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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Retirement Blues - April 14, 2011

By Ernest Leichter

Usually when someone retires from his job, the office staff chips in to buy the retiree a new set of golf clubs, a tool box or a gift certificate to a movie theater.

My fellow teachers did something different. They bought me a seven-pound, 2,215-page Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or insulted by this gift. Writing on the inside cover included comments such as:

“Ernie, you certainly can use this.”

“Ernie, here is some light reading for your leisure time. Don’t read it all in one sitting.”

“Ernie, now you finally have the time to open a book like this.”

My disability retirement at the age of 56 on April 14, 1993, exactly 18 years ago, caught my friends off guard. When I told them I was leaving because of a worsening asthmatic condition, they wished me luck and hoped the transition would be smooth.

It hasn’t been. It’s not because my days aren’t filled with a variety of activities; That hasn’t been the case. Volunteering at schools and centers that distribute food to the poor have taken up a lot of my time.

Alice and I try to go back east at least once a year to see my grandchildren. We travel south to Los Angeles during the Thanksgiving holidays to spend time with Alice’s two daughters. At Christmastime, we motor north to Marysville to see Alice’s son and his children.

My leisure time is filled with gardening, trips to the movies, reading, a life stories writing class, meeting with our Jewish friendship group once a month and walks around the neighborhood or Spring Lake. Once or twice a week, I go to go to a satellite racing facility at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds to wager a few dollars on horse races.

Our health has been fairly good for people in their seventies. Sounds like an idyllic life. But there is something missing.

Each time I volunteer at a Santa Rosa Elementary School, I do so as an outsider. At one time, as a classroom teacher, I had a tremendous influence on students and parents. Students looked to me to educate and entertain them. Parents knew that I played a big role in their child’s life. Administrators trusted me to uphold the reputation of the school.

When I walked into the faculty room a few years ago, I was initially greeted warmly by the teachers. After a few minutes of exchanging greeting, they went back to discussing problems that concerned them such as yard duty, open houses, parent conferences, student discipline and money issues.

These problems were of no concern to me. I might as well have been a potted plant from that point forward.

Two years ago, I worked out a schedule with the three teachers in whose rooms I volunteer. We agreed that I would start my tutoring just after morning recess and end it just before lunchtime. I did this because I didn’t want to listen to the day-to-day problems of the teachers.

It is sad because school has always been a second home to me. Now it is just another volunteering site.

Nowadays, I never set foot in the faculty room. Very seldom do I have an opportunity to even converse with any of the three teachers. The papers of the students who need help are located in a folder in the back of the room. I spend about 45 minutes in each of the three classes. As I leave, I wave goodbye to the teacher and hear, “Thanks Ernest,” as I go out the door.

I feel like a professional athlete who retires in his 30s after his physical skills start to decline. Because his goal was to play professional sports, he is ill-equipped to do anything else. The rest of his life is anticlimactic. No more owners want him on their team. No more crowds cheer his prodigious feats.

In most cases, money isn’t the problem when he retires. The problem is that nobody needs him anymore.

The conscious part of my mind tells me that teaching for 30 years was enough, but the subconscious part knows that I am no longer making an important contribution to academia. As this weighs on my mind, the retirement blues will continue until I work out a solution.

As Thomas Wolfe so eloquently wrote in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again,

“You can’t go back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame - back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Yup. I don't know what else to say about this except to note that there's some consolation in knowing that I'm not the only one.

Aren't you forgetting that you are helping the children? I thought that was supposed to be the main thrust of teaching.

You are still mentally equipted to teach the children, which I think was your mail goal during your working years. Perhaps you can do like I did when I volunteered; I asked for a special place in the library and met my students there daily so I never saw their teachers. I just kept track of my student's progress and never got involved with anything else. The particular student was my entire goal that day. Good luck.

You are still valued and doing important work that others won't do and, although you are not getting the same recognition for it, you are still doing something for others and may touch a young life in a way that you didn't have time for as a teacher.

I think the gift of a dictionary was probably meant as a joke, but it was a poor one. Shame on those teachers.

" I am no longer making an important contribution to academia."

Ernest, how can you say this?

You told us that the papers of the students who need help are in a folder. Well, if you didn't come in and take the papers OUT of the folder, those kids would be out of luck for help and would probably flounder and fail.

So, don't you consider this making a contribution?

I'll bet those kids do!

Somebody should write a book on how teachers could enjoy retirement. How about you?

Ernest, I'm still teaching and one of the main reasons is that I'm so scared of the abyss.

Thank you for sharing your story, Ernest. I think we all underestimate the relationship and community we enjoy in a work place. Sometimes we don't even really enjoy it but it is part of our daily interaction in the world. It can be a shock to be find oneself outside larger conversation. You are a very eloquent writer. I related immediately to what you were conveying and I think you will find that there are many others who struggle with this transition after retirement.

I sense you know that you are helping these children and what is missing might be the vital conversation to cultivate and contribute to. This is a subject the world needs to hear about. I hope you will consider turning your life stories class into writing stories about those retired, expatriated or disenfranchised folks with similar experiences as yours. Elders want to belong not just be busy. I want to read the book.

I just finished my 4th week back at work with little non profit that centers on housing low & moderate income adults in midtown..I too retired & felt rootless & like I had more to do..luckily I stayed on a Board & someone there needed a 20 hour "jack of all trades" and said it in front of a friend, who called & told me to follow up..I enjoy being useful, dog-tired on days when I am climbing basement to roof inspecting tenements..it's not what I used to do, but I see I use all those skills in a different way..If you liked working, whether a specific job or just the idea of working, it is a big plus in life..Remember most of us remember teachers we had, more than half remember them as good people who changed their lives in some way....In the immortal words of the famous philosopher Mick Jagger, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try real hard, you get what you need"..I agree with Cile..write about it so long line of folks about to retire and retired know there is life out here...

I am sorry if you don't feel valued by the teachers. You really do make a difference in these kids' lives. The demands of teaching today don't allow for much time for interaction with our volunteers because then it takes away from the teaching time with the kids. I know that what you do makes a big difference in their lives. Thank you for your time.

Hi Ernest,
I couldn't find your email address, but knew I could contact you here. :) I saw you on campus today, but noticed you didn't come into my room. Can you come in soon? I have lots of students in need of help right now. Thanks, Katie

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