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Chipping Away

by Julia Sneden

I had lunch with my friend, Ellen, the other day. She and I are both retired, having taught in the same wonderful school for many years. We had lots of catching up to do. She shared pictures of an adorable grandbaby. I reported on my own growing grandchildren. We caught up on the latest news (a.k.a. gossip) of our friends who are still teaching.

We smiled over the aspects of retirement that are a definite plus, starting with the ability to sit down together and share time in the middle of the day. When we were teaching, we rarely had time for more than a swift greeting or shared joke as we passed each other in the hall.

And then the conversation turned to some of the difficulties of retirement that we both have had to face.

People often ask me: “Don’t you miss the children?”

Well, no, I don’t. The children, after all, change every year as they move past you to the next grade. I miss children I actually knew, not some amorphous idea called “children,” and I started missing each one of them as soon as they left my classroom.

I suppose there’s a kind of gap in my life that one could label as missing the company of the young, but I don’t think that’s quite what my questioners meant. Somehow people think that teachers love all children, but for me, at least, what I loved was the process of teaching. Inherent in that process is finding something to love about each individual child you teach. (That’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s not impossible, either).

Ellen and I both miss the structure that working imposed on our lives. We both miss the company of our peers, a faculty of remarkable people who taught grades pre-K through nine. And, as Ellen pointed out, we miss the identity that our jobs gave us.

Somehow, sustaining that blow is hardest of all. It doesn’t help that you’re powerless to protect yourself from it. Even if you present your usual, competent face to the world, once the conversation turns to “What do you do?” and you admit to being retired, the world’s image of you changes. You are no longer a knowledgeable, resourceful teacher. You’re just another little old lady in line at the supermarket or sitting in the doctor’s waiting room.

I went to a new doctor a few weeks ago, and as she jotted notes, she asked me what I used to do.

"Which career do you want?” I replied.

"You had more than one?” she asked. So I ran down my diverse list, starting with working in the editorial department of a major magazine, and in the story departments of a couple of big film studios, and becoming a stay-at-home mother for 12 years, and teaching for 25 years after that, and then writing this column.

"My,” she said. “You had a very interesting life.”

I found myself glaring at her. “I am having it,” I protested. She had the grace to look flustered.

The world seems intent upon chipping away at who you “used to be,” and it does no good to insist that there’s no “used to” about you. You may be celebrating your 70 th birthday and feeling achy and depressed, but inside, you’re essentially still you.

You may have metal parts in hips or knees, or plastic lenses in your eyes, or caps on your teeth, or wrinkles where your dimples used to be, but you are still you. You find the same sorts of things funny, or infuriating. Your tastes are pretty much the same. More importantly, you are still capable of learning new things.

You are still in charge of the face you present to the world each morning. And although putting on that face (both metaphorically and physically) may take a little more energy these days, it — as the trite saying goes — surely beats the alternative.

As far as I’m concerned, my life won’t be over until it’s over.

Until then, I’ll keep paddling my little canoe, even though I’ve had to change course a few times. Some of those directional changes have been painful, but they have probably made me a much more resilient, tolerant human being.

The other day, cartoonist Wiley of Non-Sequitur penned a strip that said it all. In it, the father asks the grandmother at what age she finally admitted to getting old. Her response:

“I’ll let ya know when I reach it.”

Sounds good to me.

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