A Time for Transitioning as an Educator

On May 2, 2017, about 3:15 pm my wife and I walked hand-in-hand into Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to be recognized, celebrated, and honored as a retiree. I was anticipating a joyous time, seeking to savor the applause and fleeting last hurrahs.

As we entered the gathering, I was overwhelmed by the numbers, the pockets of conversations, and the sound of the din of their chattering.  As an honored guest, I was pinned with miniature red carnations.  Seeing the flower, I thought of a line from Francis Thompson, “When I touch a flower I disturb a star in the universe.” Wow! How interconnected we are, yet when one retires we are like the leaves on a tree, that is interconnected, however when we retire or even pass away in the fall of our lives, we let go of our connections and make a solitary, twirling, and floating journey to the earth. We are then absorbed into the wet energies of the earth.  Maybe some of my leaves were falling prematurely.  I must admit I had second thoughts about submitting my request to retire – maybe I should have stayed a couple more years.  You know, it is the classic “approach-avoidance” conflict.  My wife and I mixed and mingled with former and present employees, exchanged pleasantries, shook more hands and appreciated the hugs and warm salutations.

Slowly we began to be seated as the verbal exchanges subsided. My wife and I were joined by my son as we sat with others at a table.  The President, Dr. Rafn shared his reflections on our ministry of service to the students; and he gave thanks for our  years of service, for making a difference, and for all we contributed to the well – being of the college community in view of others and quietly behind the scenes.  The MC, Linda Golik facilitated the program with such fine finesse as she named those who were “In absentia,” and then those who were present.  Our pictures were splashed across the screen.  I thought how most of us have matured since our pictures were last taken!  There is no doubt that we have grown older gracefully. One by one, Linda shared a biographical sketch of each one of us as we were called front and center – this was our momentary claim to fame, our time in the sun to be recognized and appreciated.  I thought that I do not like the phrase “retirement” farewell.  It sounds too terminal, like I am now ready for the “fox farm” or the “glue factory.”   No, retirement is not the best or most appropriate word.  Let us call it a “transition” farewell.   We are moving off into a different trajectory; we are in process, becoming, actualizing our potential, unfolding, and expanding our horizons.  I thought of the following quotation: The leaf had a final message for me: “Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know you could tumble at any second. Then decide what to do with your time.” – Naomi Shahib Nye

Those who chose to share a few reflections remembered the school on Broadway, the friends they had made, how wonderful it has been to work at NWTC, no more papers to correct, lying in a hammock, traveling, spending more time with grandchildren, learning a language, playing the piano, reading, not reading one’s e-mail for one week, visiting their children, and a litany of other hopes, aspirations, and plans for the future. I listened intently to their dreams and plans to stay active and involved. Yes, “motion is lotion.”  Now, it was my turn being the last one to be called front and center. I shook Dr. Rafn’s hand and whispered to him, “Thank you for your years of leadership.”  I then walked over to Linda, my dear friend as she remembered the spontaneous, philosophical conversations we shared in the corridors over these 17 years.  By now, I was a bit teary-eyed, but I decided to say a few words: “I began teaching in 1963, 54 years ago. I remember walking into a classroom of all Sophomore boys to teach Latin and French at Abbot Penning’s High School in DePere which was on the property edge of St. Norbert College.  I was wet behind the ears, very nervous, and a neophyte at best.  Now, in the blink of an eye I stand before you.  I have been blessed all these years, and you have been part of my blessings.  I thank you.” How ironic, I will be teaching a course this summer at St. Norbert College in their Masters of Theological Studies.  I have come full circle only to “know it and understand it for the first time.” T.S. Eliot

I was reminded of an “anonymous” commentary about life, “First, I was dying to finish high school and start college. And then I was dying to finish college and start working. And then, I was dying to marry and have children. And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school so I could return to work. And then I was dying to retire.  And now, I am dying….and suddenly realized I forgot to live.” Yes, unless we know how to live, we will not know how to die; and unless we know how to die, we will not know how to live.

The program ended with neither a bang nor a fizzle, but with a quiet certitude that all will be well, with good wishes, and with many blessings to those in “transition”.  Hand-in-hand my wife and I quietly exited.  I thought of the literary writer and philosopher Thomas Mann who posed the question, “Is that all there is?”   Of course not, I thought.  Emerson had it right, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, and today is gift.”  To all those in transition which includes all of us, we have been gifted to be part of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College,  our tree of life from which our leaves have fallen or will fall some day.  Let us continue to be a model, a mentor, and a messenger of encouragement, support, and hope for our students.  During these uncertain, unpredictable, and changing times let us remember an ancient proverb, “When the winter is severe, the pine trees in this ancient land stay green throughout the year.  Is it because the earth is warm and friendly?  No, it is because the pine tree has within itself a life-restoring power.” Truly, I am in transition.  So long and farewell.

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