Thursday, June 10, 2010

at long last

Finally. After 40 years of teaching high school English, Mary is starting the next phase of her life. She is retiring from the classroom.

In some ways the decision to retire was an easy one to make. She is close to the burned out state that people reach after so many years of effort and dedication. She really needs some downtime now. And in some ways the retirement decision was a most difficult one to make because teacher is who she is. She defines herself with that title. Teaching is all she ever wanted to do and all she has ever done. Quitting that vocation, that lifestyle, is going to be a difficult adjustment to make.

Over the past few weeks she has been gratified by the attention her retirement decision has generated among her colleagues, administrators, and even former students. All those kind words have helped her ease into the realization that this actually happening. She has had numerous opportunities to conjure up memories of the far past in her teaching career and to realize how far she has come. What a long strange trip it’s been.

Mary started her teaching career in a small town high school teaching Spanish as well as English to mostly farm kids. Her debut as a teacher happened before her actual graduation from UW-Madison, since the second semester of the high school year started before she received her diploma in January of 1971. After a year and a half at that school she got the job in the suburban school she is now retiring from. We left the small town for better opportunities in the big city and have never regretted the decision.

It’s instructive to look back and remember the situation at the time of her hiring at this suburban school. During her job interview the principal warned her not to get pregnant, though she kept her fingers crossed while making that promise. You simply couldn’t get away with that today. He also informed her that he would never hire a homosexual teacher. He must not have been to familiar with his faculty at the time since the English department head was openly gay. Again, such a comment today would bring the wrath of the ACLU as well as the legal might of the EEOC down on his head. She likes to remind people that her starting salary at the time was $7400 and that she was thrilled to get it. Different times indeed.

Mary’s ability as a teacher has been demonstrated over the years by her uncanny skill at reaching the most reluctant students. She has always had the lower echelon of student in her classes. That is to say the “A” students and the college prep students and the Honors students were conspicuously absent from her classes. She was challenged by those students who wouldn’t know a noun from a verb and who weren’t the least bit interested in finding out the difference. That she was able to reach those recalcitrant students and make them not only aware of nouns and verbs, but also teach them the finer points of American literature and have them be glad for the knowledge is a testimony to her remarkable ability. Getting her students to read and appreciate what literature can bring to their lives was her most cherished accomplishment.

The knowledge that she was able to influence the lives of nearly ten thousand students in her teaching life is borne out by the many times that she has been accosted by former students in public places like the mall or a restaurant and greeted with a “Mrs. C, Mrs. C, remember me? You were my favorite teacher. I loved your class. That paper you made us write helped me so much when I got to college.” In the past few years she has even been surprised at parent/teacher conferences when the parents she is talking to are former students who have chosen her as the teacher they want for their children. They all speak of her in terms that make you understand that not only was she a great teacher, but also someone who really, really cared about her students. You can’t fake that sincere caring attitude and her students know that. When the generations of students who have passed through her classroom all agree that she was as much a mother figure for them as well as a teacher, you know she was doing something right.

One of her greatest strengths through the years has been her wonderful sense of humor. Whenever trouble reared it head in the classroom, her quick wit invariably defused the situation. That her sense of humor targeted herself most often just made her more endearing to her students and fellow teachers. There are so many “Mary C” stories--the stories that feature her in some ridiculous situation of her own making--that have been told and retold over the the years that they have become part of the fabric of life at her school. That ability to laugh at herself first and never make a fool out of anyone else has to be one of her most wonderful gifts.

So now as her 40th year of teaching draws to a close and she prepares to embark on the next leg of her journey, her head is filled with excitement and, yes, doubt about where she is headed next. After 41 years of being married to her, I am just as apprehensive and excited as she is. Whatever the future holds, we will experience it together just as we have shared every other moment, both good and bad (but overwhelmingly good), of our lives. The future is now and together we will meet it head on with lots of love and as much laughter as we can stand.

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