When meeting someone new, it is common to be asked, “What do you do?” When answering I now must add the word “retired” before the words “librarian” or “teacher.” However the word is so new, it feels like a pair of ill fitting shoes. My feet are lost inside with toes wiggling anxiously afraid to take a step. I dig in my heels and think of moving backwards, because moving ahead might mean stumbling or prat falling like a clown. Instead, I stand stock-still between backwards and forwards wondering what to make of this new stage of life…retirement.
Oddly enough, the word retire means to draw back. It is used to describe stepping away from a career, but also to withdraw from a place or activity. Yet withdrawing is exactly what I do not want to do. I think subconsciously this is why I became a teacher. I wanted to be in the midst of people especially young people. I wanted to be a part of a community. So after graduating from college, I chose a community that gave me just what I wanted and needed… a school.
My first job was at Monaview Elementary in Greenville S.C. Monaview was a Title I school meaning that more than half of the student body came from low income families. In the 1970’s, Greenville was predominately a mill workers town. Yet, the textile boom was winding down with the upturn of automation, foreign competition and other factors. You could see it and feel it in the kindergarten students I taught. It was my first taste of abject poverty…a scraping by that meant clothes were often stained, language was coarse, and snack the highpoint of the day. After a few home visits, I found out that many of my students lived in trailers, and one child walked on dirt floors.
I taught two sessions a day with 20 plus students in each class. Parents referred to these sessions as the “first” and “second shift.” The first two years were a grind trying to find a way to manage so many little ones who came from a world so very different from mine. I vividly remember being told by my principal that my mentor from college was “disappointed” with what she saw in my classroom. I briefly thought of quitting but began seeking advice from older more seasoned teachers. I learned how to better manage my classroom and make biscuits. Eventually I found myself back in my professor’s good graces, and she began placing student teachers in my classroom. When we moved to Tennessee and I applied for a job in Nashville, she wrote a glowing recommendation.
I began my career inMNPS (Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools) at a school similar to Monaview. Students were primarily from low income families. The biggest difference was that the school was designed with the “open space concept”…meaning that the classrooms had no walls so the children could flow independently to learning centers. However, as one teacher wryly commented, “California was figuring out that open space wouldn’t work when we built this school.” In other words, we put inner-city children into unwalled classrooms and only created chaos and noise. However, the one thing I did enjoy was being close to colleagues. Teaching can be a lonely job, and it was nice to see another adult just over the book shelf. However, schedules had to jive, and it was all too easy to rely on colleagues to “watch” your class. It took much grace and patience to work those struggles out.
After working at MNPS for 10 years, I was unexpectedly downsized and forced to spend a summer peddling my resume to principals throughout the district. It was the summer before my daughter was to start college and my emotions were all over the map. Just a week before school was to start, I got a call from a former colleague about an opening at a school downtown…a school noted for its involved parents and excellent faculty. On her recommend, I snagged an interview and for the first time in my life interviewed in front of a large group of faculty and parents. Had I known that ahead of time, I would have been terrified. However, for some reason I was uncharacteristically calm. Perhaps it was because I had been turned down so many times that summer, I reasoned I had nothing to lose. I did get the job and spent the next eight years at Eakin Elementary.
Unlike all the other schools I taught at, Eakin was very different. At the time, it was housed in two old, historic buildings. The classrooms were light filled with transoms and high ceilings, but there were the annoying problems of faulty plumbing, rodents, bats, and leaking ceilings. When I first arrived, Eakin’s student population was unique as well. The parents of the neighborhood students were college educated and deeply involved in the school. We also had a large contingent of international students whose parents were attending nearby Vanderbilt University. Eakin was also considered a “lottery” school, in which students from other parts of the city applied to go there. It was a unique and happy school whose motto was, “Eakin Gives You the World.” In 2001, I had 7 different countries represented in my kindergarten class. After those planes plummeted into the World Trade Center, I garnered much hope from the diverse faces of the students and parents who shared our grief.
Through the years, changes began to make Eakin feel different. Our zoning changed which included a larger contingent of students living in poverty. A new director of ELL (English Language Learning) assigned all our international students to one classroom per grade level. The changes left regular classrooms filled with neighborhood students and students living in poverty. Suddenly, my classroom was no longer a diverse melting pot, but a clearly divided group of “haves” and “have-nots.” I had to balance the needs of students who arrived ready to read with a basket full of life and school experiences against the needs of students who had never left their inner city neighborhood or been in school before. It took patience and a pedagogical jujitsu to meet each child’s needs. As the years went by, I also saw more and more students who needed social and emotional support beyond the classroom. Students who were traumatized by experiences any adult would find hard to overcome without support. Suddenly, I was seeing a different kind of poverty…a poverty of spirit. It chilled me and wore me down. So much so that I decided it was time to leave and try something else.
For the next few years, I bounced around a bit. I tried a brief stint as an itinerant teacher for the the gifted and talented program. However, I found traveling from school to school terribly lonely. When I dropped a portable TV on my leg as I lugged it to the car, I made the decision to “take this job and shove it” and return to the classroom. I then worked at a Spanish immersion school the first year it opened. I do not speak Spanish, but I was hired as a 1st grade teacher in a “regular” classroom. It was not a good fit either, but I found myself hanging around the library across the hall. It was a place of quiet respite, and the librarian patiently answered my nonstop questions about her job. Mid-year I decided to enroll in graduate school and earn my certification in Library Science. At the end of the year, I was hired as a librarian before I finished my degree. I remember I put a bright happy face sticker on the door key. Each morning as I unlocked the library door, it reminded me of how grateful I was to be there. Three years later the librarian at Eakin emailed me to say that she was going to take a sabbatical and would I like to apply for her job. Thus, I was able to finish my career doing what I loved in a community that I still loved dearly.
As I look back on my career, I carry both dismay and hope for the future of education in this country. I worry about all the “extras” that have been heaped upon teachers since 1973…rigor, changing standards, evaluations, hoops and jumps to go through for our students most in need, and the continued bait and switch of methodology often without proper vetting or research to back it up. I have sorrow for colleagues who have lost the joy of teaching yet continue to collect a paycheck . Their disappointment and sarcasm do little to bolster colleagues or the profession. I mourn the loss of excellent public school teachers to the innovation and better support of private schools. Yet, I also carry hope…hope in the many, many hard working teachers who balance family life, their health, and the needs of their students in a most demanding job. I have hope in administrators, superintendents, and school board members who understand the challenges teachers face. Most importantly, I have hope in this crazy American idea of offering a free education to every child no matter their race, ability, and proudly in Nashville their legal status.
So as I look down at these ill fitting retirement shoes, I wonder if I should try ona different pair..perhaps the hiking boots of a wanderer; the waterproof clogs of a gardener; the comfortable Converses of a writer; or maybe the sensible flats of a teacher volunteer who still has hope in our American system of public education. I think it is time to make room in my closet for a few new pairs of shoes and begin moving forward again. ~c.hause