A Requiem for a Career in Education

Ever since I was about 11 or 12, I had a job at the close of school each year:

Fill the closet in Mom’s classroom.

The district had a rule about loose books and various other items sitting about during the summer, so it required that all teachers put all their texts, encyclopedias, dictionaries and other books into storage for three months. Mom’s only storage area was a small coat closet in her room, so after a few miserable attempts to cram all of her crap in there, she charged me with the task.

The first year, I made all of her schoolbooks fit, along with all of her “young adult” novels, Ranger Rick magazines, teacher editions and more. It was almost like a game of Tetris: Right piece, right place and bango, everything worked.

I did it so well that I got the job the next year and the year after that and the year after that. I never minded it as a kid, given that Mom would always spring for lunch after we were done. In addition, the closet’s closing seemed to represent the incredible possibilities of the summer for us.

Mom and I had the summers all to ourselves. Dad worked all day, so it was always Mom and me planning the hours between 8 and 4 each day. A great many days were spent doing the cleaning work that was put off until the summer.

We’d attack the “back bedroom” which went from a place to store Mom’s school stuff, to a war zone of resident household items and Dad’s invading baseball card stuff. The hardest part of all was always the back closet, which would start off the fall clean and organized and devolve into a chaotic mess of crap. Each year, we’d promise it would be better next year. Each year, we lied to ourselves a little bit, I guess.

Mom would take all the glassware and dishware out of the kitchen cabinets and hand them down to me so she could wipe out the shelves. She’d also sort out the items that had served their usefulness and were headed to Project Concern or a pile of rummage sale items. Several boxes of that stuff would then go up in the garage attic. When we would put the glassware back, it seemed like we had less room than when we started.

Some years, we had insane projects. We scraped and painted all the storm windows one year. We did the same to the screens the next. It was hot, dirty work that made us pine for aluminum-framed windows. A friend came to visit me once, in an attempt to rescue me. He ended up with a paintbrush in his hand.

Even worse was the year we painted the trim on the house. Mom scaled these giant, rickety wooden ladders she borrowed from the guy across the street to paint the peaks on the two-story house. I had to hold the ladder as I prayed to St. Jude that I didn’t have to explain to my dad how Mom ended up dead after the wind blew the ladder backward and tossed her onto the garage roof.

Perhaps the best stuff, though, was the rummage and estate sales we visited over time. On Fridays, we’d hit the sales while everyone else was at work. The stuff we found was mind-boggling.

One year, she found a 1950s grocery cart, covered in cobwebs in the basement of a house that smelled like musty rags and cat piss. It was rusty and had a two-tiered basket system where you could remove the baskets and carry them places.

She dragged this thing out of there and spent $15 for it. I then had to find a way to cram it into the car so we could get it home. Mom had a vision for this thing, so it was best not to ask too many questions.

Dad, of course, verbalized what I was quietly pondering, “The hell are you going to do with that goddammed thing?”

“I’ll use it at school,” she said simply.

“The hell for?”

“For moving books and things!”

Dad left and I got the job of painting it. I loved it. We painted the top basket blaze orange and the rest of the thing electric blue.

Every year, Dad had to take that thing home and put it in the basement, for fear of it disappearing on Mom over the summer. Every year, he’d take it back, swearing at it and hoping for its demise.

This was our summertime for most of my childhood. When I turned 16 or 17, I got a fulltime job, so it meant fewer estate sales and less housework. Still, the closet and the school’s closet-packing remained a tradition.  When I turned 21, I stopped coming home from college for summers. I had stuff to do and my jobs had become annual work, as opposed to seasonal stuff. I think that was the first time I really shattered Mom’s illusion that I’d be her little boy forever.

I often wish, now that I think back on it, that I hadn’t.

Once college was done and I had moved out of state, it was a rare instance that my vacation and Mom’s closet would coincide. Dad would usually fill in, although he was often frustrated by the work or just impatient as usual. For Mom and me, the school packing was a tradition and a chance to talk. For Dad, it was an impediment to golfing. When we moved back home about six or seven years ago, I was able to do it once or twice before The Midget’s school needs or my own summer classes became too much to manage.

For the past several years, Mom had become the “anti-Brett Favre” when it came to retirement: Everyone else seemed to be talking about it, but she never did. When Act 10 came through, I swore she’d hang it up.

She didn’t. No way an undereducated asshat like Gov. Deadeyes was going to force her out.

When the school district transitioned to a Web-based educational platform, I figured she’d be done too. (I mean, Jesus Christ, this was a woman who still had Spirit Masters in her teaching files. When the district discontinued their use, she bought transfer solvent by the gallon and installed a Duplexing machine in our basement.)

