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Virginia Journal of Education


The Little Things

What one retired teacher appreciates about her new life -- while grieving her old one.


by Kathy Sydnor

Over the last 20-something months since I retired, I have alternated between being happy about having real free time and being lonely for my life as a teacher, colleague, student and friend at school. Along the way, I decided that taking note of and being consciously grateful for some of the activities that I now could do would help me better adjust to the changes in my situation.  So I began a list of “little things to appreciate.”

1. Not having to get up at the crack of dawn—unless I really, truly, absolutely (foolishly?!) want to.
Almost immediately, I came up with a dozen or so specifics.

2. Redeeming random but substantial coupons on a regular basis—e.g., free Dairy Queen Blizzards, the daily payback from the local newspaper, 20 percent off a $25 purchase at a pharmacy or a variety store.

3.  Feeling less guilty about driving a “big” car since I no longer drive to work each day and sometimes go days without driving at all.
A few more were added as the seasons came and went.

4. Seeing the yellow fall crocuses and spring daffodils in bloom every day instead of just on weekends when actually at home during daylight hours.

5. Walking in snow showers rather than worrying about the work I should be catching up on.

6. Building a mini-snowman instead of just cleaning off or digging out my car.
Still other specifics were generated as I reflected on what I had written earlier.

7.  Not having to agonize over whether I have to drive in snow, sleet or wintery mix to get to school or over how to “get everything done” when the schedule changes due to snow days.
My list became part of my process of (and progress in) “weaning away” from the teaching life—to echo the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I suppose I was (still am?) moving through a revised or personalized version of the generally accepted stages of grief because of the loss of my daily work routine, which had largely defined me for 31 years. My students—some more than others, of course—were like my adopted children. My colleagues were my work family that I saw every day, and room 32 in the old King George High School building was my home for almost as many hours a week as my literal home was.  (I actually had the same classroom during my entire teaching career—a unique situation!)

8. Being excited about grading a set of vocabulary quizzes for a colleague/friend (I could feel my eyes light up!)
Despite all of the losses, I don’t think that I experienced much shock (an early stage of grief, along with disbelief) about leaving teaching. I had been working myself up to taking the step as year 30 approached and as it became ever more clear that a new high school was going to be completed around that landmark year.  I did experience some disbelief, especially in the responses of former students whom I would frequently encounter.

9. Going to a school sports event rather than reading compositions.
Denial was the next stage. I didn’t experience too much of that, either.

10. Stopping and “talking” to the neighborhood kitty cats and taking the time to wait for and watch their reactions.
Although I am very much an emotions- or feelings-based person, I am also very practical and fairly realistic. I could not deny that the forms had been filled out and sent away, the required letters had been written, the good-byes had been said, the thank yous had been shared, and the room (after three weeks and one day—symbolic in an unplanned way!) had been cleaned out. I had officially retired.

11. Going to a Neil Diamond concert on a “school” night.
However, bargaining did kick in.

12. Accepting a last minute invitation to go on a day trip.
I began to look for reasons and ways to return to my home school, to be a part of the job that was done there. I found sympathetic current English department members/former English colleagues who kindly let me “help” them by being a guest in their classrooms on “special” days.

13. Visiting classes for National Punctuation Day after also designing and executing a t-shirt for the celebration—all because I wanted to, was excited to, did not have to, had time to.
Colleagues in the special education department and their art and physical education partners allowed me to continue the reading-writing-sharing program that my creative writing students, the special ed students, the special ed teacher, and I had begun about eight years ago. I go in every few weeks and share readings with the TMH students. The same preschool and elementary colleagues who had let my creative writing students and me visit on Read across America Day allowed me to continue that tradition also.

14. Reading my education-related, professional magazines during the same year that I receive them.
I even invented new reasons to return to the high school—for example, to do volunteer hall duty for a few days during National Education Week in November and during Teacher Appreciation Week in May.

15. Saying, “Yes, I can” immediately when someone needs to stay during the day with my mother.
Basically, I could “help” others by helping myself.

16. Going to a doctor at the beginning of a sickness rather than scheduling a visit around which day would work better for substitute plans.
Guilt, a successive stage, would surface when I would visit the school and interrupt teachers as they tried desperately to do so much in so little time (I knew the feeling intimately).

