Teaching years are like dog years. I taught for 196 years.
Conversely, retirement years speed by like a guppy’s lifespan. I have been retired since Spring 2010, and while it doesn’t feel like yesterday, it doesn’t seem possible that I’ve been going to sleep for seven years without an alarm clock.
Retired teachers often say they “miss the people” or they “miss the children.” I will honestly say that, while my colleagues and students enriched my life in profound ways, I do not miss the necessary diplomacy of dealing with educators or the responsibility of guiding and corralling youngsters.
If I’m not a teacher, what am I?
The last year I taught, I was the librarian. I gave it my all. I facilitated eight book clubs, organized seventeen field trips, found the right line in my bifocals to shelve thousands of books, and nagged my principal, up to the last hour, for an increase in my budget.
My last day was May 31, and I was there until about 11:55 putting things right in my library. Leaving my house in order.
That evening, around 7:00, I went to my car with another load of what was now junk: teaching units in binders; my electric pencil sharpener and recess whistle; popsicle sticks, glitter, and contact paper. Outside I met a parent who was there watching her kids’ soccer game. “Are you a teacher here?” she asked?
“Well, yes. Well, kinda. I was, I mean I am, at least until midnight,” I said. She was confused, and so was I.
I remember my husband saying when he retired, “If I’m not a teacher, what am I?” I guess I felt a little like that, which is why I continued volunteering at my school for a couple years. And then, suddenly, I realized I wasn’t a teacher anymore, and that was okay because I had become other things: an attentive daughter; a more present mother; an engaged friend; an avid activist, a student of the world.
When you are a teacher, you take your significance in the world for granted.
When you are a teacher, you know that every single day, for better or worse, you are going to impact kids, sometimes in profound ways. When you are retired, you have to work harder to articulate your purpose. How can you feel important in the world when all you’ve done is meet friends for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, repot your African Violets, type your recipes, or achieve a thorough colonoscopy cleanse?
When I was working, my identity and worth were tied up with what I did, what I accomplished, what recognition I received. I felt tremendous satisfaction when I finished grading a stack of essays, created a new novel unit, received an award, found the surface of my desk at the end of the day, returned from a field trip with the same number of kids I started with.
But now, in this reflective state of retirement, I find myself measuring my self-worth in other ways, not by what I’ve done, but who I am. And it seems enough at the end of the day to take stock of how kind I was, even if I didn’t cross a thing off my to-do list.
I look back and worry.
Maybe I wasn’t such a good teacher after all. There was the time I was reading the dramatic conclusion of Nightjohn to my eighth graders who encircled me, and I overheard 13-year-old Jonathon say to 13-year-old Emily, “You have the longest eyelashes.” And I was furious at this acned adolescent who, quite naturally, found this fetching girl more fascinating than the conclusion of a book about slavery.
And there was the time a sixth grade boy picked through his dumpster-of-a-desk looking for his math textbook, and I turned the entire desk over, the contents forming a mountain at his feet. And I did this in front of his peers. I saw him tear up as he tried to sort the papers, and I admit now that for a minute I was very satisfied. I was big and he was small. Then the shame came, and I got down on the floor and helped him make a neater, more manageable pile.
After college I got a job in a tough school. This was a hard place for a green teacher to land, and I soon suspected I was hired more for my brawn than my brain, when in the first week the principal started sending me girls to paddle.
“Mr. Wilson wants you to swat me.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You’re just asposed to swat me.”
And I did. But I also remember swatting a boy who was a real stinker, not a sociopath, just kind of a brat. And that’s totally on me.
When I question my worth as a teacher, I never fret that I didn’t teach my students enough about literary devices or subject-verb agreement or Egyptian pyramids or long division. I look back and know I could have been kinder, more patient, more understanding, more encouraging if I had worried less about the content I taught and more about the students.
I can’t remember
I regret that I can’t remember my students. When they FB friend me, I go to their profiles and try to figure out if I was their sixth grade math teacher or eighth grade language arts teacher or middle school librarian.
