CW: strong language
Finally, the day had arrived. After forty years of smart-ass students, irrational parents, inept administrators and clueless coworkers, it was my last day in this godforsaken classroom. When I became a teacher all those years ago, it wasn’t to have the summers off as some asshole idiot will tell you, thinking he’s so clever. Yeah. Ha-ha.
In truth, my motivation was a love of history. I became a history teacher because history was all I wanted to talk about, all I wanted to read about. I needed a job after college and I wanted to be involved with something I felt passionate about. But right now, I’m tired and I don’t remember feeling passionate about anything.
There would be the obligatory send off in the faculty lunch room with the usual lame cards and comments. We’re gonna miss you around here, man. Sure. Right. These clowns will miss me until the moment they raid the shelves in my vacant classroom of supplies, like victors of war reaping the spoils. My fellow teachers aren’t gonna miss me any more than I will miss them. Good riddance.
If history taught me anything, and it most definitely has taught me much, it’s that people can find immeasurable reserves of strength at times when it’s most needed. I could offer points of discussion, but I won’t bore you. I’m retiring. My days of boring people with history are coming to an end and the only immeasurable strength I can relate to is that I showed up to work every day in these last few miserable years.
History, or more correctly, social observation also taught me is that when one is of a certain age, one should move aside and let another take the wheel before you become a jaded, ugly caricature of yourself. Unfortunately, we aren’t aware of that beast nipping at our heels until it’s too late.
As a new teacher, I went home each day covered in chalk dust and excited about classroom discussions. Debates about the Revolutionary War, the Industrial Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, admission of states to the union—all topics that excited me and it was gratifying to see them excite my students. It didn’t last. Chalk dust was eliminated by a lap top and projector. I didn’t miss the chalk dust.
Glancing around the room that I had occupied for most of my career depressed me. The room was absent of any vestige of my influence. Forty damned years and you would have thought I’d never been there. I turned and walked out with one last box of crap that I would probably stick in the garage at home and never look at again.
I walked to the teacher parking lot, placed the box in the bed of my truck and turned back to the building. Knowing what awaited me in the staff room, I was tempted to get in my truck and leave, but even I’m not that big of an asshole. And I’d be damned if I’d let them say that I was.
Trudging back into the building, I walked down the corridor and into the staff room. The room was filled with teaching staff and administrators, most of whom I recognized. I wasn’t the only poor sucker heading out the door for good. It didn’t surprise me that people I didn’t know would be in attendance.
I was only a step inside the room when Carlson, the vice principal, saw me, raised his arms in mock surprise then clapped his hands together as a signal. “All right, everyone! It’s one of our esteemed guests.” Carlson’s announcement was met with applause and hands reached out to shake mine. I felt the light slap of palms against my back and shoulders. There was an odd quality to Carlson that made me wonder if he was angling for a promotion.
I studied Carlson a moment longer as someone handed me a plastic cup of something. I took a sip. Not bad. I could choke down one drink, endure the bullshit for a while and get the hell out of here. I watched Carlson. He was much too motivated for the last day of the school year. Most of us were too exhausted at this point to give a shit. What a putz.
Carlson stepped over to me and raised his hand to get everyone’s attention. With his hand on my shoulder, he said a few things about me, my dedication, the impact we all hoped to have on students. Blah, blah. I wasn’t really listening. He was talking about someone I didn’t know anymore, someone I used to be.
As Carlson finished speaking and the crowd joined him in applause one more time, he placed a large envelope in my hands. The envelope was not heavy, but full of papers and such. Cards and notes from colleagues, I assumed. Carlson leaned over and said, “For later, when you have more time.”
I endured a few brief, mind-numbing conversations, confirming how uninterested I was in being there. These younger teachers were much too excited and it was giving me a headache. I sipped my drink and looked around for anyone around my age with whom I could stomach a few minutes of small talk. Greenwood, who was retiring from teaching English, was near the door. He turned in my direction, but didn’t see me through the crowd. Before I could step in that direction, Greenwood was gone.
