself, and that was how I taught my students. The ironic part was they thought I was the best math teacher they ever had.
Diane: That’s great. How is classroom management in jail?
Marjorie: I think it fit my natural personality because I’m very straightforward and have a strong personality. I was very tough, but I was also very fair. One chapter in my book is about Anastasia, a girl I threw out of my class three times for bad behavior. I always gave second and third chances. Students who got evicted had to write me a letter of apology asking permission to return. My boss said that was how my students learned writing skills.
The third time I let her back in, she got her GED. A month later, my boss called and said, “What did you do to Anastasia?” I said, “What do you mean? She’s not here anymore. After she passed her GED, they moved her to another facility.” He said, “Yes, I know.” He started laughing, “I got a call from the captain of that facility. Anastasia tutored four students to prepare them for the GED, and they all passed the test.”
Diane: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Marjorie: She came back to my facility and became a tutor.
Diane: That’s wonderful.
“I Had One Student as Long as Three Years. He’s in Prison Now, and I’m Still Trying to Help Him”
Diane: So some of the people you knew for a short time, I’m guessing they were in and out, and others you knew for a longer time?
Marjorie: Right. I had one student as long as three years. He’s in prison now, and I’m still trying to help him. I had other students that were there for just a few days, because if they got in a fight, they would get moved. Sometimes it was medical. There were a variety of reasons for why they came and went.
Diane: Got you. How long did you teach in jail?
Marjorie: 20 years.
Diane: 20 years, wow. And you recently retired?
Marjorie: I’ve been retired since 2010. I’ve been writing my book since then.
Diane: Okay. I was going to ask what retirement looks like for you, and it’s writing?
Marjorie: Writing and Pilates. I’ve taken a bunch of writing classes, and I joined a group called Friday Night Writers with John Dufresne, a professor at FIU. He leads the group every other Friday night where we each can submit what we’ve written, up to 20 pages. We then bring a copy for everybody and edit everybody else. John edits everybody too.
Diane: Twenty pages from each person?
Marjorie: Yeah. We number the submissions as they come in and review them in the order they were numbered. We actually review about six or seven a night.
Diane: How many in the group?
Marjorie: There are about 20. People come and go in that group also, but I’d say there’s a pretty solid core of 20.
Diane: Wow, That’s a lot of pages.
Marjorie: It is, but it’s really very helpful. I personally enjoy editing, so I don’t mind. Some people edit very minimally, and some people do more. That varies also.
“I Have to Be Involved”
Diane: What’s your style?
Marjorie: I edit. I edit a lot. I’m better as a line editor than a content editor. Because I catch mistakes faster, but I’m getting better at content too. I like both. I’ve actually had a couple of people hire me to do editing for them.
Diane: That’s wonderful.
Marjorie: That’s a little side thing.
Diane: Look at you. That’s fabulous.
Marjorie: I have to be involved.
Diane: I can tell. I can tell, and that’s a fabulous quality. So you said you helped run a tent city. I want to hear about that. What was that like?
From Honeymoon to Tent City
Marjorie: Well, when I did the tent city it was with my then husband. He was the Emergency Manager for the Archdiocese. We got a call asking us to go to St. Ann’s Mission, which was in Naranja. We had been on our honeymoon in Key West when the storm struck. When we got to Naranja about four days later, there was a nun, a priest, and a medic from the state.
They handed us this wad of keys and said, “We have to take a break. We’re exhausted.” Then they left. I looked at my husband and said, “Do you think they know they just turned this whole parish over to two Jews?” We broke out laughing. But it was chaos. We had all these donations, boxes stacked higher than I could see, and half the boxes were junk. People just threw everything they didn’t want in them.
Diane: Yeah, that’s terrible.
Marjorie: The first thing was organizing. At first, we didn’t have a tent city. I had been an EMT and a lab tech, so we opened a mini clinic in the chapel because the hospital in Homestead had been destroyed. The mission had this grouping of little buildings. We had a room where we gave out food, a clothing room, and a clinic. Volunteers brought their own tents.
At some point Admiral Young, who was then the national Director of Health and Human Services, came to visit us. Admiral Young asked Bruce, my husband, what we needed. He said, “We need a tent city, because these people have nowhere to live. They don’t want to go to North Miami. Some of them have jobs that they can still do, and kids in school.”
