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'Teacher, What's Retirement Mean?'

When twins left classroom, they saw a need for a kids' book to explain why

September 09, 2002|BETH WHITEHOUSE | NEWSDAY

DEER PARK, N.Y. — Every morning when Letty Sustrin wakes up in the condo she shares with her identical 63-year-old twin, Sheila, she selects what the sisters will wear that day. "Letty's the early bird, there's no doubt about it," Sheila said.

When Sheila awakes, she dons the exact outfit Letty's wearing. And we mean exact. Besides the same denim dress, she'll match down to the pearl ring on the identical finger, the thick black plastic eyeglasses, the blue eye shadow. The sisters' wavy black hair also is styled alike.

The lone clue they allow: Sometimes Letty wears a gold pin shaped like an L, while Sheila's is an S. Think Laverne and Shirley. Letty and Sheila.

The twins have been dressing this way all their lives--including each school day for the 38 years they taught kindergarten and then first grade, side by side, in the Brentwood School District on Long Island. After the duo reluctantly took an early retirement incentive from the district in 1998--an offer too financially enticing to pass up, they said--they searched for new hobbies and decided to write children's books.

And, naturally, they did it together.

Their first book is due out this month. The old writing adage advises authors to write about what they know--and Sheila and Letty have done just that. They penned "The Teacher Who Would Not Retire."

The hardcover picture book is about the gray-haired Mrs. Belle, a first-grade teacher who is forced out of teaching but refuses to go quietly. She sneaks back to the school as a window washer, then as a food service worker and as a firefighter during a school fire drill. Each time her disguise is given away by the trademark colorful ballet slippers she wears. In the end, the district compromises and allows Mrs. Belle to return every Friday to read to the children in the library.

"When we told the children in school we were retiring," Letty said, "the first-graders had no concept of retirement. This is how we started talking about writing this story. In many ways it paralleled our lives. Mrs. Belle feels the way we felt."

"Although we don't look like Mrs. Belle," Sheila joked. "Not yet. Maybe in 20 years."

The original idea of a children's book about retirement is what led the twins' publisher, Blue Marlin Publications, to accept their manuscript and have artist Thomas H. Bone III illustrate it, said Francine Rich of Blue Marlin. "The concept of teaching young children about retirement has never been covered," she said.

The twins said they worked together well in part because they are so accustomed to each other--neither has married or had children, and they've always lived together. They enjoy the attention they get by being carbon copies, they said.

"Two heads are better than one," said Sheila, even though those heads sometimes butt. "We have our moments," said Letty. "But it blows over, and we'd do anything for each other."

Their condo is peppered with pictures, refrigerator magnets and knickknacks of Scottish terriers. They have had five Scottish terriers over the years, including their current black dog, Dundee. In addition to spending time with Dundee, in retirement they've been playing golf and piano and crocheting hats and blankets for pediatric cancer patients. They cared for their mother, who died in March.

They've also been working on a sequel to their first book, tentatively called "Mrs. Belle Goes to Camp."

And, of course, the sisters have been returning regularly to volunteer their time and to visit faculty, friends and students at their most recent Brentwood school, Laurel Park Elementary. They don't, however, go dressed as window washers or firefighters.

"We don't go in disguise," Sheila said, "but we do go back, and we will continue to go back as long as they need the help."


Beth Whitehouse is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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