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Retirement is a wake-up call.
I glance back at a life spent in the classroom, knowing I’ve lived more years than are left to me and that the eternal footman is holding my coat somewhere, snickering.
Do I dare answer the overwhelming questions that drop on my plate? What does a life amount to? What difference did I make? Did I teach my students anything that they remember?
My “vocation” took root from a whim, a maple key twirling in the wind to land anywhere. An English teacher I very much admired told me to consider teaching. Because I already wanted to be him, I did.
I taught English at a good time. I loved literature, and back then it was all in books. I tried to teach my students to read and not scan: to find inference, ambiguity and resonance in the language. I knew I was getting somewhere when they taught me back.
One student in my apprentice years shared his notion that Hamlet balances on a line of irreducible simplicity:
“If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”
Rhodri Thompson is now a QC barrister in England and a founder of Matrix Chambers, an elite group of lawyers committed to the advancement of international human rights. Does he remember me as I remember him? Likely not. It only matters that I remember him.
Rhodri’s reflective-adolescent skills are a little dated now, as am I, superseded by cybertechnology. Students inhabit an accelerating virtual world of multitasking, with its ecosystem of distraction. Like Leacock’s horseman, they can leap into the saddle and ride off in all directions at once. They don’t have much time for Hamlet while they are being prepared for the workplace.
Unwired teachers are deadwood in this cyberforest, where the kids swing fearlessly from link to link, hardly lighting on one long enough to determine what particular tree of knowledge it is attached to (its fruit is an apple, its serpent yet to be identified).
Today’s students call the shots with their astonishing apps, enviable adroitness and digital dexterity, while teachers are driven by the cattle prod of the new mantra: To prepare kids for the digital world, you must abandon the old and embrace the new.
The new is hard to embrace because it is forever renewing itself. The new is insatiable. At times, the snake seems to consume its own tail. For even the most adept digerati in the classroom, there is no rest.
“Kids today won’t stand for boredom!” teachers are somewhat needlessly told. But kids never tolerated boredom, and creative teachers, like good quarterbacks, always knew how to call a late signal or just scramble with intent when the lesson plan became a broken play. Now, they must gain yardage on PlayStation 3 or they’re sacked.
My shelf life expired overnight. I used a whiteboard, not a Smart Board; I taught from a book, not an iPad; I spoke to my students face-to-face, not online, and I was all thumbs at texting. After a life using a slow cooker, I was taking orders at a drive-thru window: “Will you have fries with your Hamlet?”
I’m lucky to have retired now. The timing was perfect, and my school days are over. But, still, what did they mean?
My first students are now 56 years old. Grandparents, some of them. Several are still in touch. But it’s unsettling to think of them in their 50s because that makes you feel like you’ve been lapped.
Rhodri Thompson is 53. I was 26 when he shared the meaning of Hamlet.
In England, I directed school plays. Death of a Salesman was one. Recently, in London, I met up with Willy Loman. His name is John Riley, and he’s now head of Sky News.
Riley looked the same as he did when he was at school, not because he looks young now, but because he looked old then. So at 50 he finally looked his age. Now, at 56, he’s older than he looks. He should have played Benjamin Button.
Some didn’t live long enough to age. One had cancer, one crashed his motorcycle, and another fell from a balcony during a homecoming party. Several took their own lives.
Arthur Miller wrote that everyone needs to leave a thumbprint. Do my students remember anything I taught them?
Because I subscribe to the belief that education’s what’s left when all you’ve been taught is forgotten, I just hope they remember to think for themselves.
Beyond that, they left their thumbprints on me – especially those who permitted themselves to be known, and who made me be myself every day. I miss them.
Now I must deal with this profoundly ambivalent phase, retirement.
What do I look forward to most?
What I also look forward to least. My intimate friend and arch-enemy, Time.
Now I have time to write, to travel, to renew long-ago friendships and to read books I don’t have to teach through Xbox.
As for my arch-enemy, his eternal footman can snicker and hold my coat a little longer. I’m not ready yet. But he can take me before he takes any more of those who gave meaning to my work.
Colin Brezicki lives in St. Catharines, Ont.
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