This is the first fall in 21 years that I do not find myself frantically preparing for yet another fall term of teaching undergraduates. It is an odd sensation as I watch the ads for “Back to School” and see the photos on Facebook from the parents of students of all ages headed into their fall semesters knowing that I will not be joining them in the mad scramble to begin another school year.
Teacher Grandparents named Reed and Wright
Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of my teaching career. Altogether, I have been a teacher for 33 years at four different schools and six different colleges with students ranging from fifth graders to Ph.D. candidates. I’ve also been just as happy to be on the other side of the lectern, having spent 31 years of my life as a student, 17 of them in higher education. With great grandparents named Reed and Wright, I always assumed teaching and learning were genetically encoded into me. In fact, I am the fourth generation of educators in my family, the second generation of college educators.
Clearly, I have always loved school. Since fall of 1958 when I entered kindergarten, I have approached each fall with joy, knowing another round of school was just ahead. I actually began first grade on my birthday, September 1, 1959. Naively, I assumed that school always began on my birthday and thus celebrated each new school year along with my birthday. Now, with my 62d anniversary of that birth approaching next week, I find myself at home watching the school bus go by and knowing I will not be boarding.
It is often sad to see a chapter of your life close. Much of my identity has come from my teaching over the years. The three major passions of my life have always been education, spirituality and justice. I have tried my hand at each one professionally over my nearly 62 years and I am hoping to find a way to bring all three together in my life post-retirement. But of the three, it has always been teaching which has been my deepest passion.
This fall, I will miss the students who came to office hours alternatively to chew the fat or, upon occasion, to deal with existential crises. I will miss conversations with colleagues whose chosen areas of study inevitably sent me scurrying off to research the ideas they raised about which I knew little or nothing previously. I will miss the very fine people on staff at the departments where I worked whose hard work is often unacknowledged but without which the departments could not function. I will miss the excitement of a new school term and the faces of new students to know.
But I will not miss expending the inordinate amounts of time demanded by online credit hour facilitation and enduring the endless obligatory hype about how classes which excuse their students from being regularly present are somehow just as good if not superior to real classes. I will not miss online students who have confused their classes with Burger King, demanding to have it their way in terms of workload, grading and feedback and more than willing to use their consumer reviews at the end of the term to punish anyone who doesn’t play the ratings game. And I will not miss the nightmare of trying to find pre-paid but never guaranteed parking on a jammed campus perpetually under construction and periodically cordoned off when ESPN once again convinces the university to become its means of production for Thursday night football.
I feel a once familiar heaviness return as I write those last words. It reminds me of some of the reasons I decided to take retirement at the earliest possible date. But as I have noted previously, I really have no regrets about that decision even as I find myself slightly melancholic at this new school year beginning without me.
No Time to Waste….
But my days on the other side of the lectern are hardly finished. A new round of education looms for me this fall. Next week I fly to Albuquerque for the first on-site session of The Living School. I have committed myself to a two year program of study of spirituality and change agency. The curriculum includes two week long on-site sessions each year, fall and spring, with directed study and online discourse in between.
Created by Franciscan writer and teacher Richard Rohr and grounded in the Perennial Tradition articulated by people like Joseph Campbell and Aldous Huxley, I am hoping that this program will give me both wisdom and insight as to how the remaining years of my productive life might be spent. I am praying I will find work which can weave together my passions for education, spirituality and justice. As I begin this next round of education, I have a very strong sense that, just like my decision to close my practice of law, uproot myself and fly off to Berkeley to attend seminary 25 years ago, major change is coming to my life and nothing will be the same again. Let’s hope these tectonic shifts prove as productive as the last round.
And so I watch the bus go by and turn back to my reading for my new studies in between cooking tonight’s supper, washing the laundry and cutting back the jungle threatening to swallow up our home. It’s grown quite bold during my preoccupation with online classes, search committees and other time consuming, soul draining activities over the past couple of years.
Restoring some order to the chaos of the jungle is, like a sacrament, the visible means of a larger and much deeper healing process I have undertaken upon leaving the university so unexpectedly on such a bitter-sweet note. I have given myself a year to lick my wounds, to rest, and get my bearings. I am a strong believer that redemption of anything is possible. I also know it sometimes comes at a steep price. Today I begin that process.
Here’s hoping everyone has a great fall.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)