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One of my principals came by the house today to place a sign in my front yard stating how proud we are that I teach. I retorted that I thought that I would not get a sign since I am retiring after this semester. No, she says, you should especially get one for all of your years of teaching. I met her husband, who is also a teacher and we began talking “teacher talk” (1). During this crazy time there is much talk about Earth shaking, or at least societal, changes coming to every area of life, education in particular. Both of them were congratulating me on my coming retirement, especially at such an opportune time. I related that it had occurred to me that this was a similar transition that my father had transversed in the late 1980’s as a 39 year veteran of drafting/designing. He said that it was the right time for him to go out because he was not interested in learning this new CAD drawing. He had spent a long career with paper and pencil, or pen on permanent drawings. And here I am, having made my decision to retire before the pandemic occurred, but all the more glad I am retiring once I realized that significant online schooling is coming. Actually, I am OK with the computer. I have some things to learn, but I’m not far from where I need to be. The problem is how to motivate, explain to, tell a story to, relate to, properly assess, or significantly influence students virtually. Suddenly I felt like a dinosaur when I had not felt that way two months ago. A new epoch of online strata had been added to a bed of the technology era. (2) It feels suddenly virtually impossible to teach students subject matter which was fluid such a short time ago. The Great Flood had come (3) and this terrible lizard was stuck in a mud bank.

In the same way that my father was useful to make corrections on line drawing in pen, so I may be helpful if the traditional classroom is a thing again. But as I told my principal, that’s someone else’s problem now. I see the kindness of the guiding hand of God’s Providence (4) in these circumstances. He is no less kind when we get stuck in the middle, for He has an eternal perspective. He is more concerned for our spiritual and eternal good than our temporal comfort. But from this poor man’s view, all is right at the moment with retirement.

1) Every group or profession has their jargon and shared experiences so that you can talk to a teacher from across the globe and laugh about the same tendencies among students and parents in both places, in the same way engineers or salesmen or carpenters can say others just don’t understand.

2) I hope someone understands my paleontological metaphor.

3) I guess some folks won’t catch my extended metaphor unless I say the great meteor rather than Great Flood, though I believe it to be the latter.

4) Notice that I did not say guiding hand of Providence as many of our Founding Fathers referenced, as if it were an impersonal force rather than a personal God.

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Just before the beginning of the pandemic shutdown, my wife and I went to my school district’s central office to meet with the retirement planner. After many questions I signed the papers to begin the process. I thought that I would be ambivalent about retiring, but my confidence that it was time to go grew as I filled out the paperwork and afterwards. That night I slept contentedly until around 4 AM, when I awoke thinking about retirement. I still had no hesitation, but a poem began to come explaining why I feel that it is time to go:

When the burning desire to teach
Is in its last throe
Gone the desire to grow and reach
Then it is time to go

Knowledge is sweet and learning is good
But when drive is low
To push another’s ought’s and should*
Then it is time to go

Against all odds some came to make
Understanding flow
But when each step uphill you take
Then it is time to go

Hard victories won, stories told
Wisdom you did sow
Delivery now stale and old
Then it is time to go

To new pursuits of love and life
Always change and grow
Putting aside the stress and strife
Then it is time to go

Now my long mission is complete
What good did I sow?
Confidence, ambivalence meet
Farewell, it’s time to go

 

Teaching is a stressful job, but I liked the interaction with students. For many years I felt that it was a calling. I have no regrets about teaching and I have no regrets about ending this stage of my life. I look forward to what God has in store for me. Now to start a new adventure.

*”Oughts and Shoulds” is phrase I have used over the years because it has significant meaning to me. But when I have voiced it, few others seem to understand what I mean. Legalism and compulsion say, “You ought to do this and you should do that,” or “You ought not and should not do that.” Grace says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify”, and “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:23,31) But as teachers we are often compelled to compel the student who does not want to learn or make effort at learning. We should drop compulsory learning. Let the parents decide and compel those who won’t do their work to go home.

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I am amazed at times what a little rest and little reflection can allow to come around in our memory. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of challenge by way of time pressure and emotional workout. So, even though today is also full of chores and duties, I had the privilege of sleeping late. But sleeping late for one in the habit of early rising is difficult. Usually 7 PM is all that I can manage, but it was a few minutes past 7:30 when I first saw the clock this morning, and my dear wife slept away. In the unhurried moments I lay musing on random thoughts when one came through quite clearly.

Do you remember the names of your elementary school teachers? Sequentially from 1st grade through 6th mine were Mrs. Denton, Mrs Gaston, Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. Gervin, Mrs. Tucker, and Mrs. Alexander. I know that a child’s view of the world and the addition of many years makes memories a bit skewed, but I thought of a few things I remember about them.

Mrs. D was a large lady. I don’t mean overweight, just a big person. She was kind but seemed sad. She had gray hair. None of my teachers were young. I always wanted to please my teachers and I wanted to do my best for her. One day during milk break in the cafeteria, I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t finish my milk. Mrs. D would stand at the garbage can inspecting to see if we had finished our milk. I was nervous and dropped the carton, mostly full of milk, just before she took hold of it. It fell and splashed milk all over her dress. She had to go out and change her clothes. She was not happy with me. I don’t feel like that she held it against me after that. I think I remember struggling to learn to read and yet enjoying the new world it opened up.