“Bruce Had Been in the 82nd Airborne in the Viet-Nam War, So the Colonel Couldn’t Do Enough for Us”
Admiral Young managed to get us a million-dollar grant to set up a tent city. Then the military arrived. It was the 82nd Airborne. Bruce had been in the 82nd Airborne in the Viet-Nam War, so the colonel couldn’t do enough for us. He brought us earth-moving machines and refrigeration units, and everything we needed. After a while, we had about 300 people in these tents. Half of them were Mexican migrant workers and the other half were HUD dwellers. It was a diverse population. The Cutler Ridge police chief tried to stop it from happening.
Marjorie: He said, “You’ve got mixed races. You’ve got drugs and alcohol and child abuse and domestic violence. You’re going to have all kinds of problems.” But we brought every agency in the community to our tent city. We had two trailers with a bunch of desks, and everybody shared space. We had one man that was on oxygen with a triple redundancy backup system on a generator. He had children. His wife was a drug addict. She ran off and the kids needed help. We brought in all these services, and I got the school system to bring in programs. We had pre-K and daycare, and after school tutoring too.
Diane: Was their school destroyed?
Marjorie: Some were. We created a tent-city school.
“The New York Times Magazine Wrote an 8-Page Story About Us, and We Were on TV Nightly”
Marjorie: Almost every service that a community offers was at our tent city. We had transportation and employment counselors, health care workers, and family services, along with FEMA and RED Cross, Salvation Army and so many more, and volunteers, thousands of them,
Diane: Wow, that must have been fascinating.
Marjorie: Yeah, it was fascinating, and it was amazing. The Miami New Times Magazine wrote an 8-page story about us, and we were on TV nightly. The police chief who tried to stop our venture later bragged to everybody he could find about what an amazing thing we had done, because we had zero crime rate.
Marjorie: The tent city ended about nine months after it started because the county and the church got into a fight over the property and the county closed it down. They moved all our residents into FEMA trailers and all hell broke loose.
Diane: Really? Why do you think that is?
Marjorie: Because there were no social services offered anymore.
Diane: Oh, they just threw them in trailers and gave them nothing else?
“I Took Philosophy and Ceramics. One for My Head and One for My Body”
Diane: You were a social worker before and an EMT. What other interesting things have you done?
Marjorie: I started out as a lab tech. I only went to college for a year before that. When I got married the first time, my husband, who was going to law school said, “Why don’t you go and take some classes with me?” So I decided I would take philosophy and ceramics. One for my head and one for my body, right? I loved both of them.
I kept taking classes, but by then I had four children, so I was only taking two classes every semester. It took me 10 years to graduate. But I didn’t really care because I was raising kids. When I got divorced, I took a job as a fashion coordinator because my cousin owned a clothing store in Charlotte, North Carolina. That was the only job I could find at the time. Then a position with the state opened up back in Louisville for an employment counselor. I went to visit all the programs. Job Corps was one of them. I thought it was a great program. So I told the director if they ever had an opening, I’d like to work there. Soon after that I was hired. My first position was as a recreation supervisor.
“Every Time You Feel Angry, I Want You to Go Out in the Field and Pick Up a Brick and Throw It as Far as You Can”
Diane: Tell us what Job Corps is.
Marjorie: Job Corps is a program for low-income kids and young adults between the age of 16 and 26 who want to learn a trade and earn a diploma, either GED or college. They can live at the center in a residential program, and Job Corps provides everything free—room and board, clothing, medical care, recreation. If it’s run well, it’s a fantastic program. It’s the only program that survived out of all Johnson’s CETA programs back in the day.
I began as a recreation supervisor, then as a residential supervisor. Then I became the night nurse. The nurse quit and because the center was out in the country, few people wanted to work there. The director said, “We’ll train you as an EMT, if you’ll take the job as the night nurse.” I said, “Okay.”
I had a young suicidal patient; he had cut his wrist three times. They had to put steel stitches in his arm because he kept breaking them. I had him come talk to me every night. He said, “I get so angry. I get so angry.” I said, “Well, there’s a field out behind your dorm, and there’s a bunch of bricks out there.” (There was a new building under construction behind his dorm.) I said, “Every time you feel angry, go out in the field, pick up a brick and throw it as far as you can. Just keep throwing bricks until you feel better.” That night I got a call from the dorm saying, “You got to come over here ASAP. There’s a kid going nuts. He’s out in the field throwing bricks.” I said, “He’s doing exactly what I told him to do. Leave him alone.” The boy did okay after that.
