Tag Archives: Rex Putnam High School

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, Mary, Maggie, Jessica, Ellery, Ty, 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.

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Who’s Counting? Another One

Once more with feeling. Do that to me one more time. Once over. Once bitten. Last time around. Last dance. That Morrissey lyric: “This is the last song I will ever sing. No, I’ve changed my mind again. Goodnight, and thank you.” I’m not changing my mind. It’s too late for that noise. Babe, I’m leaving. I must be on my way. Or, I’m leaving on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again. Welcome to the “last” blog entry in my countdown to retirement.

I’m in my classroom this Tuesday morning, perhaps, for the last time ever. If I’m going to make it through all of this music before I leave today, I’m going to have to get this party started. It’s 8:15 in the morning, and the first record on the platter, continuing alphabetically by artist, from Z to A: Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever. I love this record, surprisingly, and I love this human. What a cool kid. It would have been a hoot to have her as a student. Alas–as far as I understand, she was home-schooled. It’s interesting to think about how public education would have changed her. For better, or worse? No matter. It appears that her folks did a first-rate job. Public education should be for everybody, right, that’s the whole damn point. But at the same time, it must be said, public education is not, actually, for everybody. Now there’s a thought with which to begin the day. I think people who bypass public education for religious reasons or because they can afford to send their little people to exclusive private schools are hurting their children and the public good. But I think there are exceptions–students who are truly better served by an alternative. Billie may be one of those. This is a thorny issue into which I am not fully prepared to wade or dive. Not right now.

I’m looking around at my classroom and feeling totally overwhelmed. Where to begin. I need a system. This is insane. I should have hired a crew. The next album on the turntable, Elbow, Flying Dream 1, provides a bit of a balm right now to the craziness ahead. Such a beautiful record.

I’m pulling things of the walls and taking pictures of things I love and trying not to be sentimental. Sometimes it’s really hard–and then attempting to sing along with Elbow in certain moments puts me in dicey territory. Next record: Deep Sea Diver, Impossible Weight. The music today seems chosen for the occasion–but really, I’m just working my way backwards through the alphabet.

I just signed out of Synergy for the very last time. No more attendance. No more record-keeping. No more massive student databases.

Listening to The Dear Hunter, Act IV and Act V, again, appropriate, and Shakespearean. What a brilliant band that no one’s ever heard of. I’ve encountered exactly one person who knew who they were–a pharmacist of all people, working in my local Fred Meyers.

And now is the time to decide what has to come home with me. I’m leaving almost all of the books here. In my own home I know that I will never be at a loss for something to read for the rest of my existence. I’ll cherry pick some really cool things: the poetry mostly. There’s an entire library here about teaching. Do I need these? As much as I have loved Alfie Kohn, and as much as he has completely shaped my teacher brain, I will not likely read him again. Maybe he will be helpful to another teacher? A very tentative maybe. I’m leaving ’em. I’m also looking at shelves of VHS tapes and DVDs. Audio books on CD. All antiquated technology that if not handled properly will end up in a landfill. Do I take these? I can’t bring myself to take them. Again, always the optimist, someone will appreciate them. Someone has a newish DVD player with an HDMI output. My colleague, Sara, won my classroom in a lottery. She’s moving in. She has one of these things, I bet.

The Color Purple quilt
Life of Pi
A gift from a student with a keen sense of humor

There is art on the walls made by students from the last decade, the decade before that, and the one before that. I’m taking pictures of these things. I’m bequeathing this one to my dear friend Jill. She read this out loud to me today and I practically lost it. I’m reading it out loud here, keeping it together.

Art by Andrea Nguyen

I have given up on getting all the way through these record albums today. It’s almost one o’clock now, The Dear Hunter albums are both double records and I am starting to run out of steam. And yet, I might have to be here a while longer. My family brought me a coffee, but are they staying to help? No, they are not. We’ll see if I can get through C in the alphabet: Lucy Dacus, Crowded House, Jonathan Coulton, Elvis Costello, Childish Gambino, and Cheap Trick. Nope. It’s 3:30. I’ve been taking almost everything off the walls. I’m leaving the staples. Sorry, Sara.

I have made my way finally to the file cabinets and I am ruthless. I barely look at the stuff as I chuck it over my shouIder into the recycling bins. The only file folders I keep are for the units I know my friend Cresslyn will teach next year. I put all of these in a special file box labeled “for Cresslyn.” Time passes. I only make it through the Crowded House album, again appropriately, Dreams are Waiting. I should have started this listening project a week earlier. Now I have unfinished business. That’s OK. When I get home: Black Country New Road, black midi, and David Bowie. There have been no artists in my classroom collection whose band name or last name begins with the letter A.

