This is Letting Go

Lately a lot of people have been asking me, “How are you feeling about retiring this year?” I find that I really don’t feel ready to talk about it. They say, “I’m so excited for you.” They say, “Good for you.” I want to run away and hide from these conversations. What does this feel like? This feels terrifying, exhilarating, heartbreaking, fabulous. This is a death and a birth all at once. This is a rite of passage.

I’m not someone who quits anything cold turkey. I’m not one to rip off a bandage in one sharp shriek. If I’m stepping into a cold surf I have to ease in an inch at a time and still I’m shocked when the icy water reaches my belly.

So I resolved many months ago that I would make this process concrete for myself, to ritualize it for myself, honor it for myself, privately, a little at a time, by slowly going through my classroom and deciding what to do with each item carefully, with deliberate intention, with love.

My collection of birds’ nests will go to Kyle who is eager to have them in his third grade room. He will appreciate these magical treasures. My sweet student teacher, with her lovely intuitive sense about young children and her eagerness to be ready for what they’ll need from her, took several of my word work games and puzzles. Adrianne, our gifted, rock star music teacher, was the perfect person to take my wind-up “Little Performer” xylophone girl and my very, very old Black Raggedy Ann for her children. I still have to find homes for the huge conch shell that someone brought me back from Jamaica way back in the 90’s, my rock collection with that magnificent little geode, those silly Russian nesting dolls, and my miniature Chinese lion dance puppet. I’ll bring home all the photos, of course. There are the photos of adorable children who are now in middle school or high school, or even college and the photos of children who are in none of those places – like my one special little girl who we lost when she was only nine. I’ve kept her darling picture – the one where she’s got one of those orange peel smiles – inside my cabinet for sixteen years, right near the picture that was taken of my father shortly before his death – the one with those big tender eyes of his and that gentle smile, and the portrait of Nelson Mandela. That cabinet I could always swing open in the middle of a busy day for a small dose of wisdom and consolation – the pictures that reminded me always to lead with love, and follow through with hard work and humor.

If you ask me how this feels, it feels like the peeling away of layer upon layer of commitment, of creativity, and yes, of frustration. This feels like one of those cartoon scenes where pages of the calendar would blow off in the breeze of passing time. This is grief and freedom all at once. This is letting go.

A learning environment is a home, a laboratory, a workshop, built up carefully and lovingly from the bones of other classrooms, from those buying binges funded by lucky grant money along the way, from wish lists passed onto the parents or posted on Donor’s Choose. It’s a space for learning, play, arguments, struggles, confidences, plans, laughing fits, art projects, science discoveries, math games, reading, fort building, and lots of stories. And this letting go, this dismantling is like an educational estate sale. I don’t want to be one of those teachers who leaves a mess behind for others to have to wade through. Sifting through the tangibles is the most straightforward and sensible way to make this real for myself, to help satisfy myself that I’m doing things the right way.

Now the tricky part, the part that seizes me up, the cold water on my belly part of this is the letting go of what this profession itself feels like. That’s something else altogether. First, there’s the camaraderie – that unique, inter-generational closeness with some of the best humans I’ve ever known – bright, kind, hard-working, dedicated, compassionate people. People who get each other, take care of each other, check on each other. “I’ll be around,” I say, and I mean it. But some, I know, don’t believe me. And I know that it won’t ever be the same, can’t be the same. Because there’s something rare in being together day after day, going through so much together, seeing each other at our best and at our worst and still holding each other with honesty, compassion, and respect. This is something I don’t let go of lightly. Then there are those other intangibles that have to do with identity, with ego, with self worth. Feeling useful, feeling relevant, feeling like a mentor, feeling needed. Finally, there is the feeling of trust from a child that you only earn over time – day after day of listening to them, giving them high expectations you assure them that they can rise to, teaching them to read, telling them their efforts are amazing, letting them cry into your sweater, holding their hand as you walk across the playground. There’s that cold water again and it’s deeper all the time. This is who I’ve been for exactly half of my life. Realizing this without having to breathe into a paper bag for a minute takes some doing, at least some staring at the sky, at least some weepy moments in the staff room. And it is exciting to begin crafting the next part of my life – to imagine painting with broad strokes what I want the landscape to be for me. It’s exciting to realize that my self worth and my value are not tied to one place, one role, one set of relationships.

So I’ll swim off slowly and with deep pleasure, even as I find myself sometimes afraid, even if I may not feel like talking about it, because I know how incredible my past has been and I look forward to traveling a bit lighter. It’s someone else’s turn to take my seashells, my spectacular geode, my collection of birds’ nests. It’s someone else’s turn to move into my room. I’ll be busy, I’m sure.

11 Comments

  1. What an amazing teacher you have been. Kids will long remember that special year when you were “their teacher”. Good things will follow you and hopefully you will follow your heart.

    -those nesting dolls are welcome to join mine in Cedar Rapids. 💕

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  2. You have been an amazing teacher. Kids will long remember their special year when you were their teacher. Follow those dreams.

    – those nesting dolls 🪆 are welcome to spend the next life in Cedar Rapids with my nesting doll friends.

    Come visit!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is beautiful Elizabeth as are you and your incredible spirit that has supported and guided so many students, mentees, and colleagues for so many years. I was fortunate to feel your shine in the building at John Swett for those years. I can’t wait what to hear about the art you bring to your life next. Much love!

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  4. Hello

    I just read your beautiful text about letting go, I can relate so much even though my experience was probably very different ,

    yes, it is hard to talk about it ,

    but you know about the poesy of objects and the deep connections with people…

    much love

    Mireille

    Like

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