Not a chance. She fought and cursed and struggled with that stuff until she got it. I sat with her for hours where we walked through how to make stuff happen in a painstaking set of details. I would explain it and show her how. She would handwrite legal pads full of notes and then use them to walk herself through the process in front of me.

I figured the last straw would be last year. The district gave every kid a Chrome Book required that everyone get “up to speed” on these things. They were ridiculously underpowered and they were horribly maintained.

She figured it out. I have no idea how.

Part of her decision not to retire was always her stubborn streak. From the minute she turned 55, all of her friends kept asking, “So, when are you going to retire? When? When? COME ON!!!” She wasn’t going to be bossed around by these people either. Besides that, she loved her job, she was good at her job and there was no reason NOT to keep teaching.

(Mom liked to tell me I got my stubborn streak from my father. I told her I got it from her. She refused to believe me. It simply proved my point.)

One guy, a long-term sub for Mom’s partner who was out on maternity leave, said to her, “So… You look like you’re getting up in age. When are you retiring? I’m looking for a job.” I think Mom would have taught from the grave before she let this guy think he was getting her job.

Another reason is that Mom never saw herself as any different from her colleagues, many of whom were now younger than her own child. They were all teachers, ate in the same lunchroom, dealt with the same shit, hated the same bureaucracy and had the same passion for teaching. The only difference was that she had been teaching longer than they had been alive.

Still, retirement was for old people and however old my mother got, she was damned sure never going to be an old person. She drove an Escalade, wore wild patterned tights and taught with the passion of a kid out of school, scared of getting fired.

Perhaps the greatest reason she never thought about retirement was that she never wanted to do anything other than teach. My grandfather often thought his daughter was somehow “less than” because she never became a principal.

He didn’t get it. Teaching and administrative work don’t share the same skill sets. Even if they did, that wasn’t what she wanted to do.

Her friends were her colleagues, her interests were school-related, her passion was education. This was more than her job. It was her life.

So many people talk about how they can’t wait to retire. My dad was like that. He saw days of golf and naps and shopping and such. He spent 38 years in the same factory. When I teased him that he needed to stay two more years so that he could get a 40-year watch for me to inherit, he responded, “I’ll buy you a goddamned watch.”

So many people look at their jobs and think, “Maybe I should be doing something else.” For Mom, all she wanted to do was teach that next group of kids.

Her victories were small. Maybe she convinced the kid whose parents didn’t give a shit about education to show up for school more often. Maybe she got the kid who slept on the couch of a crack den to try out for a play. Maybe she offered a kid who was unknown a chance to shine at the school through National Junior Honor Society or a musical.

Her rewards were tiny and yet so significant. While her friends who taught in richer districts or Catholic schools were lavishly plied with Christmas gifts, Mom got fewer and fewer as her kids got poorer and poorer. The one that sticks out in my mind was a box of $2 candy canes that a young Hmong girl gave her for Christmas. It was probably more than she could afford, mom told me. Still, she wanted to show her appreciation for what my mother had done that year.

“I can’t change anything about your life,” she told me she would explain to these kids. “I can’t make your home life better. I can’t help you be richer. The only thing I can give you is an education, and THAT will at least give you a chance.”

This year, she had hemmed and hawed again about retirement. I figured she was going to consider it, give it up and go back the next year.

Instead, she held on until the second-to-last day of school. Then, she handed in her resignation letter. It nearly wrecked her.

You could argue that she probably should have given people more notice. It would help with the hiring process and it would also give the people a chance to put together a party or something.

Mom saw it differently: She didn’t want to be marginalized for a year. She didn’t want the vultures circling her job or her office supplies. She wanted to feel normal in the job and then leave when people still wanted her to stay.

I disagreed, but I understood. It was her choice. She got to make it.

Yesterday, I drove down to Milwaukee. What started as a rainy day grew warmer and brighter as I pushed along Highway 41 into town.

I picked up Dad and we drove to Mom’s school where the kids were finishing their last half-day of school.

The lady at the door recognized Dad and buzzed us in. It had been so long since I had been a frequent visitor that between my aging and staff turnover, no one really knew who I was.

We walked down the hall to where Mom was sorting through decades of important documents and worthless crap. Dad found a flat-bed dolly for us to move home some boxes and cabinets.

Mom gave me a hug and then she got to business:

“Those dictionaries have to stay. You can either keep the encyclopedias or pack them in there and we can leave them. I’m taking my paperbacks home, so we’ll need to pack those. Let me know if you need anything.”

She turned back to her files.

I pushed the electric-blue, two-tier grocery cart out of the way and started packing the closet.

3 thoughts on “A Requiem for a Career in Education

  1. Thank you. Such a lovely tribute to a lifetime of teaching. Congratulations to your mother and best wishes.

  2. Your mom = awesome. Congratulations to her for doing a great and important job in her own — and the best — way.

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