#45 – The Beginning of the End

This is the time of year for counting down.

For many years, it would start upon our return from spring break, as someone hung up numbers in the staff lunchroom equating to the number of days we had left; one would be taken off every day. I had no idea who was responsible, but it never failed to happen. And, of course, students were counting too, in their own way.

Even now, in the time of distance learning, it is happening – and maybe even more so: At this writing, in my former district, it is 50 days since online learning began (not including break) and 13 days until it ends, with half days for the last three, though what that means anymore, it’s hard to say.

Last year, though, I was counting down even before the doors opened on Day 1, because it was my retirement year.

And there were many lasts. Last day before the first day of school. (And, maybe, last nightmare-before-the-first-day-of-school of searching endlessly for my classroom, around and around in loops in a gigantic school building with multiple levels, and never, never finding it.) Last Back to School Night. Last day before winter break. Last parent-teacher conference. Last argumentative essay. Last lunch study duty. Last locker clean out. Last lesson plan. Last graded assignment. (That one was particularly sweet.)

Somewhere near the end of this endless counting was a retirement party, which I had been counting down to since close to the beginning of the year. As it happened, six of us were retiring at once: a PE teacher, a teaching assistant, a special education teacher, two Spanish teachers (the entire department, in my school), and me. It was a nice cross-section of the staff, and it meant that there was almost no one in school who hadn’t intersected in a more significant way with at least a couple of us, which therefore meant a large group of attendees.

The result was a giant party, all out, in a local venue with twinkling lights, passed appetizers, an overflowing buffet, and a DJ. And, of course, alcohol, an extra charge on top of the per person price – and one that most would not forego. Our group of retirees had dinner paid for, including two drink vouchers, and we were given generous cash gifts. Our families were there, guests of honor. There were speeches, with mine perhaps a little longer than the others, but what can I say? I was a language arts teacher, and I’m a writer. And it was finally my chance to express some of what I’d been thinking about since the beginning of the year countdown, and many, many years before.

It wasn’t the party I would have chosen for myself, should I have been the only one retiring; I probably would have gone for a place near the beach or the local bar, where we had had many more casual staff parties through the years. And, truth be told, this kind of venue wouldn’t have happened for just me; it was a space to honor principals and superintendents with large numbers of present and past staff members.

But as it turned out, I did love celebrating with so many colleagues and friends, and I especially liked not being in the spotlight, but, instead, one of this little gang of six. All year long, whenever we saw anyone else from this group in the halls, in the bathrooms, or in the workroom, we would touch base, sometimes about putting in our retirement papers, other times about our health benefits, and still others just to express our absolute amazement that this end was in sight. Can you believe it’s the last ________? And we would shake our heads, and smile and smile.

This year, retirees will have to go it alone, though maybe they’ll get a parade of cars or a sign on their lawns. I hope so. Like seniors everywhere thwarted in their celebrations, retirees – the seniors of the seniors – are missing the milestones that are meant to be counted down.

If you’re reading this and know someone who’s retiring, let them know something they’ve done for you or for the students in their long paths to this moment. And if you are the one retiring, realize that although it may not be the retirement you expected, you are open to a new world of possibilities, which don’t involve counting at all.

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