Endings and Beginnings

I must mourn and accept what will never be again.

Posted May 04, 2017

It’s not the end; just the opportunity for a new beginning.

For every ending, there is a new beginning.  

These sometimes-trite adages have validity, and those who tout them mean well, yet when faced with a loss, I need to let go slowly and mourn the passing of what will never be again.  Presently, I am ending my formal career as an English professor along with all that this culmination entails. It is inconceivable that along with my office, I am now facing the dismantling of a role that has joyfully defined me for decades.

No longer will my internal clock be governed by a sixteen-week semester with the deep breath of the halfway mark and the fulfilled relief of the last graded essay of my final week of teaching.  There will not be any more instant jubilation when I push submit to finalize my final grades.  Never again will late August and early September signify the beginning of the academic year after a summer hiatus.  There will not be any more first days or last days.

Never again will I introduce my syllabi to anxious students wondering if the professor in front of them will be easy or hard.  Never again will I be able to share my choice of impactful readings to a captive audience I hope to win over. Probably, no one will ever ask me again how to fix a run-on or a fragment, which could actually be a relief.  I can purposely use a red pen if I choose without worrying about hurting my students’ psyches.

Long ago when an older colleague spoke about her retirement, it was as if her leaving signified another world and time. My mind detached from the semantics of the word retirement, for I could not comprehend this far-off life stage. I remember thinking, “That will never happen to me!” And, if I must be honest, I didn’t want it to happen.  I loved teaching and I loved my students, as I still do today.  I will truly miss the potential to impact their lives in ways I will never fully know.

Barbara Jaffe/Blogger
A Surprise Celebration!
Source: Barbara Jaffe/Blogger

I began building my career in education one class, one exam, and one quarter at a time, until the years translated into degrees and job applications. I spent decades molding my pedagogy, my teaching philosophy, my lessons, and the messages which I hoped to impart to my countless students.  Over the years, my focus on “man’s inhumanity to man,” which I taught through the lenses of the Holocaust and the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, took precedent over “traditional” or canonical literature. I felt a moral obligation to share with my young students what they needed to learn in order for them to take responsibility in working toward a more hopeful world. It was an evolutionary process going from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, but my moral compass implored me to do so.

On a much more cursory note, I have sought out the Holy Grail of pens on my teaching Odyssey, searching for that one gel tip or that one color that would help my hand to slide effortlessly across the page in order to grade one student essay in under five minutes (which never became a reality). While I ultimately found the pen, my need for excellence—for my students’ excellence—propelled me to sit at my desk for hours at a time grading their writing. I provided my detailed comments despite the underlying knowledge that many would not follow my suggestions or perhaps even read them.  Most every writing teacher would agree that grading remains the bane of his or her existence.  It is the only part of my job that I will not miss. I can now substitute a delicious stack of unread books to be devoured for pure enjoyment for the nausea-inducing reaction whenever I encountered a stack of ungraded papers.

In my career, I followed and led and then followed again. I attended and presented at conferences and workshops. I mentored and tutored; wrote countless letters of recommendations; observed other faculty; and, in turn, was myself observed. I have always felt so alive in the classroom, teaching writing to students, many of whom felt they could not write in much the same way that my earlier fragile self felt about my own prose.

I will have to adjust to the use of the past tense when referring to my career: “I was an English professor.” My teaching stories will now be in the past, part of a world of which I will no longer be an active participant. Yet, I will not forget the quiet student who appeared disengaged but who found her way to my office only to declare that my class was the reason she decided not to drop out of college. And, I will always remember the seemingly outgoing and carefree young man who told me he had been homeless the previous semester and was getting back on his feet.  He shyly asked if he could borrow $1.00 for the copy machine. In truth, I wanted to give him all that I had.  Over the years, there were countless colleagues who came into my office to share stories about their students, their lessons, their books, and even pieces of their lives outside of academics.  No, there will be no more sharing our common stories of woe and joy.

I know myself. If I had waited until I did not want to teach any more, until I was depleted by my students, I would never retire, for I will always want to remain active in the world of teaching and most of all, learning.   So, now is the right time for me to put down my textbooks, my gradebook, and my purple pens, and to turn in my keys and close my classroom door.  

Just today, a student interviewed me for one of the newsletters on campus and asked me to provide only three words that summed up my career at the college. While I had to think quickly in response to this quite-impossible task, I chose:  Grateful, Inspiration, and Inspired. I am grateful for my students who provide me with daily doses of inspiration when I attempt to inspire them.  I believe they are more successful than their professor!

Oh, the glorious memories!