Who’s Counting? One Last One More

Oh my. I found it emptying one of my file cabinets. What IS this thing?

One for the road. Last tango. One tin soldier. Last one out. One trick pony. This final one is especially fun because the word “one” can be an adjective to describe how many tricks the pony can do. This pony can only do one trick. Or, the word “trick” can be an adjective to describe the pony, in which case, the pony is somehow tricked out, or deceptive, or defective. I have always preferred this second interpretation, and when I have heard the lyric, “One trick pony rides away,“ I have always thought, now that is one weird, special pony. Until I realized, of course, that the lyric was actually, “One tin soldier rides away,” and then my whole theory goes a little bit out the window. Today, Wednesday, June 22, I have been both a tin soldier and a tricked out or trick pony, as I returned to the school house one last one more time to pick up all of the stuff that didn’t fit inside the Honda Fit.

It did not take me long. I listened to no music. I packed up my turntable and my audio stuff, I made one more box full of books, I boxed up my records, left some goodies and a note for the new tenant, and I was out the door. I gave a big hug to Dee Ann and another big hug to my vice principal, Ken, and I started up my engine. Then I realized I had forgotten something. So I retrieved the key that I had returned two times already, went back into my room the very last time, and picked up the forgotten item. If I was superstitious, I would have thought there was something in my not being able to leave. Thank goodness, I am not superstitious.

I am making good on my promise to finish listening to the classroom music library, even in abstentia from the classroom. So I’m spinning Elvis Costello and the Imposters, The Boy Named If, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love, Cheap Trick’s In Another World, Black Country New Road, black midi, and Bowie while I attempt to “bash out” over the next 24 hours one last one, one last entry in this series of blog entries counting down the days until retirement. After leaving Wednesday morning, there are no more days left until retirement. I am retired. To solidify that fact, I got a happy retirement card out of the mailbox today from my last principal, Kathy. If she knows, it must be a real thing. I am retired. There, I said it again.

And the way I think I’d like to close is by following up on an earlier promise, after having completed the list of the 10 things I won’t miss about teaching, to make the list of the 10 things I will absolutely miss about teaching. I arbitrarily choose the number 10–I mean, the choice is not arbitrary, but simply follows a long list-making tradition–and who am I to mess with that? As I begin, though, I have no idea if I can make it to number 10 or if I will need way more than 10. Nevertheless, there must be a list. Let the listing begin. These are the things I will miss about teaching, things I will miss about being a public high school English teacher, in no particular order.

