As I approach the last work week of a 33 year career in public education, I find myself looking for a way to write about that experience and falling short of figuring out what to say and how to say it. I started one blog essay which attempted to explore my rationale for retirement, but it sputtered out. 33 years seemed rationale enough. But I was writing it, I suppose, because I thought maybe my predicament was different, that my reasons might be particular to me and maybe even interesting. The fact that it sputtered out, though, seemed to indicate something else, like I was justifying something that did not need justification, or looking for some way to make peace with the decision for which I was not completely comfortable. I’m pretty convinced that to retire this year was the right decision for me, but it nevertheless comes with some trepidation, as any big life decision does. Can I continue to find rewarding work to do? Will I find fulfillment or success in other endeavors? Was it a sound financial decision? How much will I have to pay for health care? Can I be disciplined (or lucky) enough to maintain or even improve my health? And does not retirement, at its core, represent a progression into a kind of last movement in the symphony of life? I don’t care for that metaphor–but beyond all the excitement about the fun and the freedom and possible new opportunities, there is this grim realization that, you know, retirement marks the fact that we might only have a decade or two or three of living left to us. So–one of the most exciting and rewarding moments in a life also has its morbid and dark shadows. While I find myself in various states of bliss as I look forward to the mysteries of retired life, I also find myself worrying about things I’ve never worried about before, like the above nagging questions.
I sit down on this Sunday evening to come back at and hopefully finish these notes on retirement, and I’m feeling a little weird tonight after receiving my second COVID-19 booster shot this morning, fearing that the side effects might be as extreme as they were for me in all the other cases, but hopeful, too, because so far I’ve just felt a little sleepy, no chills and uncontrollable shaking, no fever, no serious ick. It would suck to have to call in sick on the last Monday of the school year–but I am ready for that outcome if things take a turn this evening. One upshot of the close of the final school year has been this compulsion not to miss anything and to be involved in every last thing I can. Since abandoning the mask a few weeks ago now, I have been, I admit, a tad paranoid about catching the COVID. I don’t want to miss any days. There’s too much to do. I hosted an end of the year social for staff, I attended a send-off party for another colleague who’s leaving the country, I’m going to the graduation ceremony for the first time in seven years, and I’m throwing my own little party next weekend. And I find myself to the very end immersed in planning the very last weeks and days of the school year in the same way I always have, but perhaps with just a bit more vigor. A colleague will often greet me in the hall and ask me if I’m counting the days. Honestly, I have not been counting. If anything–the question of how many more days do I have until I’m done has been more about maximizing the time that I have rather than anticipating a glorious finish–not how many days do I have, but how many days do I get?
But don’t misunderstand me. I guess I have to say it again. I want to retire. I am doing it. I’ve got irons in the fire, and I am youngish enough to have the sufficient vigor, I hope, to somehow finish up that blacksmith metaphor, you know, by doing whatever blacksmith’s do as they pull their irons out of the fire. That act of creation, of making something new from some molten raw material. I’m done with this metaphor now. You’re welcome. Suffice it to say that I am thoroughly excited about the possibilities that lay before me. I hope to be writing like a fiend, and finally have the time needed for getting that writing out into the world. I plan to make tons of music. I’d like to run writer’s workshops or do Courage and Renewal work with adults. I want to go back to my podcast.
I am leaving the profession at the right time–when I am having a good year, when I have spent time with some of the kindest students in recent memory. I have written zero referrals and have sent no students to the principal’s office this year. I still love this job and this work. I am not burned out and I am, I think, about as on top of the game as I will ever be. And therein lies one of the things I was attempting to say in a previous blog draft that will live as an unfinished draft forevermore: There is a kind of plateau one reaches, I think, after doing a thing, badly or well, for three decades and some change. I am pretty certain that I have done well; I have been, what you might call, a “good” teacher. But I don’t think it gets better than this, up here on this plateau. I think that if I were to continue a number of years longer, I might find myself falling down. I like it up here. But I also want to be doing something again at which I might hope to improve. As Rilke said–strive always to be a beginner. In the last decades of my life I want to be climbing upward and onward, and not, instead, in some kind of downward spiral toward disappointment and burnout. I am ready to rock this.