Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Twenty Years Have Gone Since ...

Harmon (Middle) School
Aurora, Ohio
... I retired from public school teaching. (Plus three days.)

January 16, 1997, was my final day at Harmon (Middle) School in Aurora, Ohio, the small northeastern Ohio town where I'd begun my teaching career in the fall of 1966. In 1974 we moved out of the old "Aurora Middle School" (now the offices of the Board of Education) and into the new Harmon School, which had few interior walls--the "open-space" concept somewhat popular then. It didn't last long.

I had not taught there the entire time since 1966. In 1978-1979 I taught at Lake Forest College, north of Chicago. I thought I wanted to be a college teacher; it didn't take long to discover I didn't. I missed those frisky middle-schoolers.

But Aurora had no openings. So Joyce and I both took positions at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, not far from Aurora. Joyce would stay until 1990, when she took a position at Hiram College. She retired just last year after decades of spectacular service.

I stayed at the Academy two years (1979-81), then quit (in a salary snit) and taught part-time at Kent State and worked (part-time) at The Learned Owl, a local bookshop in Hudson.

Then--in the fall of 1982--I finally got back to Harmon, where I taught 8th graders until, well, until January 16, 1997.

(I also had a couple of leaves-of-absence and sabbaticals from Aurora.)

By the time 1996 rolled around, Proficiency Test Mania had hit Ohio--hard--and it was (in my view) devastating the curriculum, so I resolved to retire the first moment I was eligible. I checked with the retirement system folks in Columbus and saw that 120 school days (I think) counted as a full year on the retirement plan. I got out my calendar, counted days, informed the Superintendent that I would be retiring on January 16. (I actually miscounted--and worked one more day than I needed to!)

I had a student teacher that fall, and the school had also already hired my replacement, a young man who served in the fall as a kind of all-purpose sub around the building. (He's still there--and just messaged me the other day.) Our assistant principal liked to joke that fall that I had a "staff."

I told the 8th graders that fall that I was going to be retiring--but that I wasn't going to make a big deal of it. I was just going to "slip away" one day with no fanfare--and that's what I did. I told Len (who would take my place) that I would switch places with him after Thanksgiving break. Our principal agreed that would be fine.  Over the vacation, I went to school and began cleaning out my room, removing my things from the walls, etc.

And after break I began doing what Len did. Helping out for absent teachers, working with kids who needed some tutoring in writing, and the like.

That fall I had decided to fill in each day a 3x5 card telling what I had done my final 100 days. I still have that stack of 101 (!) cards.

Here's a period-by-period list of what I did my final day (taken from that card--lightly edited):

6:30: Met Denny Reiser [a long-time colleague] at McDonald's [in nearby Streetsboro] at 6:30 in the morning--talked about the old days--commented that there has been no better period of 30 years in the history of American education--talked about need for boards of education to accommodate senior faculty ...

7:30: kids [whom I was tutoring in writing] wrote weather composition; good vibes at the end--last class; said good-bye to kitchen workers, one of whom thanked me for the work I'd done with her children ...

1st period: long talk with principal Jerry Brodsky--look back at career--gifts & cards all over my desk ...

periods 2-3-4: helped out with a 6th grade class; kids were talking about the Guinness Book of World Records and Greek city-states ...

5th period: cleared/cleaned room; printed out final reports for tutoring kids

6th period: lunch--old-timers reminiscing about strike [spring 1978]

7th period: final class I helped out in; a young girl was in it, a girl whose father I'd taught the first year I'd been in Aurora

8th period: the superintendent came by, shook my hand, said it was "the end of the Dyer era" at Harmon ...

after school--said good-bye to the custodians who had been such a help to me with play productions and other things--tears in all our eyes--freezing cold day, snow in the air--people left early; I carried out to the car a load of things in a briefcase I had carried on the 1st day of my career--a briefcase my parents had given me (I hadn't used it in years) ...

And that was it.

We lived only about a half-mile from the school, so the trip home was a quick one. I unloaded the car. Sat in the house. Waited for Joyce to get home from Hiram College. Thought about the future unrolling before me. I had just turned 52 years of age.


It wasn't too long before I was missing the place--not all the work, of course, just the people who were in that building. I was jogging in those days, and I had a route that took me right past the school. It seemed odd, running along, not being inside, doing what I was supposed to be doing.

But I was already caught up in researching and writing about the life of Mary Shelley. It would be my next big project. (I had just published a couple of books about Jack London.) I didn't know then that it would consume ten years of my life--and, in a way, is still consuming me.

But I still missed teaching, missed the classroom ...

Then, a few years later, it seemed I might go back. Not to Harmon but to the high school (which needed an English teacher). But I'd let my certificate lapse, and Ohio's Department of Education told me I needed to take some courses to renew it. I was pissed. A Ph.D. with 30 years' experience--with publications--etc. And I'm not qualified to teach!?!?

The point became moot: The school hired someone else, someone who could fill an extra-curricular position that I couldn't.

Then here came Western Reserve Academy again. I thought I'd spend a year or two up there. I spent ten. And then retired--again!--in the spring of 2011. Health was one issue--one big issue--in my decision. I loved my years there, as well.

Since then, I've gone back to WRA a few times (speeches, some class visits), and I've done some presentations with kids for the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of their Big Read program. I've not been back to Harmon since I retired, but something may be rumbling in the works. I'll let you know.

Anyway, it seems impossible to me that twenty years have passed since I walked out that back door of Harmon School, loaded my car, drove home.

I am so profoundly grateful that I had a chance to work at that amazing school with so many gifted colleagues, so many wonderful students, many, many of whom are now my Facebook friends.

And this final daunting reminder: My first seventh graders from 1966 are now in their sixties. That is not funny!

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