Friday, August 12, 2016
That End-of-the-Year Smile
I forget where I got this picture. I think a student took it, then sent it to me? It was the spring of 1996, I think (context clues!), and, guessing what I see in the background, I think it's the last day of school, the day when teachers and staff would come outside and wave good-bye to the students. It was always a very emotional time for me. I taught eighth graders the last fifteen years of my career, and they were the oldest kids in the building--Harmon Middle School; Aurora, Ohio. They were usually sad about leaving, emotional. In a way, they were putting childhood behind, heading into high school. They were both excited and somewhat afraid. Anyway, I thought then (and still think) that Harmon was one of the best schools--ever. (Not that I'm biased, mind you.)
The spring of 1996 was an even more moving time for me. I'd already decided that this would be my final full year of teaching. I could retire (30 years' service) in January 1997, and that I did, on the very day I was first eligible. I had miles to go before I slept, you see ...
There was yet another reason for some high emotion at the end of the year. My final dozen years or so some colleagues and I mounted a production--The 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show. We had a running gag with the title (not a funny gag--but, you know, a gag?): We would attach to the title the eighth graders' year of graduation from high school. So ... this show we'd just done (always near the end of the year) was The 2000th 8th Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Show. Ha, ha.
With earlier classes the gag had been plausible enough (The 95th ...) that I actually had people ask me if there really had been over ninety shows.
The farewell shows were a collection of skits and songs and dances (all about life at Harmon), and I was fortunate--very fortunate--to have the help in later years of my friends Andy Kmetz (the art teacher, a gifted dancer who did all the choreography and so much more) and Gary Brookhart (the band director, who accompanied us on the piano with professional skill and a sensitivity to what kids were capable of).
Anyway, that spring (1996) I had just finished my final show at the middle school--I had done over thirty. And I was awash in emotion. I knew I would never direct a play again. And, indeed, I haven't.
The two girls in the foreground of the picture were involved in that final show. One is a Facebook friend; the other I've lost track of.
I look at the me of 1996, twenty years ago. My beard and hair are dark. My weight is good (an adult-long battle, sometimes won, sometimes lost). I have a faint smile. Excitement mixed with relief and with hope and with being polite for the picture-taker. I'm wearing my "uniform" of my late-career years: polo shirt, slacks.
That smile tells me much more today, too. I was eager to retire for a couple of reasons. For one, I was disgusted by the proficiency-test mania that had already begun to dominate the public school curriculum (it has lasted twenty years--such foolishness); for another, I was eager to get on with my writing life.
In 1995 I'd published a fully annotated edition of The Call of the Wild (Univ. of Okla. Pr.), and in the fall of 1997 I would have two other books--a YA title (Jack London: A Biography, Scholastic; and a paperback edition of Wild--also Univ. of Okla. Pr.). I was certain that other books were in me, that good health was obviously going to last ... I was also writing op-ed pieces for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I had not yet published a single book review.
That changed that very fall when I published my first review in a small publication called Ohio Writer. I would do a few more for them, then, on a friend's recommendation, got a gig with Kirkus Reviews in March 1999, a gig that continues to this day. This year--if all continues--I'll hit review #1400 for Kirkus. In the spring of 2000 I contacted the Cleveland Plain Dealer about doing reviews for them; in August that year, my first appeared, and I eventually wrote nearly 200 (I think--haven't counted) for them before the paper, having downsized, no longer used freelancers for book reviews but took virtually all of them from the wire services. (My last review appeared in the PD about a year ago.)
I still do one Kirkus book per week, all year long. I have two blogs (this one and Daily Doggerel). I keep writing away at books, publishing them all on Kindle Direct now. Once I got my cancer diagnosis (December 2004) I knew that I could no longer count on the bounties of Time, bounties I'd foolishly thought would last, you know, for ever. So ... no more dickering with traditional publishers. No more time.
That slight smile in June 1996 has, then, another couple of qualities: ignorance, naivete.
But I love the stronger emotion I see there--hope.
I've had twenty more years ... I've tried not to waste them ... I know for certain now that I am fragile, mortal. Of course, I always knew it, but now I know it. There's a difference. And so I will try to work every day until I simply can't--at which time I hope Fate will sweep me quickly, mercifully away. One must not linger after the party's over.