When a former student bounds across Walmart and calls out, “Mrs. Lingo,” with her own children in tow, I might remember a poem she wrote about her dog, that she took Irish dancing lessons, that she had an appendectomy, or that she forgot to bring her lunch on a field trip, but darned if I can remember her name!
I want my students to know that even though I cared deeply for them, my brain just can’t hold all their data. I am more likely to remember them as archetypes: the try-to-be-invisible kid; the too-cool-for-school kid; the reading-all-the-time kid; the kid-with-a-suspicious bruise.
I have had many memorable students die in tragic and unexpected ways: electrocution; car and plane accidents; running bases; pernicious anemia. I ache remembering these kids: a gregarious redhead; a likeable imp; a boy with impossibly deep dimples. They are frozen at the age when I taught them, when I took for granted they would outlive me. And I grieve for them.
But here’s the thing: There are several students I can barely remember who have died from overdose, violence, or suicide. Kids I can’t put a face to, can’t conjure a single interaction I had with them. I didn’t invest the emotional energy to let these children imprint my brain or heart. Maybe I just didn’t notice them, sitting sullenly in the back row. Or maybe I deemed them hopeless cases. I mourn the lost opportunities to know them and maybe make a difference.
I used up my best for other people’s kids.
I went to my students’ dance recitals and hospital rooms and basketball games. I called parents when I had this nebulous feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their child. I wrote comments and drew faces on students’ papers late into the night. I got to school early and left late.
I used up my very best for other people’s kids. There was very little energy left for my own. I never figured out the home/work balance. That had less to do with my dedication to my profession than my need for approval from strangers.
My own children were in my sixth grade math class. My students, for the most part, thought I was fun and funny, patient and kind. My own children maybe thought otherwise, because they saw the home me. That I was a fraud.
Those were the days!
I remember such fun: International Feasts; field trips to the jail, synagogue, mosque, Jungle Jim’s, WLW; the joy of sharing books and meeting authors; “Lingojections” (a term coined by one of my students for the ditties and dances I created to help them remember math principles); talent shows and plays; Backwards Day and Mismatch Day; gerbil wedding and goldfish with middle names.
I saved all the notes my students wrote me.
A poem by Marty Paff, sixth grader:
Mrs. Lingo is the best
She also hates giving tests,
Albert Einstein is her man,
Mrs. Lingo is better than a toucan.
Math rappin’ is her thang.
She’s very tall and very smart.
“You won’t believe this but my oldest son just started sixth grade himself.
“You saw something in me.”
“Thank you for helping me throw (sic) school this year.” Thanks, Ryan
Dear Mommy, I really enjoyed being in your class this year. Thank you for being a great math teacher. I really liked doing the ‘Lingo Rap. From, Stacey Lingo P.S. I hope you could read this letter.”
These letters sustain me In my dotage (which appears to be now). I got some things right.
Retirement is a gift.
I go to sleep when I’m tired and wake up when I’m not! When I wake up in the morning, I think, What am I worried about? Nothing! And then I start the day slowly, communing with FB or reading the paper.
I didn’t know how physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted I had been until I retired. It’s like you don’t know how much the tooth hurt until it’s pulled.
I no longer think that weekends are for catching up, or that vacations are for enriching my curriculum. That a grocery trip must be a race against time, or that a traffic jam will put me hopelessly behind.
Now, relationships can always be on the front burner. Distance is never too great to visit a sick friend. Time is never too short to read to my 97-year-old mother-in-law. Nothing was so pressing that I couldn’t sit with my parents as they diminished and died.
Often young teachers lament, “I can’t wait until I retire.”
And I say, “Don’t wish your life away. It goes fast enough.”
Every stage of life is a gift. Relish the working years. Work so hard that you feel like you’ve earned your retirement. And then live it up!
To my teacher friends retiring this year, may you enjoy this next chapter.