The school year has started, but not for me; I’m entering my second year of retirement from Methodist University. Last fall, the transition from full-time employment was eased for me since I taught an online class. This fall I’m not responsible to teach anything to anyone. It’s odd for school to get underway without me being there. The experience is like standing on a railway platform watching a train pull out of the station; my ticket says that I’m to take a different train, but it still seems that it’s a big mistake to not be on board.
The problem is not that I want to be on the train. In fact, I’m glad to be free of the obligations to teach, grade papers, attend committee meetings, advise students and the like. Neither do I have difficulty filling the time that I previously devoted to my job. Between helping my parents, writing, and maintaining a clinical practice in two states, I have plenty to do. Rather, my issue is that teaching is tied to my sense of who I am. I’m a college prof, so what am I doing away from the classroom this time of year?
I recently talked to someone about my age who taught for 30 years—much longer than I did—and retired seven years ago. She found the first year to be very difficult; the impulse to start preparing for the school year was incredibly strong. Now, though, she gives little thought to the start of school, and, when she does, she is relieved not to be there. She said this about what she missed: “I think the hardest thing about retiring was the relationships. After all those years at that one school, I was no longer a part of it. Things went on without me almost as if I had never been there.”
As was the case with her, in an instant I went from being part of an intricate and absorbing web of relationships to being an outsider. When I go back to the university and walk the halls, like I did last week, I paradoxically feel both that I am a part of that place and a stranger to it. I know most of the faculty members and we share a history, yet I didn’t go through last year with them, and am not going through what they are going through now. I still have good relationships with many of my former colleagues, but I’m no longer part of their social system.
Workplaces are in some ways like families, but not in how they handle loss of a member. Someone who leaves a family via death, divorce, or other means leaves behind an empty space that is not soon, if ever, filled, but someone leaving a workplace has barely left their seat before someone else has taken it. Families grieve, but workplaces don’t, which makes families more a place of human community than workplaces can ever be.