Jill helps me carry boxes out to the car. She is the teacher in the English department who has been with me the longest. She started teaching at Putnam only three or four years after me. For the last several years we have taught right across the hall from each other, keeping each other company, checking in on a daily basis, venting, laughing, helping each other with this or that, problem-solving. I like to borrow things from her, like her broom and dustpan, or her blue painting tape. She has become such an integral part of my day, her presence, her kindness, her cheer, that a day without seeing her or talking to her seems like a total failure of a day. I will need to say more about her. I will need to say more about Cresslyn. I wanted to make a list today of the things I will miss about teaching–and these two incredible people, Jill and Cresslyn, will figure largely into that list. But it’s 4:00 pm. I can’t fit everything into my car. I will have to come back into the building tomorrow–so there will be one last day, a bonus day, a day on which I will pack up the rest of my stuff and make the final list of my teaching career.

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Who’s Counting? Three

One is the loneliest number–so say Three Dog Night. However, three (the pop rock trio must have known), is a magical number. It’s lucky. Good things come in threes. Three Dog Night. Rush. The Police. Three times the charm. Three bears. The father, son, and the holy ghost. Mind, body, spirit. Three is time-tied: beginning, middle, and end, or past, future, and present, or birth, life, and death. You’ve got three guesses and three wishes. Three strikes and you’re out. Three sides of a triangle. The perfect number. And I am three work days away from retirement from 33 years in public education, an entire career teaching English Language Arts in the same school, the school that also happens to be my alma mater, the school where my own son currently finishes up his 10th grade year.

So here we are, counting down the days, keeping a little record of those days in the blogosphere, administering finals to my remaining groups of sophomores, recovering from mild but persistent side-effects of my second booster vax, listening to all the records in my classroom collection backwards alphabetically, and trying to finish up all of the things on my to-do list: grading finals, submitting final grades, and packing up for moving out.

We begin the day at the letter M, spinning the most recent offering from one of the most prolific bands in contemporary rock, The Mountain Goats. Three full studio albums in one year, by my count. This one, the appropriately titled “Dark In Here,” is the soundtrack during the 3rd period final, my preparation period, where I am wrapping up the recording of finals from the previous two days and finding an opportunity, hopefully, to start going through and recycling “the files,” three decades worth of paper things across 9 gigantic and seem-bursting file cabinet drawers.

These file cabinets have been mostly stagnant now going on three years. Teachers are generating less paper. Handouts are often digital or reproduced in miniature for minimum paper waste or for pasting handouts and various literary goodies inside of composition notebooks for annotation and response. And last year, during distance learning, in large part continuing through this year, nearly everything has been delivered in a digital format. I predict soon that we will see a paperless classroom, but for now, here’s three decades worth of paper that now needs to be recycled. Except for this one: the one that contains all the journals and notebooks I have kept through almost an entire career.

Yes, it’s true that when I started teaching, teachers did not have a computer in the classroom. All of my lesson plans were handwritten inside of spiral notebooks. For years I did this, often scripting a lesson word-for-word by hand in what used to be a very neat and legible print. I do not think I want to trash these notebooks. I’m not sure why and I will probably regret it as I cart them home and then attempt to find a place to store them until I die. Generally speaking, I have difficulty getting rid of these kinds of artifacts, things that I have created in words or in art. I’ve got a novel I wrote by hand in the 6th grade. I’ve got fake album covers for fantasy rock bands I created around the same era. What is up with that? I rarely look at them–every once in a long while, mostly, by accident when I am rearranging things inside the basement “scary room.” Why keep them? I have kept most things I have ever written, as I see them as a kind of photo album of my brain in its development over time. And I guess that’s interesting to me. Beyond pure photographic or biological evidence, it is proof of my existence.

Next up moving backwards alphabetically, I’m spinning Mitski, Laurel Hell, in the minutes before another group of 10th graders arrive for their Romeo and Juliet semester final.

And here they are! A music video of a rap that covers the entire story of Romeo and Juliet replete with quotes from the play intermingled with the students’ own clever rhymes and hip-hop moves–clocking in at about seven and a half minutes; a one pager that asserts that Shakespeare’s play romanticizes suicide; a symbolic interpretation using a paper mache rose balancing precariously on a triangular base; an essay that applies Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to the tragic heros, a beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully defended recreation of the death scene, and other meticulously arranged articulations of the learning from Shakespeare’s most famous love story. With regards to the art, in any other year I would be saving the best ones for next year’s classroom decor, using them as examples of great work for the incoming students–but this year, in an almost heartbreaking way, I asked them all to take their projects home. Which brings me to another aspect of the end of my term here in the schoolhouse. What do I do with the projects I have hanging currently on my classroom walls from students through three decades? My hope is that one of my colleagues will want to hang on to some of this brilliant stuff, some of which dates back all the way to the 1990’s. I can’t be taking it home with me, although, I must say, in a couple of cases, I’m seriously thinking about it.

