"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Identity


I was traveling in this dream, toward an unknown destination, trying to find my way. It was dark, maybe raining. Vaguely familiar people were traveling with me. There was a sense of urgency. At some point I realized I had lost my wallet and spent the remainder of the dream considering the consequences of that.

When I awoke from that dream it took hours before I realized I hadn't really lost the wallet. Never mind that I don't use a wallet. I started my day thinking I was going to have to start making phone calls to cancel credit cards - the dream was that strong.

It didn't take long before I realized the startlingly clear message of the dream: this loss of identity as I prepare to retire from teaching is a much bigger deal than I want to believe or have given credit to.

Regular readers here will know how much I've struggled in the last three decades with my teacher identity. I never intended for teaching to be a long-term career. There was too much about the profession that frustrated me and pinched me like Cinderella's slipper on the wrong foot.  And as the years passed, what I loved about teaching got harder and harder to claim.

Somehow I came to believe that because teaching was hard, and I struggled, and sometimes I failed, I couldn't really claim the title. I wasn't really sure I wanted to claim it. I wanted more for my life, and the older I got, the less I was able to claim any energy for more. So I became a teacher, a very tired teacher, and very little else. The ever elusive balance became harder and harder to achieve, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not do the job with only part of my heart and focus. Teaching is a profession that demands everything, and then some. I'm a person who has never been able to do anything in half measures.

It's only been these last few weeks, as the end of my career grows closer, that I have managed to embrace the whole package of my teacher identity. Just in time to release it.

I have been that teacher for a multitude of students - the one they'll never forget and the one who helped them discover a love of learning. The one who wore weird earrings and loved birds and books and writing. The one who was always ready with a hug and who cried with them over sad stories, whether from a book or from their lives. The one who told stories about her own childhood and her crazy pets. The one who promised to always be there if they needed anything.

I have been another kind of teacher for a handful of students - the one they remember as mean and too strict. If I could hug them all today and tell them I only wanted them to believe in themselves as much as I did, that I loved them, I would. If I could tell them I'm truly sorry for any pain I caused them, I would. I would tell them that the fear of hurting any child has stolen more hours of sleep from me than I care to count. And then I would encourage them to use their feelings and experiences with me to grow into kinder and more compassionate people, and move on.

The 1987-88 school year was my first as a teacher. I had 29 fifth grade students. One of them was a sweet and delightful girl named Mandi. Mandi was one of those students we'd love to fill our classes with: well-behaved, eager to learn and please, liked by her peers. She was someone I remembered clearly out of the nearly two thousand kids I've taught. At the beginning of this year, one of my girls, also a fifth grader, asked me if I remembered a student called Mandi (and she used her last name). I did. My new student was excited to tell me that former student is her Auntie Mandi.

Auntie Mandi came to the spring barbecue with my student's mom, her best friend. She came to see me. She's nearly 40 now, the short, dark, over-permed hair that embarrassed her so much in fifth grade replaced by longer lighter softer curls. But she was essentially the same Mandi I remembered. Light. Happy. Open. We laughed together over the album that contained pictures of her year, and she shared stories of some of her classmates she's still in contact with. We hugged like old friends. She said I was her favorite teacher, and whether it was a simple truth or a kindness, I accepted the gift of her words.

Yesterday Walt and I went to a soccer game. Several of my girls are on the same team and this was a much anticipated command appearance. I've gone to countless games and concerts and recitals over the years, and always loved seeing my kids out of the school context. I looked forward to this last one, knowing it was another last thing. Also knowing I'd get to see Bella. Bella who started the year with us, but moved midyear. One of those kids, like Mandi, who make the world a better place just with her easy presence.

As we stood on the sidelines in the late spring sunlight, watching girls I love play a game they love with power and intention, visiting with parents who were grateful for our attendance, I felt a deep sense of joy. When the game was over they made their way to me one by one until we were a rough circle. Bella was the first, so I had a few minutes to catch up with just her, to drink in her pretty face and lovely energy. Soon the space was filled with hard sweaty hugs and congratulations on hard play and goals shot. Smiles and laughter. Parting hugs. Parting waves.

Walking back to the car I realized this is what I'll miss most. Being a rock star. The spontaneous hugs. Seeing eyes light up when they see me. Feeling like a part of a hundred different families, and creating a nine-month family with 20 or 30 kids (or 100 like this year). Having a role in guiding another life toward their best path. Being a catalyst in the formation of a love of learning and books and words and birds and the whole large world that awaits each of my kids.

There is a movie trailer playing right now. It shows a man standing at the top of a skyscraper looking out over a city. He walks to the edge of the building, where a large metal beam extends out into the air. He steps onto the beam, looks down into nothingness with the ground so far away it's nearly invisible. The sense of vertigo is so strong I grip the arms of my chair. He extends his arms and one leg, a beautiful wingless bird on the verge of flight. That's what my life feels like right now as I prepare to create a new identity as a retired teacher (instead of a tired teacher). Leaving familiar ground, stepping joyfully into the air, trusting new ground to form as I go.



18 comments:

Linda Reeder said...

Once again you have created a masterpiece in writing, full of imagery and emotion. I can identify with much of this.
I have been a "retired teacher" for ten years now. Wow! That went fast. I did find new ground under my feet, and you will too. For me it was the intellectual stimulation I missed most, the constant need to problem solve that teaching requires. I missed the feeling of importance and power I felt at being a leader among our staff. That was very satisfying at the time. But I traded that all away for freedom and a lack of stress, from being burnt out to looking for new adventures. It didn't take long to find my days full of my new life.
Congratulations on your retirement. Drink in every feeling, every event, every emotional parting, and store it away in your heart. It will be there when you need it, in your memories.