Mrs. G was a small round woman who wore lots of jewelry and smiled most of the time. She was also strict. The first and last time I ever cheated on a test was on one of her weekly spelling quizzes. I wanted to do well but spelling did not and does not make sense to me. I used a little cheat sheet and she caught me. I was publicly shamed and worse, my parents were told. In this day and time publicly shaming is frowned upon, but I think it only hurts significantly because we tell children falsehoods about self-esteem the rest of the time so that they have “entitlement issues”. At any rate, I never cheated again, ever. I struggled in reading. After a short stint in reading group #1, I was demoted to the second reading group. My mother was told that I was struggling and it was suggested that I read extra at home. Mrs. G had a box of 2nd grade reading level books. I checked out one or two a week to read to my mother at home. I improved in reading, enjoyed the stories, being drawn most of all to facts related books. I am still a laboriously slow reader, but I understanding is good, and I enjoy an encouraging story or informative narrative. We still had nap, or quiet time. Most of the other students giggled and fidgeted on their mats, but I frequently went fast asleep. I distinctly remember several times awaking, disoriented and drowsy, to be given a hard time by classmates and defended fiercely by Mrs. G.

Mrs. H was almost certainly the youngest elementary school teacher I had and I’m pretty sure she was middle aged. She was innovative and energetic. She decided that our study of American History and the Capitol, Washington D.C., should have a visual. So she set out having us make paper mache models of the various buildings in D.C. I made a Washington Monument. By 3rd grade I had a best friend, Andy D. We loved math and did problems together. We liked science and talking about space exploration and going to the Moon. We liked drawing symmetrical shapes with ruler and compass. I grew up with mechanical drawing since my father worked as a draftsman for ORNL from shortly after the war.* So, Mrs. H selected Andy and me to draw out a map of D.C. with streets, bodies of water, and the locations of monuments and buildings all to scale. We did this on butcher paper laid out on the floor of a particularly large, empty classroom down the hall from her room. Andy and I would get to skip classes we did well in to work on the map. My childish memory wants to say the map was perhaps 20 x 30 feet in size. We spent many hours drawing, talking, and reveling in time together, just the two of us in that empty room. After all of the paper mache buildings were completed with white acrylic paint and all, they were placed on the map which was painted with black streets and blue rivers and pools, and large green spaces. The model that I had made was not selected and I thought it was better. Later someone helped me to understand that Mrs. H had allowed me the privilege and limelight of drawing the map. It would not be equitable to also place my paper mache monument on the map. During the next PTA meeting most of the school and their parents walked around the periphery of the map in that otherwise empty room admiring our work. It was probably the most unforgettable thing for me about elementary school.

Mrs. G was a thin, quiet woman. I somehow remember being a favorite of hers and growing in my love of learning new things. I had a vague memory of some written project that I did well on, but for some reason everything about that year is vague. In fact, even the room we were in seems vague, being set back in a corner at the end of the hallway. Mrs. G liked to keep the blinds shut so that the room had a dark, calm atmosphere.

Mrs. T was a fierce, little fireball who loved to raise flowers. She lived about a block from me in a little white house that was unimpressive, but the flower garden because of the small yard could not be anywhere else but next to the street, was impressive. When I would walk or ride my bike by her house, you could see the weedless beds of massive flowers of many varieties and smell them, too. Many evenings and summer mornings, Mrs. T was out weeding and replanting slips or cuttings. In class, she expected her students to work hard and behave, all orderly and well presented like her garden. I wanted to please my teacher so I did both. Good behavior produces good results. I was allowed to help the teacher and do work ahead of my grade. One of my best friends did something one day that set the class off and sent Mrs. T into a frenzy. It was warm and our school did not have air conditioning, so the banks of casement windows were laid open. A yellow jacket flew in and buzzed around the back of the room. Many of the girls screamed and others jumped out of their seats to get away. While Mrs. T was trying to settle the class, Jack jumped up with a new pencil, made noises as he sung his pencil like a sword, knocking the bee to floor dead on his last downswing. The class went wild with elation.

Mrs. A had to be close to retirement. She told me she had been a teacher for some period of time that seemed astronomical to my young mind. She always seemed to be happy and encouraging. I’m not sure if I am remembering correctly, but I think that I heard that she had had some deep hurts in her life, which if my memory is correct, made her demeanor all the more amazing. She liked to have classroom competitions and interclass competitions: weekly Spelling Bees, group math quizzes, history facts group competitions. I dreaded the spelling bees and seem to remember managing many 2nd places, despite my abhorrence of the art form. Mrs. A invited a number of her best students to come to her house a few times to study extra for a math competition that we went to. I felt so special eating a snack in her breakfast room with a few of my classmates. 

This commentary is a very narrow slice of what I remember about my elementary school years. There was baseball and bowling and bike rides and vacations and good grades and friends and chorus and library and safety patrol and playground (woods, swings and monkey bars and merry-go-rounds, kickball) and PE with the principal and plays and promenades and always working real hard to please my parents, my teachers, and make good grades and times with friends. But my teachers had more influence on me than I have previously given credit for in many long years. They may not have been the best teachers by modern pedagogical standards, but they had high expectations, rewarded what was good, punished what was not, and seemed to care about their students and their content. That was enough for me.

* I decided to say it the way we would back then instead of explaining it for the younger set. ORNL stands for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, site of the Manhattan Project where my mother was secretary and just a couple of years before my father arrived, and much of the focus of anything related to radioactivity studies. The war, of course, was World War II where my father had recently arrived home from when he began working there.

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