And as the half day ends, the rest of the day is now open for knocking off the items on the to-do list. There are no records in my classroom collection by artists that begin with the letter L, so while I get a little bite to eat and rest up a bit from that last energetic group of 10th grade final projects, I’m heading to Kansas for their most recent studio album, an album I find almost as captivating and engaging as ever I found Leftoverture or Point of No Return: The Absence of Presence. Kind of a dorky title, I know, but it’s a super strong record from the classic prog band. Guitar solos! Odd time signatures! Rock and roll fiddle! and Tom Brislin on keyboards and songwriting–go ahead, look him up. You won’t be sorry.

Fourth period reflections, done. Fourth period Romeo and Juliet projects, done.

Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee, is today’s fourth album to spin on this third day away from retirement. As soon as this last song is over I’ve got to visit the library to swap a bar code or two or three in exchange for my ratty, teacher annotated copies of books I’ve been teaching these last couple of decades. Until I return, here’s some eye candy for the ears, today’s playlist:

Mission accomplished. It’s almost 3 o’clock already. I’ve got a drumming gig tonight at the very wine bar at which I will host my retirement shindig this weekend. A bunch of colleagues are getting together after work for drinks. I won’t have time to join them before I have to head out with my drums, and I’m kind of bummed about that. It’s another one of those things that I don’t want to miss. There’s only so much time in which to do all the things. Some things you gotta skip. But even though I’ve had time today to get started putting things in boxes and recycling the prodigious content of those filing cabinets, I have not even started. Something there is that doesn’t want to start packing. I’m not sure what this means.

That’s all for now, until tomorrow!

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Who’s Counting? Six

I said I wasn’t counting the days until retirement. In fact, it’s been a point of pride for me. Look, I seem to be saying, I don’t know how many days are left in the school year and isn’t that special? But, as it gets close enough to poke with a stick and impossible to pretend, I thought it would be funny to do a series of countdown blog entries, to begin, as they say, to count the days. Maybe it would be entertaining or edifying, I thought, to make a record, to document the close of my last school year.

Here is a kind of bullet list record of today, 6 days away from the end.

  • My covid 19 booster #2 kicked in at about midnight, and, while my reaction was nowhere near as hideous as it has been for previous shots, it nevertheless disturbed the sleep in a big way. My brain was in a kind of nonsensical feedback loop from which I could not break free until about five in the morning. I rallied. I’m here, standing upright, but clearly not at peak performance.
  • That’s okay. My two groups of sophomores, due to a bizarre scheduling kerfuffle, had one more day than my other groups of sophomores. They had a choice: spend some extra time preparing for their final project on Romeo and Juliet, or enjoy (what they had been clambering for throughout the unit) the cinematic masterpiece that is Gnomeo and Juliet. Guess which one they chose.
  • While there are a few clever parallels and some Shakespeare easter eggs peppered throughout, watching this film had next to no educational value. Maybe that’s harsh. There’s always something to learn from a well-made computer generated animated film. And it had Elton John’s music in it. The students were happy.
  • My second period seniors have flown the coop. They were done last Thursday–so I’ve got extra time today to get through stacks of Romeo and Juliet journals, to peck away at this little entry, and to nurse my vaccination side-effect blues with some premium gummy worms.
  • Goals: get through my grading to-do list so that there’s plenty of time to get through the removal of 33 years of collected crap in the classroom to-do list.
  • Goals: listen to every album in the classroom record collection from start to finish once, moving backwards through the alphabet. First up: Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites.
  • Goals: begin the process of bequeathing things, to sign away “What portion of me be/Assignable–” I don’t want to end up like Steve Martin’s the Jerk on my last day, taking everything I can carry in my arms, unable to leave anything behind. This ashtray. This paddle game. These matches. This lamp. The chair, and the remote control. That’s all I really need.
  • Second up: Steven Wilson’s Insurgentes.
  • I burned through three piles of Romeo and Juliet journals.
  • For the second time, I signed a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go for a graduating senior.
  • I picked up a robe for the graduation ceremony.
  • Today is the last full school day of the year and of the career. That one refuses to fully sink in. Tomorrow begins a four day final exam schedule. I need to rest off this vaccination funk. Two different doctor’s appointments in the afternoon. Too toasty to play drums tonight. Rehearsal canceled. I get home and it’s nearly 6:30.

