Final Farewell

Parting is such sweet sorrow, particularly from a career you love

By John Kares Smith

John Kares SmithAmerica is consumed with worry that few older Americans have enough money to last them through their retirement. In fact, few Americans of any age seem to have salted away many resources.

No one wants Grandpa sleeping on a park bench or Grandma taking in laundry to pay her electric bill. Yes, that is a problem, but it isn’t the only problem and it isn’t my problem. My problem I believe is significant if for no other reason than it has been largely ignored and seldom addressed.

With apologies to Shakespeare, parting is often unsweetened sorrow.

Let me explain. In her chapter on interpersonal communication, Pamela Cooper observes in “Communication for the Classroom Teacher” that we usually think of terminating a relationship, even a work relationship, as negative. She writes: “In the student-teacher relationship, the termination stages of deterioration and dissolution are a natural phenomenon. Classes end and students leave.” Cooper quotes Patrick Walsh about termination relationships: “Nowadays,” Walsh explains, “I make my June farewells by writing them notes on the blackboard. A couple of years ago I was checking the roll call for the last time when I suddenly got choked up. Another time I was collecting the last set of tests when it hit me that this would be the last time these kids would come together as ‘my’ students. I could feel the tears starting. I grabbed some chalk and scribbled a note on the blackboard: ‘You’ve been one of the most talented, wild and fun classes I’ve ever taught. Thanks for a great year.”

I am grateful for my many years at SUNY Oswego. But, inevitably, classes end, students leave and professors depart their classrooms, sometimes for good.

My title reflects a work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called “To Live Until We Say Goodbye.” In that book, Kubler-Ross explains that at the end of our days — or maybe in my case, the end of my career — we reflect on what we are most proud of, of what we did and who we have become.

Kubler-Ross argues that we are never more alive than when we learn our time is running out so that we make our final times meaningful. I am, of course, reminded of the observation of Rilke: The greatest tragedy is to die of an unlived life.

Defined by profession

But retiring and saying goodbye will not be easy for me for lots of long, entrenched ideas, behaviors and cultural values. For example, many of us in professions we love are at least partially defined by those professions; it is not easy to move out of them.

In December 2014, Dr. Marcia Reynolds in “Wander Woman” observed that one of the most difficult parts of making transitions is “letting go of who you were and what once made you successful. When I coach people who have been forced to do something they didn’t choose, they always ask, ‘How do you let go? People say to let go but it’s hard to do.’”

Reynolds quotes Joseph Campbell who said, “We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

Further, students are often the reason why many of us became academics in the first place and why we have stayed in this profession for so long. For it is not for the money or the administrative recognition that any of us get that keeps us here. Rather, it is because professors play a unique role in the development of the community and the country.

We each become part of the mosaic of each others’ lives, for, like most of you, I give a piece of me to every student I have ever had and, in his or her own way, each student gives me a piece of himself or herself.

Many students ignore the piece I give them; many throw it away without a moment’s thought. That’s OK. I always have more pieces. But some — our best students — know that they have something that is rare and nurturing. Like the old saying: to live is to be spoken to but to be alive is to respond. And so many good students have responded. The funny thing is — the more pieces you give away, the more pieces you have. You never run out.

More than just books

And the least important role of a professor is dispensing knowledge. A very careful and thorough reading of the course materials would give you enough materials to study and earn a respectable grade in my course. But teachers give other things. It was Kahlil Gibran who wrote, “The teacher gives not of wisdom but rather of faith and lovingness. If the teacher is indeed wise, the teacher does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”

And, now that I am reflecting on my retirement, there is a lot of irony in Gibran’s observation for, in truth, no matter what we do, ultimately, we prepare students for a world we can never enter — it is theirs and not ours. We stay in the world our professors prepared for us.

Teaching, like medicine and the clergy and a few others, is a true call to service. And I have always believed that the call to service, in whatever form, is the highest calling of a human life. The late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm once observed the importance of service when she argued that “service is the rent we pay for living on the earth.”

And it was Aristotle — perhaps my favorite writer — who observed that, “Life is a gift of nature but beautiful living is a gift of wisdom.”

For all of us were somehow given life in the magic we call our own existence. But what we do with it is what matters. My wish to my students is that indeed they live a life not just of nature but of wisdom.

The questions I am struggling with are: [1] How do I live without interacting with students? [2] What does the communication literature say about appropriately and healthily dissolving relationships? [3] How does retirement open up other, healthy relationships that may not have existed while in the workforce? [4] What kinds of attributes — such as courage, perseverance, integrity, endurance, creativity, intelligence — does it take to confront the need for personal and professional recreation? [5] What qualities are necessary to undertake this transition successfully?

True, retirement can be one of the most creative periods of one’s life, a time when you get to check your bucket list and even start emptying your bucket. Alas, I have no bucket list. I never did.

For all of these years, it has been a privilege to be part of the mosaic of students’ lives as they are part of mine. I treasure the experiences. But I know my full-time working career has to end one day.

All of these relationships for all these years have nurtured me, hopefully nourished students, and prepared them for a world I cannot enter. All to the good.

But what do I do when I leave the classroom, grade my last paper, record my last grade, clean out my office, turn out the lights, turn in my keys and go home?

What will I do then?