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Personally Speaking/Let Me Leave You With These Thoughts ...

My entire life has been organized around semesters. Always. Even when I took a year off before grad school, I taught English in Madrid. (Yep, there were semesters.) Every 15-week cycle brings new people, books, stories, conversations. Teaching offers adrenalin rushes, anxiety attacks and, at times, tedium. (Grading is occasionally rewarding, often humbling, and occasionally mind-numbing). But it is rarely repetitive.

Now, for the first time, I’ll be leaving school – “graduating.” You have to understand that I’ve been teaching at St. Norbert College since 1984. That’s 66 semesters. Talk about an institutional memory. When I arrived, Tom Manion was president, Dick Rankin was dean of students, Bob Horn was academic dean. Bob Vander Burgt, chair of the humanities and fine arts, hired me. Brian Bruess was still in high school.

After all of these years, good years, I’m leaving. Making a list of impending losses is, I have discovered, not good for one’s spirit. I’ll miss the students, of course – their energy, their potential, their youth. I’ll miss the faculty. I’ll miss the fact that I can just leave my office, knock on a door, and have an inspiring, informative and often provocative conversation with a bright, highly educated person. I’ll miss the very nature of the academy – the fact that whether I’m wondering about the diminishing nutritional value of crops, the impact of Brexit on France’s economy, the scaffolding of writing assignments, or Constantine’s spirituality, thoughtful responses are just down the hall. I’ll even miss our common grumbling about Boyle Hall’s décor, and parking.

Being at my core a reader, thinker and talker, my upcoming retirement and the endings that it represents have led to deep conversations, hours of self-reflection and obsessive literary consults. Literary? Well that’s an overstatement. Not finding what I’m looking for in García Márquez or Roberto Bolaño, and loathe to embrace Machado’s gloom, I’ve stooped to taking advice from people like Brad Pitt (great interview in GQ) and random columns about life change and the value of learning how to play tennis in the Huff Post. A better choice, it occurs to me, would be to turn to my St. Norbert models, of which there are many, since John Neary and I are the last ones standing among our cohort. But these models offer radically different advice. Stay deeply involved in the college (Bob Boyer). Make a clean break (Bob Vanden Burgt). Move away! (Jim Benton). Back to examining my own particular needs, wishes and regrets.

What I have found is this. Retiring is much like graduating. I’m nervous about the goodbyes, but I know there’s a next, a good and rewarding next; I’m just not sure exactly what it is. I am determined that this next will be more flexible than the now; that it will offer me a freedom to be and do and go when a book or place or person calls, not to subordinate all things and all loved ones to my teaching schedule. I have a lot of books to read, and one, at least, to write. It’s been years since I’ve been in Spain when ripe Claudia plums flood the market, and I want to see them piled high and smell them and taste them again. But even more than this, I’m looking forward to retracing my own contours, revisiting my own wants and purpose. I’m fond of telling my students that I love planning my classes because I can choose which books to teach (my favorite books), which films to show (my favorite films), and which assignments to require (the ones that I most want to read). Over the past few years, I’ve been able to add that I even get to choose where we’ll travel (Spain). But the truth is that good teaching is not about the teacher, it’s about the ability of the teacher to read and respond to her students. The students should always be the focus: their stories, their progress, and their growth. After years of putting them first, I feel an odd affinity with the Boyle Hall steps: still serving after all these years, but worn and shaped by countless students. Now I get to reestablish me.

Not redefine, but reestablish.

The more I’ve thought about who I am, what I love, and what I want to do, the more I realize that what I need isn’t to reinvent, but to return, to give myself the space to simply let myself be. So lately I’m thinking of retirement as a summer evening after a successful day at work. I’ll have time to ride my horse before I take a shower and pour a glass of wine. I’ll start the aromatics and slice and salt an eggplant while I talk to one of my kids on the phone. I’ll think about how to tell Steve we’re going to Spain for a month in September (“Tickets are already bought, baby”). Then I’ll curl up and read the new Kate Atkinson. 

Nov 10, 2017