Saturday, June 15, 2013

Retirement Party

Of all of the various rituals and ceremonies the end of the year brings to someone involved with public education, perhaps none is more bitter sweet than the retirement party. In schools, retirement parties always happen in June and represent one of the few occasions when the old and the young stand elbow to elbow, obliged to consider the same ancient fact: people grow old, change, and leave behind legacies in the memories of their friends.

This year was an unusually big retirement party, four veteran teachers leaving us, and so the party was larger, longer, and more diverse.

As I was standing in the company of teachers that I could barely recognize hailing from decades before I came to my school, I struck by two conversations.

The first, quickly paraphrased, erupted when four teachers roughly my age realized that we all enjoy Game of Thrones, having read the books, and actively followed the HBO series. So for the next twenty minutes everyone shared their favorite characters, our favorite characters to hate and where the overarching plot of the story was heading. I think the only surprising thing about this encounter was that none of these people really struck me as potential George R.R. Martin fans until this conversation. There wasn't a single neck-bearded engineer in the group, and eventually they moved on to talking about sports. In other words, a fairly geeky book, and the fairly geeky conversation surrounding it, has become part of 'normal' retirement party conversation. 

Later in the party I ran into a former vice-principal of my school who was busy talking about the whos and the wheres of former teachers at my school. When he noticed me, the first question he had was how work on my house was going. I was touched by this somehow. Frankly, my house is an ongoing project and I love talking about it but I never realize how much until someone asks. There's always some movie, or book, or political controversy to bring up first. I brought him up to speed and wished him well and then he was swept up in another conversation about life, wives, and children.

When each of the retirees stood up, people clapped and I realized, looking at them, that each of their faces held for me pages upon pages of memories. That a portion of the past six years was bound up in their names and their faces. The school, my organization, would continue without them, but a chunk of what made those six years meaningful and memorable was leaving. People came to give speeches, some corny, some hilarious, some inaudible over the applause and laughter, but it didn't matter, we were there to mark a point of transition. People we knew would no longer be there with us. 

Is that the difference then? Do the (comparatively) young talk about fictional stuff while the old talks about real people? And is that simply style or something more significant? Margaret Atwood said, "When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable...You think you can get rid of things, and people too--leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back." Atwood makes this difference seem age-old and expected. And maybe this isn't so weird afterall, to be young necessarily means you've had less time being with the people around you. So the touchstones of television shows, sports, politics or whatever, are easier to discuss than the still vague relationships with other people. It's only as the years slowly settle over you do you find yourself laughing at a corny joke about someone suddenly more real to you than the best chapter in the best book.

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