  1. I will miss my school, the actual, physical school, the place I have spent 37 years of my life, first as a student, then as an educator. It’s nothing super fancy. Initially, it wasn’t even designed all that well. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, and even after extensive expansions and remodels, even though parts of it are way more beautiful than they used to be, it’s still, you know, as schools tend to be, rather institutional. But it is a place in which I have always felt AT HOME. I’ve already written a poem about this building and its magical properties. I had the opportunity to read it to the staff during our end-of-the-year luncheon. I don’t think I could possibly say it better or differently a second time around, so I’ll just link to it here: A Love Poem for My School. At least for the next two years, because I have “business” there in the form of a 16 year old drummer boy and student, I predict I will be back there often.
  2. I will miss the young people. I have found teenage human beings to be inexhaustibly interesting: surprising, funny, inspiring, energetic, exasperating, exhilarating, talented, deep thinking, tolerant, compassionate, courageous, super weird sometimes, silly, and, for the most part, good people.
  3. I will miss those a-ha moments. Either one-on-one with a student or with a group of 30 simultaneously, there are these moments when an understanding, a kernel of knowledge, an insight, a communal truth is reached and revealed–and it is as if the earth is shaking under my feet, my hair stands up on its ends, actual chills of excitement bristle through my entire being. It is exhilarating and profound, and in these moments one feels as if teaching is the absolute greatest thing on the planet–and I am not talking about moments when I am brilliant. I am talking about those moments when students rise to occasion in the biggest possible way. The greatest insights always come from that direction. And in these moments of engagement with students, the idea that I am “working” seems preposterous. This is fun. This is play. It may be brainy play, but that’s how it feels to me. Absolutely joyous.
  4. I will miss the planning and creating. It’s the only thing, at least in the last 15 years of my career or so, that I have not begrudged doing outside of work hours. Planning a unit or lesson, creating materials for that unit or lesson, choosing the readings, making decisions about things I want students to do and learn, finding funny or silly things with which to grab the young people, and having the privilege of sharing with my students something I am truly excited about, something I believe will blow up their minds in unique and important ways, even if it is simply introducing them to another famous person they’ve never heard of–this has been my bread and butter and one of the most enjoyable things about the job.
  5. I will miss the commute–not because I luxuriated inside of it, but because it was so short. It took me five minutes to drive to work, about 15 or less to bicycle there, and I have never been able to understand (because I guess I just didn’t need to) why anyone would want to drive an hour or more every day to get to their jobs. What a gift it has been to live in the neighborhood where I teach. But, as short as my commute was, there was still a kind of ritual about it. There was talk about how during quarantine people got kind of bugged by not getting inside their car twice a day for the commute. I understand that a little bit.
  6. I will miss taking on student teachers. In my world, we call them interns. I think over the course of my career I have taken under my proverbial wings about 10 individuals embarking on the journey towards becoming certified classroom teachers. On average then, I’ll host an intern once about every three years. The mentoring of a new teacher is exceedingly rewarding. In part, because teachers for the longest time (and often still) work in isolation, hosting a student teacher upends this isolation; it makes everything I do on a moment to moment basis as part of my gig suddenly explicit and visible. I have to talk about my craft in ways that I don’t talk about it with anyone else–and that’s good for the intern, sure, but for me, too, it’s often revelatory. Why am I doing that? What was the thinking behind this move or this choice? Why did I say that? How is the stuff that I do perceived or understood by the students or another adult in the room? What effect might this have? Pushing that button or moving this lever: what happens? Mentoring can be painful when things go sideways, but the triumph and pure joy over the victories makes it all worth it. And there have been victories in every case. And when Spring rolls around and the intern is ready to fly solo, what a gift there is then of TIME–to breathe, to plan, to create, and, because a student teacher never takes on a completely full load, to teach those classes WELL and EFFECTIVELY that are still in my responsibility. So interns, if you have been mine, from the deepest well of gratitude, I thank you! John K., Mary, Maggie, Jessica, Ellery, Ty, John M., Chuck, Max, and Erin–and a few others whose names I can’t recall right now because in just a few cases, I spent less time with them or shared them with another teacher. And thank you, Lewis and Clark College. Every intern I took on–except those ones whose names I can’t remember–came from LC, my alma mater for both my B.A. and my M.A.T.
  7. I will miss the silent classroom before any teaching. That’s a nod to Ralph Waldo Emerson, there. He was talking about silent churches and preaching, but it provides for me an almost perfect parallel. I love being in my room when it’s empty. I also love being in my room with 30 students who are all writing silently. The energy of the thought in the room is almost palpable, and to me, sacred. Also, and rare, those moments when a question or a problem is posed and there can sometimes be a whole minute of silence before someone speaks. There’s no way to monitor what’s actually happening inside each skull without an EEG hooked up to every kid, but there is a feeling in that silence sometimes of 30 brains inextricably thinking in tandem.
  8. And in related news, I will miss the resonance in the hallways and in the new commons, and those times, alone or almost alone in the building, where I would test out that resonance by singing something at the top of my lungs as I walked through the halls.
  9. Paradoxically, I will miss the feeling, the perpetual feeling, of always falling short of where I want to be–in terms of my skills, in terms of my relationships with all the human beings in the mix that is public education, in terms of the unity between what I believe and what I actually do, because of my own shortcomings or the systemic limitations and realities of the institution. The learning is never done. I have never “arrived.” I have never felt finished. And I have never completely and 100% to my satisfaction “figured it all out.” That was once a kind of goal of mine. I have finally and at long last let that baby go.
  10. And I will miss my colleagues. It might be impossible to put into words how I feel about these people. I will try. They have been inspiration and comfort. They have been a constant–a stabilizing and grounding force. They have been the source of endless amusement. They have been my teachers and collaborators, co-commiserators, and co-conspirators. They have been fonts of wisdom. They have been phenomenal role models. They have been friends. They feel like family. Most all the teachers over the years that have retired before me, even the ones I once considered friends, have, for all intents and purposes, kind of just disappeared from my life. I have, though, such strong feelings of connection and love for so many of the people that I worked with in our school house, that I want to endeavor to the very best of my ability to remain connected to this extraordinary community. I know my life would be diminished without these lovely people somehow still involved in it–so it is my deepest hope that these threads will remain strong. Only time will tell for sure, but for now, my parting does not feel like a final goodbye, more like a transition, a changing of the guard. The only final goodbyes come at the end of a life–and I have lost a number of colleagues over the years, but only one that I would have considered a close friend. Our beloved and controversial drama coach, Steve Quinn, died a year before my own father passed what must be at least a decade ago now. Steve did not have a chance to retire before a cancer took him away–but his legacy is strong to this day and I think about him often. One of the last things I pulled from my wall was a picture of him on a flier for a scholarship fundraising event in his honor.
The core subjects: Science (Jack, Richard, Allison), Social Studies (Megan, Josh), English (Cresslyn, Laura, Jill), Math (Tom) and Todd, a department almost unto himself. This photo was a retirement gift from my friend Josh, long-time co-teacher-history-counterpart and friend on the other side of the wall.
The late great Steve Quinn

There are things, I realize, as I wrap up this last entry in the countdown toward retirement, about which I have not yet had the opportunity to speak–at least in this forum. For the stories, the specific memories, a catalogue of shortcomings and blessings, one would have to turn back to the poems, many of which, or almost all of which, can be found in the poetry page or the teaching page on this blog site, and that I hope to collect and publish, someday very soon, into a book or two or three. Until then, I thank you for reading, for sharing this momentous experience with me, and for your support. I might take a little break from the blog at this point–but I have a feeling that break will be a short one. I’ll be back before you know it, likely before you realize I had been away.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

3 thoughts on “Who’s Counting? One Last One More

  1. Hey Michael! Thanks for the shout out on this post. I’ve been following along with your countdown. What’s strange is that I kind of had my own “intern” here at my school my 2nd year here. Actually the teacher was a push-in SPED support person, but were transitioning to full on EAL instructor. She said she learned a lot from me that year, mostly sitting in the back of the room taking notes—and to think that I was mostly just borrowing moves from you (modified for a grade 6 curriculum), refining and refining for that ongoing quest for the A-ha moment. The ripples roll ever outwards… Happy retirement!

  2. I have read this last entry in the countdown with my heart in my throat, remembering my own years in a high school classroom. Although I taught at the university level for another decade afterward, I never stopped missing the ragged, wonderful energy of high schoolers and their passionate becomings. In the list of 10 things you will miss, #7 and #9 especially got me. I am glad to see that you will likely be writing about all of this. I very much look forward to the book(s) that will come.

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