Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Some Years Without ...
The other day I was thinking (I've had more time to do that now that I'm retired), and I realized that it's been a long time since I taught in a classroom--since Thursday, May 19, 2011, to be precise. That was the day I taught my last classes at Western Reserve Academy before I retired (for the second time--I'd retired from Harmon Middle School in January 1997). There were still some events to attend to (final exams, the senior celebration (what they used to call baccalaureate), commencement, the end-of-the-year all-school picnic), but the teaching part was over.
That final day, we were finishing up Huckleberry Finn and some stories by Flannery O'Connor (my students' "outside reading" for the final marking period). Here's a little of what I wrote in my journal later that day ...
... growing more and more emotional; kids had put up banners bidding me farewell: one on the glass doors leading into the English Wing, one on my [classroom] TV, another on the pull-down screen (one I did not discover until I … pulled down the screen); we talked about the exam, about Flannery O’Connor (with PowerPoint) and then about some Huck Finn sequels and transformations (including Big River); for my first class—[colleague] Walter Klyce was there (he’d played Huck in a Harvard production of the show, so he talked about it); at the end, I tried to recite “Our revels now are ended” from The Tempest, but managed only about five words before I dissolved; listening to Jim’s song in Big River (“Free at Last”) had devastated me, and I was just plain incapable of going on; walked home for lunch, sobbing all the way, where Joyce greeted me—as she has for 42 years—with deep affection, understanding, and—today—some tears; what a gift she is; drove back up for two afternoon classes, which I handled better (though I didn’t dare try the Shakespeare again); the last period—they’d brought a cake that had on it my picture from the 1995 Wild edition + the pic with [visiting writer] Dan Chaon; they also had exploding party favors that they fired off when I ended class; sitting in: one of my finest students ever, Jessie Wilson, whom I’d taught last year; she said she had to be there for the last one; I wept again; many hugs and farewells afterwards; cleaned my room a little and headed home, where the love of my life awaited ...
So, anyway, nearly three years have gone by. The only students at WRA who know who I am now are the seniors, who were freshmen during my final year; I did not teach any freshmen, though I knew some of them for various other reasons. A small handful still say hello when they see me on the street--or in Starbucks--but next year ... no one.
If you think your influence is lasting, listen to this story. One year during my Harmon School career I took a sabbatical leave. A friend of mine back at school was doing a play production and asked me if I'd come up some afternoon and help the kids learn some of the technical things about our stage (a very simple set of things). Sure, I said. Remember ... I had been gone less than a year.
While I was standing backstage, I noticed that the young girl who was working the curtain was not pulling hand-over-hand and, as a result, was getting herky-jerky movements from the curtain. I went over and showed her the hand-over-hand, and she smiled in thanks. But as I walked away, I heard her ask another tech kid, "Who was that man?" Humility is good for the soul.
Anyway, I realized the other day that this is the longest I've gone without teaching since I began in 1966. I had some leaves-of-absence and some sabbaticals in my career, but between August 1966 and May 2011, I had never gone anywhere near this long without being in a classroom.
It's an odd feeling. When I see former students--or parents of former students--around town, they sometimes ask if I miss it.
Of course I do. I miss the intimacies of the classroom, the relationships with the kids, the laughter, the tears, the friendships with colleagues, the literature I loved to teach. (You can imagine the things I don't miss: paper-grading, committee meetings, hassles of various sorts, etc.)
In other years--during a leave or sabbatical--I always knew that I would be back. And even when I retired from Aurora, I was only 52 years old; I knew that if I wanted to--wanted to--I could go back and teach for a while longer--which, of course, I did, both at Hiram's Weekend College and WRA.
But now? I can't. My heart may scream "Yes!" now and then, but my body has both other opinions and the veto power. The cancer drug coursing through my system delights in taking about half my energy, and a teacher without energy just doesn't have much of a chance of being any good.
And so I read and write and travel and spend time with family. Take naps. And then more naps. And how about this? I'm still cutting out of the newspapers those articles that I'm going to take into class--the class I don't have--to show and talk about with students--the students I don't have. Seems pointless. But if I don't do it? Don't do the clippings? The thinking about what would be fun to teach? The planning for writing assignments I'll never give? Well, that, my friends, would be a first step--a big step--toward the cemetery.