Updated: Aug 20, 2019
In most civilized countries, August is a time to take the family on a long vacation. Here in the United States, it's transition time: kids getting ready for school, students on the move, syllabi to upload, new years to start. Our son got two separate visits from his parents in Bloomington, one from his Dad in a van filled with IKEA boxes, and the other from his Mom in a Mini who happened to snap this photo on her way down I-70 W:
Though this never achieved tornadic rotation (is that even a thing?), the alien spaceship lowering over Indiana's grey skies at the end of August is a useful metaphor for a time of turbulent motion. Just when we were supposed to sit at a long white table and paint watercolors, we all end up running around like chickens who have received an invitation in their inbox to cross the road. Here, in case you've forgotten, is what a holiday is supposed to be like:
Yes, that's Janette, whom I have learned not to cross after nearly 27 years of marriage. And yes, she's sitting at a long white table and painting watercolors: in this case of Mount Desert Island in Maine. Watch out for her. There's a reason, as Rebecca Morton, her partner-in-crime, observes, that she's within reach of a croquet mallet...
But today I'm not putting required statements in 16-point type, or checking with the non-existent bookstore to see if my non-existent books have come in. No, I'm preparing the spare room for Sophie, who has torn her ACL and needs TLC. And last Tuesday I drove the aforementioned van for Teddy, the rental of which required a new driver's license, because when I got to the bit on the online U-Haul form where it says "enter a valid driver's license number," I realized that for the first time ever I forgot to renew it before my birthday. Those of you who live in Ohio know what that means. You drive illegally to the BMV, wait forever, get your eyes checked, and - here's the kicker - wait up to 28 days for them to send the new license to you, the delay being presumably necessary because it suppresses something or other in a way that is useful to Republicans. Fucking politicians. The license is very pretty when it arrives, but does it occur to anyone that you might actually need it?
Anyhow, the trip to the BMV proved conclusively that I am actually retired. First, I couldn't hear the lady behind the counter, and had to ask her to repeat what she was saying to me. Second, when I figured out that she was repeating my recorded height and weight, I actually confessed to being 10 pounds heavier. (Who does that? Retired people, that's who - we've got nothing to lose.) Third, I tried to put my glasses on in the middle of the test to see the letters on the bottom left, and was gently told that this was disallowed: either you do it with glasses, or without glasses, but not without glasses until it gets harder than usual. And fourth, of course, I DIDN'T MIND WAITING IN THE LINE. Because I had absolutely nothing else to do. The rental form was still waiting for me when I got back, blinking happily. The license finally came, several days later, with a hologram image of me that perfectly captures my present liminal state (now you see me, now you don't):
And then it was Saturday. While Janette was on her mission of mercy (Teddy had asked for decorating help - nothing could be more carefully calculated to get his mother to take him to TJ Maxx), I had my third new piano student to teach. I won't give his name (he was 6), or the name of his mother, but he was the most delightful company. When I asked him to choose a colored pencil to draw with, he said "turquoise," and fished it out of the box. He was as fascinated by the spinet, the model boats, and the wooden contraption I had made for small feet as he was by the keys on the piano, and when it was clear that the middle finger wasn't really working properly (he hadn't learned to use his fingers separately), we put down the fallboard and made finger #3 do push-ups. "Show him how it's done, #2!," I said, as we raised our index fingers up and down. When we got to the bit where you write the numbers 1-5 on your tracing of your two hands, his mother exclaimed "Where were you last year?" And I felt a rush of pride: I was teaching, and it was fun, and it was appreciated. And it was free (the first lesson is always free). Two days earlier, my second new piano student (aged 4) wanted to learn "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor" to play with his Grandma, since that was her favorite piece, and I had the immense satisfaction of remembering that it went best in D minor (to C major, and back to D minor - it's pretty obvious when you work it out). When I asked him to follow the instructions on a penguin sticker which said "wiggle LH finger 2," he looked at me strangely, and started to walk like a penguin:
This is why I teach. Not to sit through Powerpoint presentations where the excellence of its formatting is the inverse of its content. Not to make the same tired joke about Thomas Aquinas every year ("Pulcra sunt quae visa placent": "that is beautiful which can be charged with Visa"). Not (pace all my individual wonder students) to advance the state of learning about individual authors, or (pace all my excellent classes, and everyone in them) to better understand an idea or a time period. It is to watch a 4-year-old walk like a penguin, knowing that he can now play four-hands with his Grandma. It is to see a boy pick a turquoise pencil out of a box of crayons. It is to teach what I love.
It's interesting how much friendlier people are when you say "I'm a retired professor." I think answering "I'm a professor" to the inevitable question of "What do you do?" just puts people on their guard: it's like saying "I aced school." The only group that doesn't respond well to the news is--wait for it--academics, who simply cannot imagine why anyone would ever want to leave a university position before they get dragged off in a box at the age of 82. Either they know something about the university that I don't know, which is unlikely, or they are deluded. Retire already! You can still teach! You can share your pastoral wisdom with neighbors, talk about books with people in bars, do what you love instead of what (let's be honest) you can no longer stand. And best of all - you can bribe people. Here's my Bribery Shelf:
So today is Moving Day. While others are preparing to teach their first classes next week, I will have moved from being a professor to being a retired professor.
And I love saying that.