Lately I have been hearing a little voice in my head saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Sure, when I retired from teaching after 34 years, I knew that I was going to miss the students. I was going to miss listening to their stories, supporting them through their struggles, challenging them to dream big then helping them break down the path to reaching those dreams into achievable steps. I knew that I would miss having a captive audience for my stories, for my love of literature, and the powerful experience of having young people respond to those stories, and make meaning for themselves. Yeah, I knew I was going to miss all of that and I steeled myself for confronting the loss.
What I didn’t expect was how much I was going to miss my colleagues — all of them — even the ones I disliked or disagreed with. Especially them! More on that later.
Teachers are some of the most interesting people I have met in my life. Think about it. It takes a particular type of adult to choose a life in the classroom, spending most of their waking days with children and adolescents. I have never met a teacher who didn’t have a compelling story about what brought him/her to this life. Some were inspired by their own teachers; others like myself became teachers by default, discovering meaning and purpose in the classroom only after living inside of it for a while. Still others have a personal mission: to redeem themselves for mistakes they made earlier in life and to prevent others from following a self destructive path. Some feel trapped in the classroom, wishing they had gone to law school or had the courage to leave to start their own business. These teachers can become bitter and inflict emotional damage on children. Others could never imagine themselves doing anything else — the ones who say over and over again, like the old cowboy, “I’m gonna die with a piece of chalk in my hand!”
I miss the teachers as much if not more than I miss the students. I miss the English office where I could always count on one of my colleagues to listen to me as I spun out my ideas for a new project that I wanted to do with my class, or read to them with excitement brilliant and touching excerpts from my students’ papers — knowing that they would give me valuable feedback for my lessons and share my emotions about my students’ responses. I miss hearing about books they are planning to teach, poems that their students love, new programs they are going to implement.
I miss hanging out with the teachers in the faculty lounge — our shared frustrations with 5 broken duplicating machines the day before our mid-term exams were due, our complaints about misguided administrative policies and practices — the loud raucous political debates that sometimes get personal — and the quiet intimate moments when we would share what was happening in our lives: the marriage of our children, the birth of our grandchildren, the sadness of our divorces, the agony of our illnesses or the illnesses of our loved ones, the death of our spouses or parents.
I miss the secretaries in the office – the first people I would see each day, never taking a “Good morning” and a smile for granted. I miss the paraprofessional staff who perform the duties that teachers once did years ago, before our contracts prohibited us from doing them — like spending time with the children in the school yard or lunchroom — the women who monitor the hallways, keep intruders out of the building, and keep everyone safe, sometimes while putting themselves in great danger. I miss the intimate moments I would share with these women, in the woman’s lounge, back in the days when we were allowed to smoke in the schools. Our mutual desire for a cigarette was the thread that connected us long enough to get to know each other cross race, cross class, cross job description. And while I am not sorry that I stopped smoking, prompted in large part by the school smoking ban, I do miss the daily intimacy of the woman’s lounge. Without cigarettes as our shared excuse for lingering in the bathroom, the context for intimacy was gone.
And as for those colleagues with whom I fought — sometimes deep, painful, very personal fights– I miss them the most. Because they were the ones who challenged me, who forced me to bring my own ideas into focus, to find the words to articulate my deeply held beliefs — the blades on which I sharpened my own metal.
I love teachers. They are among the smartest, most creative, most caring people I have ever known. They are educated and well informed about the world and they are engaged in making a difference in that world. They “walk the walk.” They are fighters and survivors.
Schools are brimming with energy and diversity and possibility. Teachers make things happen.
I miss them.
I miss being a part of their energy.