I don’t think anyone really realizes how all encompassing teaching is until they quit doing it. At least that is what I think. You enter this arena with hopes and ideas and a surety that you will be the teacher that makes a difference for kids. You begin collecting the things that you will use for the lessons you will devise. You collect artwork, art supplies, poetry, videos, games and writing prompts. You learn to use the newest technology for creating a classroom community and you revel in the work your students occasionally produce. You buy the latest books about teaching, written by exemplary teachers, the kind you hope to be, at least a little bit. You create Pinterest boards for everything that interests you, collecting lesson ideas for it all. Your eye is always on the lookout for things you can use in your classroom. When one year ends, you immediately begin thinking about how you can do it all again, only better, in a way that will impact more kids.
You also struggle. You weep with your kids when they are hurt, you pull back from the difficulties that arise when they just don’t get what you want them to get, and you spend hours thinking about how you can plan your lessons so that kids will grow in the direction you know they will need to grow. As each year ends and you send another group of students off to the rest of their lives, you send a little strand of yourself with them. You are always interested to hear what they’ve done with their future. You watch online as their lives unfold. They graduate from high school and maybe college, get married, have babies, sometimes go to jail or suffer other life-impacting catastrophes. And each time there is a little bit of you alongside them, remembering the tender and not so tender kid that sat before you that year, so long ago, or maybe just last week.
Each year that you teach stacks up on top of the one before it. Before long, you have hundreds of kids on the edges of your consciousness. You don’t know it, and you forget about them until something comes up and you remember. Sometimes you remember something funny one said, the glee of another when he finally got a pencil to stick in the ceiling. You remember the one that cried so often, and the one for whom you bought a sweater or a pair of shoes, or the one to whom you gave a home. And all these kids and experiences and lessons and ideas fill your space so much that you don’t have room for much of anything else. And that’s okay with you because they matter so very much, and they bring you so much joy and so much perplexity, that it nudges other things out of your way.
And then, finally, after many years of loving and thinking and worrying and collecting, it is time to retire. You won’t be going back in the fall, and you have to get rid of the stuff you’ve been saving. At first you forget that it will be of no use to your future. You are so accustomed to all the teachery stuff being of value that you think you will need to take it with you when you go. But with luck, you realize that you could give a lot of it away to other newer teachers who will find it useful, and so you do. Except for those few things that you just aren’t ready to let go of. Those you stuff into your car and take home to your garage, where they will sit and wait for you to do something with them.
You have to let go of the students, too. Your mind wanders to them so frequently, but they are no longer your concern. Someone else will be caring for them now. Your focus must turn elsewhere, to your own life and family. This is the most difficult part of all. Those young people have had a place in your head and heart for so long that it is as if they are part of who you are. They will probably remember you, and you them, but both of you have to let go now, somehow.
If you are lucky, as I was, one day right after you retire, you speak with an old friend who sells pottery at the Farmer’s Market and without being asked he tells you that your next step is to get rid of all that stuff you brought home and more. To unload and unload so your existence is almost spartan. There, he says, is where you will find a peace and spaciousness that you’ve never imagined. And that message arrives like an arrow to your heart, and you know he’s right. It’s time to let it all go so you can find what lies beneath and within.