Shy of retiring

28th November 2014 at 00:00

I am never quite sure what to say when well-meaning colleagues enquire, "So when are you retiring?"

I am unsure what to say because, first, it is not a question I have ever thought of asking anyone else and, second, I am not sure why it is being asked of me.

Is it just to make conversation? Are the enquirers thinking about their own far-off or perhaps imminent departure? Has the classroom experience become for them so routine that they cannot imagine how anyone could find it, as I continue to do, compellingly pleasurable? Or is it something more?

Barring illness or mandatory retirement, the colleagues I have known who left simply wanted to do something else, or felt tired and used up, or had grown so disenchanted with academic life in general that they could not wait to go.

But if we love our work, then no matter how much we give to it, or how old we are, there's always more to give and more to discover. Because we love our work, it's as if we do no work at all.

And so, assuming that my questioners want only a simple answer, I have devised the following response: "Retire from what?"

Their reactions are as interesting as their question. Some have a blank expression. Others say, "Oh, I see your point." A few laugh and quickly change the subject.

But if someone were to ask me to elaborate upon my answer, the long version would come easily to mind, because teaching is so central not just to what I do but to who I am.

Of course, there's the predictable side - the constant infusion of new ideas from my reading, preparation and class interactions all feed my writing and me. Apart from that, I like being around talented and challenging students, into whose raw enthusiasm I tap shamelessly; it's rewarding, to be sure, but it's also energising, sometimes inspiring. And I welcome the chance to influence students' lives for the better. How many jobs provide that?

Thus I continue to teach for the most honest of reasons: the sometimes daunting but always stimulating opportunities it gives me to discuss the literary subjects that matter the most to me and, I hope, to my students.

If I am feeling feisty, I might add that inside most of us lies a talent and a strong desire to develop and use it. With hard work, discipline, good fortune and the right guides, we can continue to grow unswervingly in the direction of that talent for as long as we choose to. I don't want to render irrelevant whatever skill I have by stepping away from the arena where I have thrived for more than four decades.

Yet those of us who have taught for so long are acutely aware of the passage of time. We cannot study literature, with its minute and varied examination of the human soul and psyche, and not understand that our powers are ultimately limited.

So the final part of my answer would be that when the day finally arrives that change beckons me more strongly than all these gifts of teaching, I will know it.

For the time being, however, to retire and stop growing runs counter to every instinct in my body. Teaching is not a job. It is my life.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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