Lately I’ve dreamt of classrooms.
“Not at all surprising,” my better half said over a Sunday breakfast. “You’re about to retire.” She asked the content of my latest dream, but there wasn’t much to tell – no lesson, no plan, no seating chart, no roll book, no computer. “Just a classroom,” I said, “and I was standing in it.”
“As if you belonged there,” a friend said later when I told him.
I suppose retirement is a milestone that demands reflection. Now that I’ve spent 40 years in classrooms – as a teacher, professor or visiting writer – and taught, I estimate, more than 5,000 students, am I trying to make sense of it all? Or am I wondering if the way I spent my life was worth it?
I became a teacher almost by accident. When I started college with AP English and a published short story under my belt, I was determined to become a writer. My freshman adviser suggested that my passion for English might make me a good teacher. I balked at the suggestion, certain in my youthful hubris I’d be supporting myself with book royalties before I finished school.
“Most writers don’t earn enough to support themselves,” he said. “They teach or work for newspapers.” At his urging, I took education classes alongside my many literature courses. I finished my bachelor’s degree with 25 extra credit hours, most in English, and began working in the Buffalo Public Schools after graduation.
I taught by day and went to graduate school by night. Eventually, I transitioned into the UB Educational Opportunity Center, which hired me to design a writing lab. As I taught more courses, designed curriculum and became a faculty leader, my temporary lectureship evolved into the full professorship from which I’ll soon retire.
Along the way I never abandoned writing. I spent nights at my typewriter or the many computers that succeeded it, placing nearly 70 short stories in literary outlets and numerous articles in newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals. I recorded radio essays for an NPR affiliate, sold a novel to a small press and wrote seven plays, six of which have been performed in Buffalo and other places as far away as England and China.
Writing paid for my pool table and the occasional weekend trip or a new television. But teaching fed my family, paid my mortgage, educated my children. Forty years with no sabbatical and only six summers off. Forty years of memories and inspirations for stories and articles:
The man who cried in my office because he wanted to be the first in his family to earn a GED. The countless students I’ve hugged at graduations. Job or college recommendation letters too numerous to count. The former student’s funeral at which I learned the undertaker and the minister had also been through my classroom. The tiny seventh-grader who turned out to be a fourth-grader with a desire to write so strong the principal let him sit in with the visiting writer.
While teaching has supported my writing, writing has supported my teaching. I believe I am better at both because I’ve integrated them into a functional whole. Now that I’m retiring, how will my transition to full-time writer fare? Will absence of the interactions that fueled my writing diminish it?
In all likelihood, I will set foot in classrooms again, as a visiting writer or perhaps as an adjunct professor, not of basic writing (never again!) but teaching my dream courses – fiction writing, play writing and mystery writing. There is still so much more left to say.