“I Like People. I Like Cultures, and I Appreciate Cultural Differences”
Marjorie: I don’t know, I think I have a natural affinity for dealing with troubled young adults. I’ve raised four kids. I’ve learned a lot that way. When I came to the newly opened Job Corps program in Miami, I was promoted to manager and was in charge of support services. That included food services, site maintenance, health care, and transportation. I was also acting director whenever the director was away. All of the things I learned during this time came into play with Hurricane Andrew and the disaster work, and also teaching in jail.
Diane: That’s amazing, and you really had to learn a lot on the job.
Marjorie: It was mostly, on-the-job training. My work also prepared me for dealing with all kinds of people … I don’t know. I think I just have a natural affinity for this work. I like people. I like cultures, and I appreciate cultural differences.
Diane: That’s wonderful. So you also mentioned to me, growing up you were you were Jewish in an area that didn’t have many Jews?
Marjorie: Right. Louisville, Kentucky is where I was born. But I was born a Christian Scientist, I forgot to tell you that part.
Diane: Okay. Fill me in.
“I Freaked Out and Said, ‘We Can’t Be Jewish!’”
Marjorie: My father had a crisis in faith and joined the Christian Science Church before I was born. When I was about four or five, he started taking me to Kindergarten Summer Bible School and church. I thought I was a Christian Scientist. One day, when I was eight years old, he came home and said, “We’re Jewish and we’re going to join the temple.”
I freaked out and said, “We can’t be Jewish. The Jews killed Christ. We can’t be Jewish.” So he had the rabbi come every week to give me lessons, and then I got very passionate about my new, true faith. Both of my parents were born Jewish. But in Louisville in the late ’50s, early ’60s, a lot of prejudice still existed. There were places Jews couldn’t live, and there were clubs Jews couldn’t belong to. We had a swastika painted on our garage door one time. That was so traumatic.
At one point, my father decided he wanted to have a farm. He was in the meat business, but he decided he wanted to be a country farmer on weekends. So he bought a farm. I was too young to drive, and all of my friends lived on the other side of town. We were far away from everybody I knew. All of my schoolmates were either blue bloods or farmers. I didn’t fit into either group, so I had a very difficult time. I think that’s partly what made me compassionate toward other people. I went through a lot myself in terms of feeling rejected, you know?
Diane: Absolutely. I think most of us who are in these fields have had that kind of experience somewhere along the line. It’s also part of the human experience in general, but some of us have more than others.
Marjorie: Yes, I agree.
“Don’t Diminish Me Because of My Age. I’m Still Kicking.”
Diane: So this blog is for women over 50 primarily, although everybody’s welcome. As you grow older, what are your thoughts? I find it very freeing in a lot of ways. How do you feel about aging?
Marjorie: I find it very freeing in a lot of ways, but I also find that there’s a lot of age discrimination. People at the grocery always ask me, “Do you want me to take your things to the car?” I carry my own groceries.
Diane: Does it offend you when people ask?
Marjorie: No, it doesn’t offend me, but it makes me aware that there’s ageism. I think sometimes a question like that is a nice thing and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it feels like a put down. I’ve even had to have a word with my own son, because he made a comment to someone, implying I was aging. I said, “Don’t diminish me because of my age, I’m still kicking.”
Elders have so much to offer. I think nursing homes are just awful. I hope somebody will kill me before I ever have to enter one. It’s really important to understand that people who have lived as long as I’ve lived have value…. I’m almost 80, by the way, Diane …
Diane: Wow, wow.
Marjorie: Elders have a lot of wisdom if they’ve lived a productive life. They have a lot to offer. As for bullying … you told me you were interested in bullying … the elders experience that also. Many people diminish and ignore people of a certain age or treat them as though they’re feeble when they’re not. I think elders can BECOME feeble if they buy into that.
“I Can Still Stand on My Head!”
Diane: Yeah. I think that has a lot to do with it too. You don’t seem to me to be a person who is slowing down.
Marjorie: I can still stand on my head!
Diane: Do you do yoga?
Marjorie: I do yoga, mostly Pilates. I think it addresses more of the body’s issues. I don’t know exactly how to explain that. I think Pilates is a little less stressful on the body.
Diane: So you have a strong core.
Marjorie: I hope so. I keep working at it.
Diane: What is next for you? I know you have this book.
