Thirty eight years ago I walked into a preschool to interview for the job as head teacher (having just graduated from college), and a little boy named Benjy crawled into my lap and stayed there for the whole time. The staff said I looked a little like his mom, but that if he was that comfortable with me, so were they. I was the last one of many who were interviewed, and I got the job. I liked it a lot; we had goats and ducks, I made scrambled duck eggs for lunches for the children, and took tiny goats home for the weekend. I made a well-used songbook because music is my thing, and met interesting people both in the staff and in the children. It was the beginning of a long career, my only career, teaching.
Throughout the years I worked in several states and in both private and public schools and taught first to sixth grade. I helped start up a school in Minnesota, and was the Director for a year. (I found that I preferred to teach over doing administrative work). In California I worked in a teacher collective for 13 years. I taught in summer programs; nutrition, writing and art, parks and playground activities, and nature center programs. I collected a wonderful bounty of children’s books, had a chorus, and taught singing to every group I ever worked with. You should see my collection of songs — it’s enormous and magnificent!
I’m a teacher inside and out, and it became my identity — I could never imagine doing anything else, although I often thought about what I could do to supplement my income, when I wasn’t making enough money as a single parent to support my family. At one point in my life (when I was much younger) I did teach all day and then go and teach music lessons all evening. But after having kids, I couldn’t fathom having the energy or time for such a feat. And once when working for a very very tiny salary at a Catholic school, I was offered the supplemental job of being a spy at a convenience store, to see what was going on with the other workers. Ooh, I turned that down quickly!
So when cancer made me have to call it quits, first by unexpectedly disabling my body so that I could not stand or sit up, and then by extended treatment, and finally by weakening my stamina and immune system so that working with children is not advisable, I felt bereft, guilty, and cheated out of my graceful retirement from this job I loved for so long. Although I am finally learning to deal with all of these feelings, I still can’t shake the idea that I’m supposed to teach.
I started taking a class at the senior center nearby, a short story class with an emphasis on women authors, which I do enjoy. I was glad I wasn’t the teacher, just a participant, who sometimes can’t make it to class because I don’t feel well or have a doctor appointment. I don’t have to keep the discussion going, I don’t have to clarify concepts, I don’t have to cut people off who are taking up too much space. But even realizing all the wonderful parts of not teaching, I still got an idea for a class I did want to teach. I thought it was a brilliant idea, based on one of my favorite mystery authors and her book contemplating spirituality, a subject I also contemplate in a new way because of my cancer. I got the okay from the senior center, my partner helped me make flyers, I was given a time and place for the class, not ideal, but not horrible. One and only one student signed up, but I was so conscientious and convinced about the merit of the class, I said I’d do it, even for one student. It was pretty good, we had wonderful discussions, I did a lot of writing and thinking, and made a good connection with her. But I finally admitted to myself that I do not want to be responsible for anybody else right now, I do not want commitments that are hard to get out of, and I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t turn out exactly right. So that is the end of that.
Now I am wondering, what is life without teaching? My friends in New Mexico remind me that they do not know me as a teacher, but just as Susan. So who is this Susan, who is not a teacher, but just a regular person who likes to read and write casually, knit, and wants to learn Spanish and how to better play the piano? Or maybe the question is, how is Susan going to contribute to the world now that she is not a teacher? I guess that is yet to be discovered, but I really have to let go of my teacher identity first. That’s hard, since it’s the only thing I ever really thought I was kind of good at. I have this feeling (or maybe it’s hope) that there is another important job waiting for me in New Mexico, but I am not there yet, and don’t know if I am supposed to just exist in this transitional state, or need to be honing some new skills. All of this is what I wonder about, as I live this retired life, waiting for the next chapter.