17. Taking a walk more frequently—for health’s sake, for a little socializing, for viewing and reveling in my surroundings.
Although I enjoyed catching up with them (and I hope the feeling was mutual), I knew that I was keeping them from doing some school-related task. I remembered always being simultaneously pressed for time though enjoying company, so I felt guilty for sidetracking them. I also felt guilty that they still faced the constant academic, interpersonal, parental, etc., challenges while I did not. True, I deserved to be free, for I had made it through many years of those challenges. Still, I guess I felt a sort of survivor’s guilt.

18. Sending on-time birthday cards, random thinking-of-you notes, and other keeping-in-touch mail on a rather regular basis.
The next stage—anger—was not one that I experienced in relation to my education life. Like shock, it was not part of my grief process about teaching per se.

19. Watching blue jays until they cease making loud, urgent cries instead of getting irritated that they are making noise.
The stage of depression manifested itself, it seems, in several varied ways. I actually began a second list titled “Little Things I Really Miss about Being a Teacher.” Number one was: Wearing a dress, skirt, jumper, suit, etc., on a regular basis and feeling good about trying to look professional.  (I am an old-school teacher when it comes to educators’ dress code.) Then, I became more depressed because that “little thing” seemed rather superficial.

20. Viewing movies to which students had referred in class discussions but to which I, regretfully, could not relate.
Number two was: Being able to share a literary reference that I had seen or heard in an unusual way (e.g., Scarlet Letterman) although, happily, I am getting to use and share several allusions in this writing! In fact, before I had completed even the first page of my list of little things for which I was grateful, I wrote an observation on the paraphrased George Bernard Shaw thought that youth is wasted on the young. I scribbled, “Is retirement ‘wasted’ on a teacher?” This notion sprang up because I noticed that my thankful list included several “little things” that would have enabled me to be a more informed, more up-to-date, more relaxed, less fatigued, less stressed, less frantic teacher. In essence, I could have been a better teacher. I had more time for “luxury” activities, but I did not have the daily opportunity and outlet to share possibly better approaches with my intended audience (students); to try out creative angles on required writing and reading; or to rejoice in the discovery of new music, art, current event, film, television, game show, whatever connections to subjects being studied. This realization was upsetting—i.e., depressing.

Number three on the second list was: Discovering that the callus on my right index finger had decreased—the callus I had had since learning to write and which had grown as I had progressed in my education and my career, only fading a little each summer. (Maybe this is something that should be on both of my lists!)

21. Going to a family event on a Sunday instead of doing lesson plans for the week.
True, I have kept very busy with family responsibilities, but I have missed what being at school offered. I have tried not to make myself the fish-like visitor in the Ben Franklin aphorism as I continued my bargaining antics . . . uh, activities. I have tried not to become depressed.

22. Catching up on popular and now modern classic movies of the last three decades.
Finally have come acceptance and hope. I have struggled daily with the first because daily I am reminded of some “little things to appreciate” as well as some “little things I really miss.”

23. Watching virtually every episode I had never before seen from years and years of “Law and Order,” “Law and Order:  Special Victims Unit,” and “Law and Order:  Criminal Intent.”
Hope has been possible because I have always been a believer in “The thing with feathers--/  That perches in the soul--/  And sings. . .”

24. Cooking a small cake or a few place-and-bake cookies or a pan of brownies when my turn comes to help hostess an event rather than making a stop at a grocery’s bakery.
Plus, how could I have been a teacher for so long and not have hope?

25. Re-watching episodes of “All in the Family” and getting to laugh at them all over again—and with more understanding, appreciation and awareness of their quality as classic comments on “regular/average” people.
On that note, I shall continue to list more of the joys of retirement. I have been experiencing one of them here:

26. Having time myself to write rather than only having time to critique students’ writing.
It connects well to another currently appreciated activity.

27. Considering actually submitting a writing for (some kind of) publication.

Sydnor is a retired lifetime member of the NEA and VEA. She was a member of the King George Education Association for her entire 31-year teaching career, all spent at King George High School—the “old” building!

 


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