My birthday today. No need to send me an edible arrangement or a card or even a shout out, and I especially don’t need that Happy Birthday song sung, which sounds more like a funeral dirge to me. Can we pick up the beat at least?
Young people don’t believe when older people say they forget how old they are. What they don’t realize is that 42 is not that different than 43. Add a year to 12 though and the new number is like a just-bought pair of tight shoes that need some breaking in. Read Sandra Cisneros’ wonderful story, “Eleven,” for a nostalgic take on young birthdays (from her collection House on Mango Street).
I went out for my daily bicycle ride of about 18 miles. Last week I treated myself to an early birthday present and bought a case for the bike frame that would hold my phone. I tuck that baby into the case and turn on some tunes (because I don’t want to wear headphones while I ride, which is stupid) and take off. The only thing better would be to attach an AM radio tuned to WLS, but it would have to be the WLS of 1968 or thereabouts. I came close today as I listened to the best of the Temptations. If it’s possible to dance while riding a bicycle, that’s what I did. (By the way, why does cycle change its pronunciation when bi or tri is added?)
I was riding along some prairie path trails, one that doubles as a horse trail, and saw great mounds of horse shit in the middle of the path. What I wondered is whether dog owners who use that trail clean up their dog’s shit, and if they do, I want to ask them, Why bother, given what the horses have deposited? This reminded me of stepping in dog shit when I was a kid, which happened often because no one, I mean no one, picked up after their dog. I remember the delicate operation of wiping clean the grooves in the bottom of my Converse shoes with the first available twig or pointy rock. Back then, if you were to pick up your dog’s shit, people would have looked at you and asked, What are you doing? That’s dog shit. Which shows the power of norms because I can’t recall the last time I stepped on dog shit because everyone now picks up. You’d be a pariah if you didn’t.
Just before heading home, I stopped at a garage sale, and the seller asked if I was looking for something for my grandkids. Shit. I wasn’t feeling any older until that moment. I do not have any grandchildren and don’t feel I’m close, though I’m probably closer than I want to imagine. I left without buying anything.
The day was not all sun and song and sweet recollections of stepping on dog shit. I also thought about my mom, who passed away in March, so this of course is my first birthday without her in this world. I got a little choked up more than once because I had the impulse to call her, to thank her for my very existence. It’s not a thought I recall dredging up on previous birthdays. In fact, I don’t recall granting her any particular prominence on this date, as if I’d forgotten the birthing part, her point of view. My birthday was about me. I suppose it’s natural to take your mom for granted, even on your birthday, but gratitude was an easy gift I should have extended when I could. Thanks, Mom, for this gift of a day.
Last week, while waiting in lines at Universal Studios and Disneyworld, I conducted a one-question survey: How many books have you read in the past six months? The books had to be non-school and non-work related. I sampled 17 adults, 10 males and 7 females, both young and old and from a variety of cultures and continents. While the survey might not be scientific, I have high confidence in the results because who’s going to argue with me.
Half of the males and nearly half of the females had not read a single book. Nearly all of the men read nonfiction, mainly history, while the females were split between fiction and nonfiction. On average, males read 1.7 books, while females read 3.7.
I could have surveyed many more people, but my last four subjects all reported zero, which was disheartening. After a zero answer—no surprise—we didn’t have anything more to say to each other. One young man blurted, with disdain, “I’m out of school, why would I read a book?” (I could use some cheering up, so feel free to comment.)
If subjects reported reading any books, we became lifelong pals. Though I did wonder why one person claimed to be reading history when in fact he was reading Bill O’Reilly. And this guy was a history teacher!
Those admission fees ain’t cheap, so presumably, my subjects had disposable income, just not for books. I suppose I’ve always believed, mostly unconsciously, that reading feeds thinking, that sophisticated thinking is born of the sophisticated language we chew on. If you only spoke infantile chatter to a toddler, for example, cognitive development will likely be stilted, yes? On the other hand, there are many people I know and love who do not read any books, ever, yet they seem content and live rich family lives. I don’t know how to reconcile this, other than to admit that how others choose to spend their time, whether cozying up to a book or not, is none of my business.
So why can’t I shake my discouragement?
The other day, I saw a sign outside of Chick Fil-A: “Congrats to all recent graduates!” My usual response to such a stupid sign is to tuck it away so I can talk about it with my students. I’ve been wondering what I will miss as I leave teaching, and this will be one loss, not being able to share my random thoughts about the world I encounter each day. In this case, why did the managers or whoever decides on such language feel compelled to add “to all recent”? If the sign is posted in June, won’t be know which grads? The sign includes three extra words to make clear that the managers are certainly NOT congratulating graduates from last year or future graduates. Thanks for clearing that up.
This is day two of retirement and I’m not quite sure what to think. Knowing I will be subbing for a maternity leave in the fall has helped. I’m not a weeping wreck. I’m not euphoric either, though to not have to worry on a Sunday night about ironing a shirt or making a lunch or creating a lesson plan feels pretty good right now. I wouldn’t say I’m excited either. If anything, a little sad, knowing that the students I had will not be replaced by a new sea of faces, all with their own stories and talents and quirks. That might be the best part of teaching, witnessing the unfolding of all those personalities.
I had to clean my classroom this week. I can’t really explain why, but I left one poster up. It didn’t have any special significance. I just didn’t want to take down the very last one. I’ll leave that to someone else.
