I gave up something that I loved. Voluntarily. Friday was my last day of university teaching.
(The fine print is that this is retirement, but I’ll work on contract at reduced pay and eventually at no pay, to finish a dozen papers, serve on handful of grad committees, and organize an international conference.)
Yes, yes, yes, leaving a job behind means opening space for something new. And I have a whole scroll of reasons I wanted to leave and another scroll of things I’m looking forward to doing. But now I’m processing this self-imposed trade, and it’s not easy to process. I feel nostalgic, apologetic, and hypocritical, but I don’t regret my decision to retire.
I’m nostalgic as I mourn the loss of what I’ve chosen to pass up. There were grad students, working toward some end that they trusted was out there, giving me trust for the future. There were interns and visitors from foreign countries, and undergrad student workers, who had the grace to teach me about worlds beyond my own. In recent years there were Haley, Auna, Claudia, Herman, Shane, Shannon, and my last one, Morgan De Meyer, who’s in the photo above. There were students in my classes with issues of more sorts than I could have imagined, and viewpoints that changed the way I think. Another time I may write about the agony, fascination, richness, and sometimes the empowerment, sometimes the impotence of learning how students from China, Indonesia, and Germany dealt with our education system, how a woman and her boyfriend proceeded after a sexual assault by an acquaintance, my feelings after an ill student singled me out as someone trying to kill him, and how students dealt with fraternity issues, their mother getting pregnant, their empty cupboard, their grandparents pulling away support when they disagreed with their sexual orientation, classmates who supported Trump, classmates who didn’t’ support Trump, the schedule as single mothers finally, diagnoses of cancer in themselves or in their parents, and so much more. Getting arrested. Getting that job interview. Making that decision, whatever it was. Getting engaged.
I’m apologetic that I’m exercising an option to retire that’s unavailable to most people in all of human history. I wonder at my circumstances: after 25.2 years, I have the cultural and financial capital to stop my paid job, and yet the Social Security calculator estimates my life expectancy as another 25.3 years. It’s possible to retire because I’m secure. I got that security by luck and the faith that I can trade money for goods and services in these coming years. And yet other people don’t have the ability to walk away from a job.
And because I recognize that my retirement is afforded by my accepting societal norms, I’m feeling hypocritical. What other people did in those fourteen years while I was getting ‘schooled’ (four years in college, three years for a MS, five years for a PhD, and two more years for a post-doc) or the next twenty-five years while I was a professor, wasn’t necessarily less worthwhile than what I was doing; and in many cases it may have been more worthwhile. Yet I’m the one who’s secure enough to retire, and I’m doing it. To muddle matters further, money isn’t a fair index of worth. There have been times when I would have valued a replacement for a broken shoelace more than a car, a friend’s reaching out more than a week with a counselor, a note, memory, smile, or a wagging dog that greets me at the door more than a paid massage or a new wardrobe. Values of goods and services, when measured by dollars, aren’t universal. Tradeoffs don’t always trade items of equal worth.
I admit I’m nostalgic, apologetic, and hypocritical.
And I admit it’s awkward.
But I’m astonished. Excited by what’s ahead. Looking forward to roads I can’t imagine. I think back to me as the assistant professor who arrived in 1992 into an all-male department. I had boxes of books. “Men” held doors open for me. I had to choose “men’s coffee” at 9:45 am or “ladies coffee” at 10:15. The business trips where I was usually the only female, the research, the teaching, the roads I learned to navigate, the roads I learned to construct. And I’m hopeful for the next 25.3 years. I’ll tread lightly, knowing I’m where I am in large measure through luck and privilege. I’ll try to be respectful. I’ll try to keep valuing what I see for what I think it is. And I hope I never forget the thanks I owe the people who taught me while I taught them.