September 2008

The last summer vacation

By David Feela

I know how tragic it sounds, the last of anything. But this ending for me has a beginning, one that needs some explaining. It’s actually an end wrapped in a beginning, like a Mobius strip, a loop that drives you crazy searching for the point where it all starts.

Over two decades of work as an English teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School and a major financial investment in the Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) has led me to believe I have something to live for – namely, a return on my investment!

Last June I attended my first PERA meeting, a forum offered by the organization to clarify benefits and time lines for teachers contemplating retirement. Three other people attended. I was the oldest person in the room. The presenter, a 30-year-old woman, was articulate and attractive. She knew enough about retirement strategies and benefits to be mistaken for a 60-year-old if I simply closed my eyes, but I barely blinked. I thought, How difficult to be so young and know so much about being old.

When I first started teaching, I was 28. I swore I’d never stay in a job I hated just to cash in on the retirement package. Luckily, a career in teaching has never been lucrative in stock portfolios. I stayed in teaching because I thrived on the interaction with young people, and I loved language so much I wanted to convince a few of them that words are what we are made of, as a society, as a species. Language is blood, which is not a metaphor. We actually wake up wagging our tongues.

The organizers of the retirement info meeting served cookies and lemonade, as if a few treats would distract us from remembering we were spending a few hours of our summer cramming at retirement school. I felt sorry for the woman who prepared a PowerPoint presentation but couldn’t get the projector to function. If she ever wanted a change of careers, from presenter to classroom teacher, she had all the inexperience it took. So the five of us had to huddle around the laptop computer screen like we were at a campfire, and she told us the story of retirement.

I’ve nurtured another passion, this one for over 30 years: Learning how to write. And yes, I’m still learning. I’m not sure how to explain it to others, but after 30 years I’m certain this career called writing has me by the throat. My investment in it, however, had better be calculated in hours, not dollars. If I worked out my total time spent and weighed it against the money I’ve earned as a writer, would anyone take me seriously? Still, it’s not like I could stop myself from writing, and it’s impossible for anyone like me to ever retire from such a career.

Teachers are an envied bunch when it comes to their summer vacations. Over the past 27 years I’ve spent a good part of my “time off” studying – taking classes, paying tuition, earning teacher license re-certification credits, and an advanced degree. Still, I’ve enjoyed the summers. And now that it’s summer again, or technically, the last summer, I want to take a deep breath and remember, in words, what I can’t quite say when people ask: What are you going to do now that you’ve retired?

I’m going to wake up to the sound of the sun rising, not the sound of bells and school buses.

I’m going to hum in the bathroom while sitting on the toilet.

I’m going to stack paragraphs like the people in Iowa stacked sandbags before the flood.

I’m going to see the dentist without applying for sick leave.

I’m going to read a book and not consider how I would teach it.

I’m going to cut the grass in the middle of the week.

I’m going to eat when I’m hungry.

I’m going to play cribbage with my friends, a penny a point.

I’m going to contradict myself, because I contain multitudes.

I’m going to be a farmer and grow old.

I’m going to open the mail when it arrives.

I’m going to mentor my insecurities.

Yes, it’s summer vacation, not really the last one, but the one that lasts.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.