Staring into the plastic cup for a few seconds, I saw that it was empty. When had I finished my drink? No matter, I thought. I’d pour myself a real drink at home. I dropped the cup into the waste basket. I shook a couple of hands as I made my way to the door, the envelope from Carlson under my arm, and walked out. Freedom.
My truck was parked next to Greenwood’s small hybrid. The front ends of both vehicles were facing in my direction and Greenwood was sitting behind his steering wheel. As I approached, I lifted my hand in greeting and walked closer. Greenwood hesitated, but then stuck his hand out of the driver’s side window and shook my hand.
“Hey, Greenwood,” I said. “We’re both out of here. We’ve made it out the other side.”
Greenwood nodded. “How many years for you?” he asked. “I’ve lost count.”
“Forty,” I answered. “You were here when I started. How many for you?”
“Forty-five,” answered Greenwood. “I remember your first day. You were full of new ideas and so motivated,” he said, pointing his finger at me. “You were an encouragement to many of us who had already begun to lose our grip. You reminded us that it was about the kids. We had forgotten that. At least I had. I never forgot it again.”
I looked at Greenwood. If I hadn’t known better I could have sworn there were tears in his eyes. I was embarrassed by his words, but managed to acknowledge the sentiment with a nod and a thank you.
“Did you?” he asked.
“Did I what?” I asked him. I was confused and must have looked it.
Greenwood shook his head. “Nothing. Just thinking of the old saying, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ Do you remember the saying?”
“Of course. Santayana, am I correct?”
“It’s been attributed to him, yes.” He smiled with tears in his eyes. Greenwood wiped his face with his hand and said, “Glad to have a chance to wish you the best.”
“Same to you, Greenwood.” I rapped a knuckle on his car door as a goodbye. He backed out and drove away.
I watched the hybrid drive off, offering one last wave and ambled over to my truck. As I sat down in the front seat, I placed Carlson’s envelope on the passenger seat, and rested my hands on the steering wheel. I looked at the envelope and considered looking through a few of the notes, but decided they would keep. I glanced over at the doorway to the building, I had not seen another faculty member leave the party. How they could stand hanging out this long was beyond me.
The events of the day caught up with me and fatigue set in. I wasn’t a young person any longer and was tired after a full day of teaching. But I had to admit to myself that I was exhausted. Totally wiped out. I took a deep breath and decided to rest for a few minutes, a quick detox to rid my system of the day.
I woke with a jolt, dazed and disoriented, not realizing that I’d dozed off. The vehicle I sat in was not my own. Wait, yes it was…well, it had been at one time. It took a few moments for me to place the dashboard of the Chevy, the car I drove in college. I took a deep breath. I was dreaming, that was all.
The building itself had changed. The entrance was different. The double door was a deeper color, a color I recognized but hadn’t seen in ages. The sun angle told me it was early in the morning. I watched people heading into the building, instead of coming out. This was bullshit. If I wasn’t dreaming, I was in shock caused by the major life change of beginning my retirement. Or someone slipped me a mickey. What a shitty prank to pull.
I saw the envelope sitting on the seat next to me and reached for it. Opening the flap, I removed a handful of papers. Then I looked at my palms and saw traces of chalk dust. I wiped them on my jacket, a jacket I hadn’t worn in decades. The top sheet of paper was a schedule of meetings. The schedule was headed by a welcome to the new school year. A special welcome was extended to new teachers and my name was listed. The schedule was dated early September forty years prior. I looked in the rear view mirror and gasped as my younger self stared back.
With a shaky hand, I opened the door and stepped out of the Chevy. Nausea hit and I broke out in a sweat when I saw Cummings, the principal who hired me to teach history. He was standing at the entrance to the building. Cummings saw me and waved me over. The man had been dead for over twenty years. Damn. I should have listened to Greenwood and Santayana and got the hell out of here while I had the chance.