My last class baked me cupcakes and gave me a card, and when they filed out, I figured I’d sit alone and reflect for a few minutes, which is fairly common on the last day of any year. But the teacher who will replace me came to copy files, and then a student who graduated last week came in to talk. Down the hall in my office, another teacher was already moving into my empty desk. I was grateful for all the flurry, which made the last hour or so seem ordinary.
In 31 years:
Miles driven to and from school: 282,100.
Days taught: 5,642.
Hours taught: 45,136.
Number of students taught: 3,875.
Of those, a pleasure to have in class: 3,860.
Papers graded: I can’t begin to guess, but it’s probably about two dozen phone books.
One of the nicest parts of retiring is the kindness of colleagues and students. I got cards, baked goods, scrapbooks. Yesterday morning on my deck, I read the notes my students wrote to me on the last full day of school. Laughter and tears sprang easily. I am a lucky man. And most grateful.
I feel as if this entry doesn’t match the gravity of the last week of 31 years, but for now, it’ll have to suffice. Peace, love, and understanding.
If you happen to be near downtown Chicago this weekend, stop in to say Hey. I'll be hosting a panel at 3 p.m. Plenty of author events going on June 9 and 10. Click here for schedule.
On Friday, I strolled into the gym at 7:15 a.m. to get ready for graduation practice. I would be reciting names and needed to practice. I flitted around the mostly empty 750 folding chairs, asking the early arrivers how to pronounce a few names that I knew would be torturous on the tongue. I saw in their eyes relief that they’d be graduating soon, but also apprehension—about leaving their safe circles and about the uncertainty of tomorrow. I assured one student that her anxiety was normal, that she’d miss this place a little that first week of college but that high school would soon become a dim memory.
Do you remember your last week? I remember feeling privileged because we got to depart a week early. I walked into one teacher’s class to say goodbye and already felt superior to the suckers who had to endure a few more lectures. On graduation night, I marched from my seat to the pit to play my trumpet with concert band one last time. After, we drove to a beach on Lake Michigan, where, out of character, I downed a few beers. Later that night, my friends insisted I was making out with a girl I’d always liked, but I didn’t remember and was never sure if they were pulling my leg, which could be why I’ve never been much of a drinker because I don’t want to miss out.
On Thursday, seniors had their traditional brunch at a posh banquet hall, where they heard teacher Mike Bruce deliver an inspiring farewell and watched Fremd’s version of the recent lip-dub phenomenon, coordinated by teacher Gina Enk, who should be given some kind of teacher of the universe award. As students filed out, seniors asked Bruce and Enk and me to sign their yearbooks and pose for pictures with them. It was one of those moments when you scratch your head and think, Who has a better job than we do?
On Wednesday, in class, I had shipping labels ready for each student with my yearbook wishes printed on them. This was the most efficient method of signing yearbooks I’ve ever used and wished I’d have thought of this earlier. Then I passed out blank half sheets so they could write “yearbook” comments to me. I plan to bind these at Kinko’s and then read them on a lawn chair on the first sunny day once school lets out in a week.
Since Wednesday was seniors’ last school day, I wanted to leave them with parting words, for which I’m always at a loss. I wrote them a note instead, which I’ve pasted below.
To All AP Classes,
On the last day of school, I’m compelled to impart jewels of wisdom that you can carry with you for the rest of your rich, long lives, but words always fail me. I’m not a big-moment kind of guy. Every moment is important, isn’t it? Sure, some may be more memorable than others, but even the everyday exchanges have a texture all their own. I’m probably merely justifying my paucity of profundity. See what I did just there. Used big words to make it seem like I was saying something profound. But wisdom comes in simplicity.
So what simple wisdom can I impart? What secrets can I unveil? Not much, I’m afraid. If I haven’t said anything during the entire school year worth filing away, I don’t think I’m going to be any more successful on the last day. You will discover your own truths, your own wisdom, much of which you have already found and shared, and I for one am grateful for your generosity.
As for highlights of the year, all of mine involve moments when you were front and center and shared your creativity and insights. Thanks for your hard work, for your enthusiasm, for your award-winning role-plays, for your willingness to abandon your usual decorum during demonstrations, for laughing at my lame jokes, and for much much more.
As I ride off into the sunset—a stupid metaphor for a boy who grew up in the city and who lived most of his adult life in suburban neighborhoods covered in asphalt and concrete—I think about what I will miss most. And that’s you, of course. Being in the classroom, exchanging ideas. There’s nothing else quite like that. Believe it or not, you will miss this too once you’re finished with college. But I will also miss the chance to begin anew each year. Because each August brings with it opportunity, one more chance to get it right, to do it better. And the only way to arrive at better—in school, in marriage, in parenthood, in whatever—is to embrace risk. Following the safest route leads to ruts and fear and gastrointestinal concerns. I said I’d send you off to discover your own truths and sneaked in one of my own, didn’t I? Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
Throughout the year I’ve been reflecting on our time together in a blog I keep for posterity. If interested, you can access this at tonyromanoauthor.com. A few of you have already stumbled across my site and graciously commented from time to time, but I didn’t want to broadcast the blog for fear that it might make you too self-conscious.
Feel free to keep in touch. On my site. On Facebook, after you graduate. On Twitter, though I rarely check that. On whatever new app emerges that will unite people from places distant. Then shut down, put away the stupid cell phone, and hug the person next to you—provided that person in not an IRS agent who is auditing you; or a cop pulling you over for speeding; or the old lady in the grocery store with the babushka on her head who sneers at you for taking too long to unload your cart, though she might actually need human contact. Enough. You’ll know who to hug.
And do good.