Three months ago I got up early, fired up the computer, and typed out the letter that has been in the way back part of my mind for a while. At the end of this school year, I will have served thirty years in public education at my own alma mater, and over a year at St. Mary’s Academy, the Catholic school a town over.
But in reality, I started here a long, long time ago. I don’t really recall tons from high school, but I well remember getting off the bus, scared, as an incoming ninth grader, and asking a neighborhood kid how to find my locker. He mercifully steered me in the right direction, and somehow I navigated through the labyrinth of this mystifying and terrifying place called high school; with the help of exceptional teachers, and a small circle of friends, in a snap of the fingers I found myself as a young man at age 18 longing to leave this community.
I’ve written before about my stinging teenage words to my father, when he asked about my plans for the future… ‘I’m leaving this town, I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know I am NOT going to become a teacher, like you’—a passing shot before I headed off to college a few hundred miles away. Later, at 26, after several independent years on my own, I was paying him a token in rent, and driving his old car around town. And I was a teacher, a high school teacher like him, and wait—oh, yes—teaching the exact same subject that he had been teaching for thirty years, world history. Even the young can’t outrun the karmic wheel, it seems.
So it was with this realization, and a small amount of sadness, that I began my day today teaching, finally knowing that my days in this room—this very school that produced me so many decades ago—this place where I have walked the halls more than any other place in my adult life—are numbered. I also well remember my father’s bittersweet retirement letter—remarking on his thirty years, how he loved it, but also how he wished no fanfare, but to leave as quietly as he had come in, thirty years before. At the time (1993), it was all a blur for me, banging out lesson plans, calling parents of troublesome kids, hammering my way forward into some toenail of a crack into their lives… how am I going to reach these kids? Some of my colleagues figured me for a ‘short-timer’, but as it turns out, I WAS A LIFER.
A lifer. How did that happen? But, I did it. When times got tough, and I mean really, really brutal in our profession, I kept going. Many teachers left—but I and thousands and thousands of others did not.
A few years back I wrote, respectfully, about where I thought our profession was at, and what our anointed ones were doing in the name of ‘educational reform’. My busiest single day on this blog (14K reads on a January Saturday) was not over history or Holocaust education, but over the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads as a teaching profession. You get to the point where you have to just walk away from the political posturing, heading down the hall with your back to the noise and your feet carrying you back into the classroom, where nothing else matters. You are in your realm, your element. Of course, Dad knew this. The kids KNOW that you know what you are talking about. And some of them maybe see that this student—teacher connection is what real life is all about. You build a relationship, maybe even not one that can be quantified or measured by the bean counters—and sometimes you even go on to do great things together.
My father had a glimpse of that with his own teaching life, and a mirror to what the future had in store for me. “A teacher finds, eventually, their own niche, their own method,” he said. “Teaching is not a matter of how ‘smart’ you are, it’s a matter of personality. If you’re strong and fair, it doesn’t make any difference what you teach.”
My dad passed 17 years ago. I think of him a lot, now that my turn at ‘retirement’ has come around, I suppose. Sure, there is the excitement and happiness of starting onto something new; my wife retired from her 33 years in the classroom less than a year ago (I told the NYS Commissioner of Education and the NYS Board of Regents, in person, how I felt about her in this video). It feels like it is finally okay to clean house and throw out decades’ worth of academic accumulation, though I hesitate to call it ‘clutter’. With every folder that I gently tip over the edge of the wastebasket, or maybe no longer feel the need to replace into the filing cabinet, there is also a part of me that feels like it is gradually folding into the flotsam and jetsam of the river of time. Each day passes quicker now as the path takes a more defining bend in its long journey, where everything is finally blending and equalizing into the sea of tranquility and good intent. I am close enough to finally see this; I try to absorb it all, live each moment; I try to just ‘be’, with the kids.
If you are a teacher, try giving up your preconceptions sometime; it’s a lot more fun. That kid in the back row diddling on his pocket device while I am busy spouting wisdom might actually be listening and learning something; maybe I will ask him something related, or to look something up, regarding the lesson, or his life; maybe both are the same today. Maybe someday 30 years from now he will remember that I took the time to engage with him; maybe none of this matters. What I do know is that our days are now numbered. My boat is travelling faster now than his, but someday he will be here, too.
I told my freshmen and sophomore classes today (I teach all grade levels) that in fact they are my last respective ninth and tenth grade classes. I have been avoiding this, though I figured that the news was out, and they probably already knew. The young freshmen appeared not to know—there was an element of shock that took me aback for a moment—well, in truth, for the rest of the lesson. Though I am at my best teaching under emotionally searing moments, I think we were both rattled momentarily-they at realizing I won’t be here for them anymore in a few weeks, like old times; me at their reaction to that reality. While I look forward to the future, comes a time when you are confronted with the impact you are making, and the realization that after 30 plus years, you won’t be making it on that daily basis anymore.
My old man confined himself to the back porch the summer after he retired—back pain, he said. [He had never really had it before, except for the time he fell out of the tree while picking apples with us kids in our childhood. We were concerned, then snickered, as he writhed a bit on the ground. He uttered a few choice words in our direction, had his ribs and back wrapped for a couple weeks, and seemed fine after that.] He did not move off that porch all summer. Back pain, my ass. I’ve got your number now, old man.
And now with one click of the ‘post’ button, thirty plus years of service to ‘Hometown, USA’—to my country—and to humanity—begin the descent over the falls of history themselves. Prosit, my father would say. A toast—so be it, and may it benefit you.