in this my 65th year. As I did approaching 60, I am taking the time to stop and reflect - on my life to date, on where I may be headed, on the world around me, on my role therein. This is a personal meditation, but much of what appears on this site has that personal quality. So read or not, I don't mind.
Approaching 50 and approaching 60 I felt the momentum of the forthcoming birthdays. Half a century is a significant achievement in anything, and at 60 I became eligible for a variety of discounts, including being able to cut my weekly grocery bill by 5%. No, I am not a member of AARP, although literature from them is in the bill of offers of various Medicare plans that I have yet to find the time to wade through. And yes, I am already registered with Medicare and have my card.
15 years ago Bill Clinton was running for a second term. 10 years ago 9/11 had not yet happened, and George W. Bush had an administration that was not achieving much of anything, at least not to this point, although 3 days after my birthday he was able to sign his disastrous tax cuts into law after getting them through the Senate via reconciliation. And 5 years ago? The USA Patriot Act was reauthorized in March, and in October we got the Military Commissions Act - when it passed the Senate I really stuck my neck out with my students, as I wrote in What I told my students yesterday on the last day of September.
Five years ago I was in the midst of my most significant political activity, as a key volunteer in the campaign of Jim Webb, who had not yet won the primary. I am still proud of the role I played in getting him elected. Had he lost the nomination George Allen would easily have been reelected. Had Allen been reelected, people may have forgotten he was the insider's pick to be the Republican nominee for President.
But all this is background, preface if you will. I want to focus on something else. And that is teaching.
I began my full-time tenure as a public school teacher on December 8, 1995. I was 49 years old. Most of my work career to that point had been with computers. I had made a comfortable living, but I was not happy. Years before I had spent 6 months as an unpaid intern in a Quaker secondary school in New Jersey. Since I was a free body, I was also given a great deal of freedom in what I did. I experimented, and found ways of reaching different kinds of students. I could have had a job there the subsequent year, but it would only have paid 6,000 and I did not think I could afford it.
I spent the summer after that term in an Episcopalian monastery in Michigan - the first of many visits to monastic establishments. This is also a major part of who I am.
Upon my return - to suburban Philadelphia, where I then lived - I returned to my previous career of computers. One Saturday I ran into a young lady I knew slightly, whose father had helped facilitate my time at the Monastery. That chance encounter, on September 21, 1974, would more than 11 years later lead to our being married. Now, in May of 2011, we are in our 37th year together. And she is responsible for my teaching.
In 1992 I was at a college reunion. A friend was about to become a principal. He and I swapped teaching stories, he from a quarter century in the classroom, me from my 6 months. When we got back to our room that night my dearly beloved Leaves on the Current pointed out that when I told my stories my eyes lit up and I became a different person. Since I was not happy with the work I was doing - although it paid decently - why didn't I explore becoming a teacher?
That gave me the courage, and the impetus, to start the process. It took a while, we had to make financial changes, including her being willing to go to work full time, which meant that she did not have as much time for her own writing and research. We took a major financial hit. But on December 8, 1995, I finally got my own classroom at Kettering Middle School. Between the conversation in 1992 and then I had had to go to court against my father to get him into custodial care, and then, shortly after his 84th birthday, he had passed away.
I celebrated my 50th birthday while teaching in that middle school.
My 55th and 60th birthdays occurred while I was at my current school. My 55th was not a big deal. In fact, I made more of my 57th. With the help of one of our art teachers, I dressed with a Heinz like label - 57 varieties??
But for my 60th, I shared with my students what I wrote here. May 23, 1946 - thoughts on a birthday. A couple of passages from that diary stay with me:
I have neither the grandeur of my wildest dreams nor the depravity of my deepest depression. I contain within myself both good and not so good.
I have always wanted my life to make a difference. But I could never really define what that meant. When I was young I would construct imaginery scenarios in which I was important, but that was unsatisfying. Once I started down that path I found myself moving further and further from reality. Then in the depth of my depression I would be able to see only the hurt I caused others. I would wonder why anyone would want to have anything to do with me. Eventually I came to recognize that these were two equally distorted images, both full of arrogance and self-centeredness.
The hard part has been allowing myself to be human, imperfect in many ways. I am still learning how.
I do not have perfect knowledge and probably never will. I will say and do things that are destructive to me and those I love, that will hurt others. Sometimes I will unfortunately do so with intent, far more often I will do so out of thoughtlessness or lack of concern or ignorance. But I recognize that often I say or do things which are of no great import to me but which are received as great kindness and consideration by others. I will accept responsibility for the hurt -- that is actually fairly easy at this stage of my life. I am learning, slowly, to accept the gratitude offered even when I do not perceive that I did anything to warrant it. It is part of the human connection, it is something that comes with being open.
And most of all I am beginning to learn about letting go of my hurt, even if it was caused by the deliberate action of another. I try to reserve my outrage for when I encounter deliberate hurt aimed at another.
I said that this was a political statement. How I live what is left of my life is a political statement. That I choose to write about things which concern me is a political statement, nay, it is a political action. It is also a moral act, a spiritual act, an emotional commitment, an intellectual exercise. When I write about music, or poetry, or my cats, it is political, moral, spiritual, emotional and intellectual. All is part of my humanity.
I will continue to offer what words and insights I think I may have, not because I necessarily believe that I have anything near a complete understanding, but because in our joint incompleteness we may together approach wholeness of vision and understanding.