Marjorie: The thing I want most right now … three things actually. I want to publish my book, because I think I’ve written something important. I think the experience I had will help people understand the justice system and how messed up it is. I also have become much more aware of my relationship with my family. I’d like to enhance that even more, and I’m still working to help get one of my former students out of prison. I believe he was wrongfully convicted.
I’m always looking for new opportunities. If something were to come along that interests me, I would pick up on it.
Diane: Sounds like you would. I have no doubts. Okay. Is there anything else you want to share with us?
“The Only Fight That Ever Occurred in My Class in 20 Years Was on a Day I Was Absent”
Marjorie: I was going to addressing the bullying issue again. That is something that occurred in jail a lot, but not in my classroom. I made it very clear from the beginning that there would be no fighting, no arguing and no nastiness, that we were all part of the same group. My students bought into that and became a peer group.
The only fight that ever occurred in my class in 20 years was on a day I was absent. We had an officer who was a substitute, and she allowed an argument to get out of hand. My students were freaking out. They said, “That never would have happened if you were here.”
Diane: That’s wonderful.
Marjorie: I didn’t have to keep anybody that was a disciplinary problem. It was adult education, not K through 12—they have to go to school. There was a K through 12 program there, but it wasn’t very effective. All of my students were 18 and up. If they misbehaved, I could just put them out. That was a big lesson.
Diane: So you had an officer in the room?
Marjorie: Well, sometimes he was in the room. A lot of times he sat out in the hallway and went for coffee. But I didn’t care about that because I trusted my students to protect me more than I trusted the officers. That particular officer was very good, but I felt most of the officers were more dangerous than the students. They were mean. They were bullies and they perpetrated that.
Diane: I hear that a lot.
“It Was Just an Osmosis of All the Different Things I Dad Done and Seen”
Marjorie: I was very big on life skills. I taught all the GED subjects, but I also had a discussion group every Friday. The students could talk about anything they wanted. I had four students from the juvie program who requested to come to my class. I had to go get special permission from the captain, but he allowed it. They all got GEDs within the first two or three months they were with me, and they were only in 10th grade based on the K through 12 program. They were all about almost ready to be released, so they needed those GEDs to go out and get jobs.
Diane: That’s so wonderful. I mean, really, what a service you provided.
Marjorie: I think it was something really valuable, and that’s why I’d like to see the book published. I think I could help other people learn and understand better ways to do things. I just did it off the hip. I don’t think I ever got any real training for any of this. It was just an osmosis of all the different things I had done and seen.
Diane: That seems to be your style.
Marjorie: It does. I mean, ideas come to me.
Diane: That’s wonderful. It’s like, whatever comes to you is what you need to do next. It builds on what came before, which is fabulous. Well, anything else you want to share with us?
Marjorie: I just want to share a bit about a former student of mine who is currently in prison. I’m trying to help him because I believe he was wrongfully accused and convicted.
Diane: Please do!
“I Was All He Had, So I Became His Advocate and I’ve Been Helping Him Ever Since”
Marjorie: Christopher Sutton was in my class for three years. He was in jail for six years before his trial. He wrote a memoir while he was in jail and asked me if I would help edit it. I did.
He was adopted at four days old. His father is a personal injury attorney. His mother is dead. She was shot and killed. The father was shot and blinded. His story was on Dateline and 48 hours.
Diane: Wow. What was he was convicted of?
Marjorie: Conspiracy to commit murder.
Diane: His parents?
Marjorie: Yes. His only hope was to get new evidence. He recently did that and has submitted a motion for an appeal and a new trial. So this is just at the beginning stages. Nothing has really happened yet, but hopefully he’ll get a new trial and will win his freedom.
Marjorie: I attended his first trial when I had just retired. I was all he had, so I became his advocate and I’ve been helping him ever since. He’s now 40 years old.
Marjorie: He is really, really smart. He’s also a bit manipulative, and I know that. I know his flaws, but I still believe he’s innocent. That’s why I’m attempting to help him. I am friends with Judge Tom Peterson, who was a juvenile judge here for 40 years. Tom has agreed to talk with me about the case, see if we can find a pro bono lawyer. We need a lawyer for him. There is a chapter on Chris in my book. The epilogue is about how the system is broken.
Diane: I can’t wait to read it! This has been wonderful. It’s been a real treat.
Marjorie: This has been a treat for me too. I enjoyed it.
Diane: I appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.
Marjorie: You, too.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please leave a comment or send me an email!
Wishing you all a wonderful week!
See you next Friday!