Retired English Teacher said...

Linda Reeder is right. You have created a masterpiece in writing. Your second to last paragraph summed up the exact feelings I had as I left the classroom. Yes, at times, we do feel like rock stars. Mostly though, it is that building of a family with the students you teach. You become a part of their extended families because of the stories you share. They become a part of your heart because you nurtured seeds of growth in so many areas of life in the year you taught each child. Teaching is a beautiful, mysterious profession. It is a profession that exhausts, frustrates, enriches, and defines a life. It is not easy to leave it behind. It means that the teacher must do much reflection and processing of what one's life has meant as a teacher.

You will land on ground that will bring forth great fruit. I'm so happy for you.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Hang on to your identity as a teacher for a while. Take pride and satisfaction in being _that_ teacher for so many children, who are still making their ways through the world and passing along at least some of what you taught them. Be your own rock star for a while. Before long you'll find yourself rocking at other pursuits, and you'll still have those lovely memories to enjoy and celebrate.

DJan said...

I am thrilled that I will have the chance to witness what will happen with the next phase of your wonderful life, Deb. You have such a keen sense of how to express almost inexpressible feelings for all of us who have been teachers (even if, in my case, it was as a skydiving instructor) when it's time to move on to other pursuits. I remember a special teacher from fifty years ago, and while I've forgotten her name, I will always carry within me that seed she planted about language and its importance. I know you have done that for countless students. Blessings and thank you very much for this post. I am enriched. :-)

yaya said...

Best of luck with your new life..You will sore high and far and I look forward to reading your words and feeling your passion!

Linda Myers said...

You rock, Deb! And congratulations on this very, very large and glorious change.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

I feel your struggle, but I have many teacher friends (and other school staff) who have never regretted retirement. To get their education fix, they volunteer at the school district. Some sub, but honestly that's a tough one.

What you need to do in your upcoming spare time, is write a book with inspirational stories like this for teachers. Just a thought. Also, there are teacher publications that might use stories like this one. If you use this one, you'll have to tell them you've published it on your blog. Or you might remove it and see if that is okay with them. Lovely post.

Richard Hughes said...

Hi, Deb, I sometimes have lunch with a group of retired elementary school teachers. None of them regret retiring. They all have enough to fill their lives everyday. You probably have even more than they do to fill your life--your writing/blogging. You've written beautiful essays over the years I've been following you. I hope you continue producing them. That may be your real gift now to fulfill. You can explore new ideas and themes, if you wish. I'll be interested in how you do. Good luck in retirement.

Sandi said...

You nailed it, Deb, in the most beautiful and eloquent way possible. When I read your words, "this loss of identity as I prepare to retire from teaching is a much bigger deal than I want to believe or have given credit to", I knew that was what I was mourning.

I am thrilled to be officially retired, this being my first day I can say that, but already deeply missing those people who filled my daily life with their chatter and love.

Congratulations on a job well done in the classroom. I'm so glad you now have the luxury of time to write; time to gift the world with the treasures welling up from your heart and soul.

Sandi said...

You nailed it, Deb, in the most beautiful and eloquent way possible. When I read your words, "this loss of identity as I prepare to retire from teaching is a much bigger deal than I want to believe or have given credit to", I knew that was what I was mourning.

I am thrilled to be officially retired, this being my first day I can say that, but already deeply missing those people who filled my daily life with their chatter and love.

Congratulations on a job well done in the classroom. I'm so glad you now have the luxury of time to write; time to gift the world with the treasures welling up from your heart and soul.

tricia said...

You cannot ever remove yourself from the identity as teacher. So many former students love you so, so much. There is one I know who graduates next year. You will just also be sooo much more. You will feel complete and whole and amazing. Cannot wait to spend time with you to discuss this amazing life change.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

This is lovely. And, I'm late to the party reading it. But, another fine essay. I can't wait to see what you do with your time now. Hopefully, you'll sit back and just be for a while until you rest.

Be proud of your service to the teaching field. They will miss you, but just think how you'll get to enjoy yourself for a while. Cheers!

Charlene N.K. said...

You've spent most of your life in a great adventure. Now you have the rest of your life left to experience a whole new adventure. Fly gracefully and find your new place in the sun.
This is a wonderful post. A joy to read again!

Mark Lyons said...

I loved this post. It brought back my own memories of the classroom and made me ask myself why I left it. I have no doubts that one day, you'll be a "Rock Star" again and I hope to be one of your groupies.

Love you

Barb said...

Don't worry, Deb, you'll always retain the identity of teacher because it will keep blooming inside you, even if you don't have daily tasks in a classroom. Now enjoy being a teacher on your own time and with your own goals. You have many great memories - go and make some new ones! Congratulations and good luck!

Cynthia said...

That was so beautiful. I just completed my second year of being a "retired teacher" rather than a tired teacher and there are still pangs of sadness when I miss some of the things you mentioned and don't miss others at all. I have a new identity now that I'm happy with, but I will never forget the intensity of the years of being a teacher. You speak for many of us!

Terri Tiffany said...

Ive missed being here to your blog. I remembered that this was your final year and wondered how you were processing it. I loved reading this post! You were a huge blessing to so many faces over the years. We always remember our teachers. Who can forget those that encouraged us and taught us? You will always be remembered in so many hearts. That is a huge legacy.

Deborah Barker said...

Dreams are odd things aren't they? Windows to our sub conscious that sometimes reveal so much about ourselves. I love the way you write and the way you have interpreted that dream Deb. I wish you well with your retirement from teaching and I know you will not be forgotten by those pupils you so ably taught. Hang on to those memories that will surely warm your heart for years to come. :-)