Thursday, May 31, 2012
Our Lives: We don't belong. And then, after a while, maybe, we do. And then we don't.
In one way, our lives are a series of exclusions and inclusions and exclusions again. From earliest childhood we experience the feeling of not belonging. Maybe the first time is in nursery school. Or kindergarten. We arrive in a new place with people we don't know. We find a way to fit in--or we don't. Then we move on to another population where, once again, we are the aliens. And we find a way to fit in--or we don't. Only among the dead will we find ourselves immediately equal. No initiation. No hazing. No period of adjustment.
I don't remember feeling out of place in nursery school or kindergarten. But surely I did. The earliest memory is of changing schools in 1952 when we moved from Enid, Oklahoma, to Amarillo, Texas, because my dad had been called back into active duty for the Korean War, and off we went to Amarillo AFB, where my dad was a chaplain.
I was in second grade, and I never really fit in at Avondale Elementary School. I didn't know the tacit rules of the playground there; I didn't recognize who were the alpha males. (Both I found out in rough Lone Star fashion--I got my ass kicked.)
We moved back to Enid when I was in the middle of third grade, and things were pretty quickly back to normal, very quickly. But summer church camp presented another challenge: I didn't know anyone but the kids from my own church, so I slid easily into a role of observer, watching other, more aggressive kids become the leaders, the ones everyone else noticed. I was comfortable, not resentful, in that role.
And on and on it went, through school and beyond, Being new in junior high. In high school. In college. In grad school. On my first job in Aurora Middle School. At one early meeting of the local teachers' association (the AEA) I spoke up about some AEA issue or other. A craggy veteran elementary school teacher near the end of her career snarled, "Let's just ignore what that boy [me!] said ..." I didn't belong yet. Shouldn't be listened to.
Around 1973 Joyce and I and our infant son moved to our first home--rented--at 214 South Willow in Kent. Our landlord, a genial man who lived right next door, was named James Caniglia. He had recently retired from Lamb Electric in Kent, and every week day, some of his former colleagues who used Willow to get to work would honk when they drove by his place. Letting him know. If he was in the yard, he would wave. A belonger still.
But I am not like Mr. Caniglia (I never called him by his first name.) When I retired from Aurora in 1997, I, like all other retirees, was invited to the end-of-the-year banquet sponsored by the AEA. I tried to go a couple of years but never lasted more than a few minutes before I slipped away and drove home. I had crossed that line--the one separating I belong here from I don't belong here anymore. I don't even try now; I toss the invitation every spring.
I retired from Western Reserve Academy a year ago. And this fall a former colleague there kindly invited me to participate in a new "coffee house" idea she was initiating. Tuesday evenings. A half-hour or so. She asked me if I'd do a presentation, and I said I'd be glad to. She scheduled me for the final session of the year. On that first Tuesday, I went up on the campus for the first time since I'd left. It was strange. But greeting me at the door was Rachel, a student I'd taught just the year before. She was glad to see me, and I her. But when the session got started, I realized I didn't know half (or more) of the kids who were there. To them, I was the Old Guy over there who talked too much. Afterwards, I spoke with some kids I knew, then went home. And did not go back the rest of the year. It was nothing anyone did or said. Not at all. It was what I felt. And what I felt was: I don't belong here anymore.
But I did go back, that last session, as I'd promised. But--again--although I had a good time, although the kids and adults were gracious, even warm--I still had that feeling: I don't belong here anymore.
Like other WRA retirees, I was invited to the end-of-the-year picnic at the Headmaster's home last night. I'd said I'd go.
But as the hour neared, the feeling returned. I don't belong there anymore. I remembered other picnics, other years, when retirees came. And I would talk to them a few minutes--being polite, appreciative (grateful even)--and then I'd move on to spend the rest of the time with my current colleagues. Belongers.
And so I stayed home last night.
I don't know where I belong anymore. I surely belong in my home--which is where I spend so much time. I've always belonged here.
But where else? I used to belong on the faculty of Harmon Middle School and Western Reserve Academy. But now I don't.
It's one of the dark facets of the glittering retirement jewel. Yes, I don't have papers to grade or odious meetings to endure or in-service workshops to attend or lessons to prepare or neckties to knot. But I also don't have a place--a professional place--where I belong. What's left is "my" chair at Caribou Coffee, which is "mine" only if I'm there early enough.
One of these years we may move to a "retirement community" (i.e., the last station on the railroad to the grave), where, once again, I will not belong, not at first. And then I will. And then I won't care.