I was born May 23, 1946, in New York City. It is now May 23, 2006 in Arlington, Virginia. Sixty years ago my life was full of possibilities. What I realize now is that it still is. When I was younger I saw the possibilities only in terms of my own earthly life. Now I know that my life is part of something much broader. The possibilities open to me were there because of those who went before me, related by blood or not. It was with those whose lives overlapped mine before they departed from life, and those whose lives overlapped theirs but not mine. My life contributes in some way to the possibilities in the lives of others. Clearly that is true with those I encounter in my role as teacher. But as my life has been enriched by those whose names I never knew, what I do offers opportunity to those I will never meet.
As I have reread those words - not for the first time - I see at least in part why I am a teacher, why I have stayed a teacher until now, and for at least one more year, even should I win the lottery (which will be difficult since I am no longer purchasing tickets - our budget is VERY tight). It is also why I write, and why I remain politically active. I am and always will be connected with other persons. It is what gives my life meaning, despite my selfishness and my pettiness.
There were a few more words to that piece almost 5 years ago. They were these:
I am sixty. The life in front of me is full of possibilities, farther than my mind can imagine.
I am lucky. I am human. So are we all.
Now I am almost 65. I presume, perhaps rashly, that I will still be here in 22 days. The reflections I offered 5 years ago are still relevant. I am older. I tire more easily. I know I have less time left. But that does not panic me.
I can look at the past five years - or the past 10 or 15 - and take some quiet satisfaction that I have made something of difference in the lives of other people. I can take some pride in my minor role in helping get Jim Webb to the Senate. I am still in touch with students whose lives crossed mine, if not from my very first year at Kettering at least from the 2nd. I even have occasional contact with one student from that 6 months at Moorestown Friends School in 1974. For a person who remains socially awkward and at times painfully shy I have, first through my writing and then in person, been able to develop friendships that have enriched my life and made me a better teacher. And because so much of my life has been bound up in my teaching, becoming a better teacher inevitably means I become a better person.
I will teach at least one more year. Knowing that I can then retire with full Social Security as well as my pension, rather than becoming stale as a teacher I am likely to find myself taking even more chances. My students are changing, and to serve them I will have to change with them. Thus this summer, even as I may be working several jobs and perhaps even working on a book, I will also be totally rethinking both of my courses. For my regular government class, there will no longer be a state test for which I must prepare them. Thus I can move away from the time needed to ensure the specific content and the practice of the multiple choice tests to work on meaningful skills of writing and reading and organizing. Hopefully I can do so in a way that invokes their interest, perhaps even their passion.
For my Advanced Placement classes, of which I may well have four next Fall, I want to see if less is more. That is, I want to spend less time covering the content that may appear on the AP exam - perhaps by providing organized notes for some topics - and more time engaging them with the reality of government and politics. As of yet I do not know how I will do this, only that I must.
Writing and political action? We have elections of importance in Virginia this coming November. Our entire state legislature is up. I have been approached by a number of Democratic candidates now seeking nominations for open State Senate seats. I am cordial, I am willing to help with educational policy as I have time, but I am not likely to engage in primary battles in contests in which I cannot vote, unless there is a previous strong personal connection.
Rather, my main political focus will continue to be through writing and lobbying and organizing, most frequently on education, but using the relationships I have built over the past 15 years (and especially the last 5 or so) to try to influence people on human rights, environment, and economic equity as well.
For most of the time I have been at Daily Kos, I have written at least 6 diaries a week. In the early days, before we had a daily limit of one diary, it was not unusual for me to write 2 diaries. A few times since 4.0 went live, I have taken advantage of the lack of limit. This week I posted nothing for three days - W-Th-Fri - and I suspect such periodic breaks may occur more frequently. Remember, I am finding that I tire more easily.
My participation here is a major part of who I have become. Not only do I appreciate the audience for sharing my sometimes as yet not completely formed thinking, I also learn from reading the expertise of others. People point me at resources of which I would otherwise not be aware. People properly challenge my thinking.
As a teacher, I have to constantly also be a student, someone whose own learning never stops.
As a teacher, I remember the words of Henry Adams: A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
As a human being, I have to remember one of the most important lessons I have been learning, that my heart is capable of expanding ever more to include care and love for ever more people. That is one of the greatest riches of continuing to live - to find ever more persons about whom to care, towards whom one can direct love.
I know I am on the downslope of my life. The possibility of dying no longer scares me. I have already lived far longer than I ever expected - having my mother die less than a week after I graduated from high school, when she was not yet 48, perhaps made me more aware of the possibility of death at a young age than I otherwise might have been. I may live another 2 decades or even 3. I could die tomorrow. I will certainly leave some things incomplete. That is because there are always challenges before me, things I would like to do. In that sense, my life will never be complete while I am still breathing.
Yet I can reflect back - on 65 years, perhaps, on the almost 37 years with Leaves on the Current, on thhe more than 15 years in the classroom - and see that I have accomplished far more of value than I had any right to expect. That it not reason to sit back and stop. It is motivation to keep going, simply because the living, the caring, the doing, the loving is its own reward.
I wanted my life to make a difference. I used to fear that I would die without having done anything of value.
I no longer have that fear.
That frees me, and empowers me to keep going, even as my body wears down, even if at times I am mentally and spiritually exhausted.
Then I walk into school, interact again with the adolescents who are so much a part of my life, realize my responsibility to help them make sense of the world they will be shaping long after I am gone.
I am lucky. It took me half a century, and perhaps I was not ready until them. I am who and what I am supposed to be. I am a teacher.
Thanks for reading.