School’s Out Forever: Reflections of a Retired Teacher

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When I came back from a field trip a few days before I retired . . .

When I returned from a field trip a few days before I retired . .

, , , this is how I found my library!

, , , this is how I found my library!

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.

unnamedAnd 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.

Kids in my book clubs say goodbye.

Kids in my book clubs say goodbye.

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.100_0401

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:                                      IMG_3649

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

IMG_3648Dear 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.

Related Posts:  

What Makes a Good Teacher?  Not What They Say.

Last Day of School From the Teacher’s Point of View

When Your Friends Live on the Street, Your Street

 

 

 

12 Comments

  1. I loved reading this post, not only for the tender moments when you recognize the impact you had on young lives on a daily basis, but also because I admire your honest self-appraisal of where you wonder if you could have done more. I have no doubt that you did your best and were a fabulous teacher, but I love how you let your humanity show through with some self-doubt.

    A part of me relates to all of the above, as this is often how I felt as a nurse (an a pediatric one, for the most part). The thing I most loved about nursing was the immediate impact I had on the lives of my patients and their families (hopefully for the better), but the delivery of that care drained me of so much of my emotional and physical strength. I imagine teaching to be similar in that way.

  2. Such a vivid, truthful reflection.
    You are such a gift Sandy! Continuing enjoying your retirement and all it has to offer you – you truly deserve it.

  3. You continue to teach in such beautiful ways.

  4. “I worries less about the content and more about the students” Give what I know about you, I can’t even imagine this to be true. But I get what you’re saying. If you have impacted those students with just an ounce of what you have impacted us with your wisdom and light, then you will have made a profound difference in their lives. Thank you for your service!

    • Oops. “Worried less”.

  5. What a beautiful piece. The home-work balance was the hardest for me especially with a traveling husband and no other supports, to the point I had to quit at one point. I loved “Don’t wish your life away” and “every stage of life is a gift”. In retirement it’s more about “What I AM” as you succinctly stated, rather than what you can accomplish. Hopefully we did the best we could at the time. I’m sure you were a wonderful, interesting teacher – challenging but firm when needed.

  6. The work-home balance theory is just that-a theory. Our generation thought we could have it all. What we found out is that you can have it all, but you just can’t do it all. Something suffers. You, your family or the job. Or all of it. It’s simply impossible to be at the top of your game in the work force, be a fantastic mother/wife and have the time and energy to do it well. I was blessed to be able to choose to be a stay-at-home mom when the work-home balance became too much work. Granted, we had to live on one salary and there are obvious downsides to that, but I made the right choice for our family. I really enjoyed this piece and congratulations to your retiring friends!

  7. How can I ever express the many ways you impacted my life and the lives of my children? Both Victoria and Michael had the privelage of calling you teacher, participate in book clubs, and have their identities shaped by what you said and did. Several years later you invited me to Women Writing for a Change. It was a time of great change for me as I left one career to enter another and you unselfishly invited me to share part of your world.
    Today Michael finds an interesting book and comments that Mrs. Lingo would like it. Victoria sees a gorgeous blouse and comments it reminds her of Mrs. Lingo – stylish and creative. I look forward to reading everything you write.
    We love you forever.

  8. I love your honest reflections — and agree with the posted comments about where we teachers or nurses or mothers or people hope to do good always yet failing sometimes. You will no doubt continue to draw past students to you in public places as they express gratitude or remind you of funny or poignant events. But retirement! Yes, a gift. As you say, it is one that lets us open the door to redesign purpose and goals. That’s a gift in itself, along with the lack of an alarm clock and a little voice inside that says the day’s accomplishments are sufficient. Enjoy!

  9. Sandy, I always look forward to your wonderful blogs. This one is so beautifully written it has left me in tears. You truly depicted how fortunate we were to be educators.
    As a supervisor and principal I loved visiting your interactive classroom. The students were actively involved in learning. You encouraged learning by making the curriculum come alive.
    The first time I visited your sixth grade classroom the students were a human number line. Their participation led to understanding. If I had been blessed with a math teacher like you perhaps I would have liked math more. You gave your students every opportunity to be successful.
    Your creativity to make learning fun and help the students understand mathematical concepts was outstanding.
    You truly cared about your students. When I visited your middle school classroom I had to silently chuckle at the forbidden refrigerator hidden in the corner of your room covered with the beautiful cloth. The refrigerator was just in case a student came to school without breakfast or did not have lunch money.
    You always gave 100%+. Your dedication to your students and colleagues was a blessing.
    I was very fortunate to work with you as a colleague and now I am honored to call you my friend.

  10. Sandy, you rock! I loved teaching too. And I love having a home business now. You are profound, sincere, funny and real.

  11. Sandy,
    Thank you. I retired from teaching at NKU in 2008. Your words remind me of my own students and those moments I will always remember and I am sure there are many that I have already forgotten. I’ll never know which moments were most significant to my students – but I know what I have learned from my students. I love teaching in retirement – it’s a whole different adventure! Thanks for your honesty about the joys and heartbreaks of teaching. Katherine

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.

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