Retire? I thought I would never do it. I loved my career as a high school teacher, starting at age 21. I often joked that I would have taught for free if I could have. As a child, I knew what I would someday be doing: I would become a teacher. It was that simple. This was my fate.
While I agonized about finally retiring in 2006, I also believed you should go out when you are on top of your game. I had seen too many people become jaded, tired and disillusioned with their careers, and I never wanted to hear: “She used to be such a good teacher.”
My retired friends left for Florida, took up hobbies and read books every day. A few baby-sat for their grandchildren daily. I couldn’t wait for retirement to begin. However sitting by the water every day in September after retiring, contemplating my 36 1⁄2-year career teaching drama, English, reading and writing at Sachem High School North, and also teaching creative writing at Southampton College, I found myself thinking about where I would be that part of the day if I had stayed teaching.
I volunteered in the emergency room at two local hospitals. I loved the patients, but not so much making four-corner sheets on beds. A doctor, who ate with us, suggested I enter the Ms. New York Senior America Pageant. On a dare, I did and won. Then I went on to compete for the 2009 national title.
My life changed as I prepared for the talent portion of the competition by taking ballet lessons with a class of teenagers. I saw eyeballs roll as I entered the dance studio, but within a few months, my classmates helped me. After four days of competition, I won the national Ms. Senior America Pageant in Atlantic City.
Uncertainty can either hold you back or allow you to step outside the box. After 500 appearances across the country as a guest speaker on TV and at Vanderbilt University, I used my sash and title to talk about my cause: breast cancer awareness and how to be not just a survivor, but someone who thrives. I was also teaching others how to help those diagnosed with cancer. I had personal experience: I’m a breast cancer survivor of 42 1⁄2 years.
After winning the title, I wrote articles, became a cover girl and was even published in a book. What lessons I learned from this experience!
My Act II helped me rediscover a sense of self and re-evaluate what was really important to me. I learned that there is no room for complacency while reinventing myself. One step can lead to another. I became a Screen Actors Guild actress and was in the movie “Salt,” on TV’s “Law & Order” and other shows. I am now an author, motivational speaker and host of my own TV show, “LooKING to make a Difference with GAIL” on Cablevision and worldwide on Roku. This has allowed me to interview senators, former gang leaders, artists, popular sports figures, entertainers, actors, public figures and everyday heroes who inspire others.
Every week I work out at the gym and the people I encounter there, in show business and when I’m modeling, are younger. I like to show them that it’s exciting to be this age — 68 — and that older people have wisdom, and we can share our experiences with them. It’s great. When we have communication, we’re bonding. I have that same experience with my two grandchildren.
Will retirement lead to Act III? I’ve had so many jobs since I was accepted into a modeling agency, and I love going on photo shoots. Who knows what’s next?
My advice to other boomers who have recently retired: Take a short vacation and value yourself. Don’t underestimate the skills you had before you retired. You know more than you think, and that knowledge can be developed into a new career, if that’s what you want. Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to start something new. Set realistic goals and, above all else, enjoy the challenge of living your dreams. You deserve it!
READY OR NOT Is the retirement clock ticking? Ready to take things down a notch — wake up late, meet friends for lunch, play more golf? Or is your current job too enjoyable to leave? Are your retirement funds too low to go? Without work, do you have a social life? Are you staying put or putting in your papers? If you’re retired, how’s it going? Share your thoughts for possible publication. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Act 2 Editor, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747. Include your name, address, phone numbers and a picture, if available.