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Notes On Retirement

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.

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A Talk at the 2015 Rex Putnam High School Graduation Ceremony

Class of 2015: Good morning!

Many of you have seen a music video on youtube in which a young man wearing a yellow suit, a blue bow tie, and beige converse high tops, bounces up and down, gestures maniacally, and moves rhythmically in a way that sort of resembles “dancing;” his eye make-up is sweating off, and he’s lip syncing to a song he wrote about a “blue refrigerator.” Have you seen this thing? Okay, well, I have a confession to make. That guy was me. I know. I was that guy.

It was 1987, I was probably not more than three years older than you are now, having dropped out of college because my parents had not anticipated me wanting to go and had run out of money, and having recently tied the proverbial knot with my high school sweetheart, I thought for sure, with all of my soul, that I was going to be a rock and roll star, that I would make my living making weird rock music about kitchen appliances and I would only have to work at 7-11 until I signed the multi-album record contract.

This is just to say that when I was your age I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. That’s not entirely true. How about this: I didn’t know where I was going. I would not have been able to tell you that by some fluke of super dumb luck, I would be able to finish my English degree and continue on for a Masters in Teaching at a swanky private school, tuition free. I would not have predicted, in my wildest dreams, even after I decided that teaching might be a thing, that first of all, it would be a profession that I would love, and that secondly, I would end up spending an entire career back where I had started—at my alma mater—at Rex Putnam High School. You think 4 years is a long time? Try 31.

To start with, if my job tonight is to impart some kind of wisdom to you good people about your future, here’s the first part:

You have no idea. You have no idea.

Looking back I think that I should have been absolutely terrified. To be 21, married, working at a convenient store: terrifying. But I wasn’t terrified. And neither should you be. Maybe you’re as clueless now as I was then, or maybe you have some notion, some direction, or maybe some of you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but I’m telling you, you will go mostly blind into the future, and the challenge is to be prepared for all kinds of surprises, to be okay with that, to revel in the uncertainty of it, the ambiguity of it all, the mystery, the adventure, and, as Rilke advised us, to “learn to love the questions themselves.”

I’m having a déjà vu moment here. In 1983 I spoke at my high school graduation. I was Grant Luecke, a less impressive Grant Luecke(1).  I only remember one thing I said. I concluded with some family story about my dad taking me to the oyster beds at Hood’s Canal and rewarding me with a drink of his beer if I could swallow a raw oyster from the shell. And the whole point of that little anecdote was to say to my classmates that the world was their oyster and that they should eat it raw.

What a dumb thing to say.

I mean yeah, okay, we’ve all heard the cliché, yes, that the world is our oyster, but no, it’s really not. It is not a thing to be swallowed or eaten or conquered—it owes us nothing—and we have no right to demand that it fulfills all of our wishes. So one of the reasons I am so honored and thankful to the class of 2015 for inviting me to speak at your graduation, is I finally get to revise the speech I gave 32 years ago. And to deliver it in a better venue. In my day, we held the graduation ceremony in the gym at Rex Putnam. That’s right.

So, how would I revise that “world is your oyster” piece of non-wisdom nonsense?

I guess I would advise against the notion that your job from here on out is to go out and “get,” but rather, your job is to go out and “be,” to go out and “live,” to go out and “connect” meaningfully, respectfully and joyfully with people and the world, and to find a sense of authenticity, to be authentic.

Live your own life, not someone else’s. Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your stupid smart devices and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself. Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology. Don’t be a tool. There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts. Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

Notice I haven’t said anything in my revision of the oyster advice about writing a great essay or analyzing text or reading great literature. Don’t get me wrong, here. It’s not that I don’t think these things are monumentally important—but they are not the end—they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it–the true purpose of the last 13 years of your school experience: Learning to befriend your mind, learning to use your mind well will help you create a more peaceful world, will make you more empathetic and less selfish, will help you make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own passions, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you. As far as your future goes: treat your life as if it were a work of art and a gift to the world. Try to make it beautiful. And as Frederick Buechner has said, try to find “a place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Surprisingly, as clueless as I was in 1987, I was attempting to say some of these things in that silly video for an otherwise pretty good song. Find yourself a blue refrigerator, people. It will keep things cool.

With love, deep appreciation and gratitude for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2015.

 

(1) Grant Luecke was the student speaker at this graduation ceremony.

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