I hear Americans spend more time planning the family vacation than they plan for retirement. I don’t know about that; over the past three months there has been a lot of talk about retirement around here. It’s now official; Leigh has given her retirement notice. In May, after twenty-five years as a preschool teacher, she is closing the final chapter in teaching and moving on to another book.
This decision was not as clear-cut and straight forward as I would have thought. We’ve always known our family’s DNA includes Leigh providing unchained availability once we had grandchildren. We knew we would be ready when the kids were ready, and we knew we would be thrilled. This is exactly what happened when we found out from Chris and Lindsey that Levi Michael McBride, scheduled to join our family on May 19, 2013, was on the way.
Despite our joy and excitement, Leigh’s decision to retire was anything but a snap reaction to the exciting news. We spent a lot of time mulling and discussing the implications of her retirement. The hot tub is where we do some of our best work. No matter what the topic (family, work, money, dreams, relationships, books, current events, etc.) this is where we literally sit under the stars and talk with one another.
For me, retirement has always been an academic exercise, weighing varying portions of dreamy fantasies, limitless altruism, and simple (although wildly abundant) mathematics. I swing from one extreme to another, either adjusting my lifestyle expectations or my longevity. In short, winning the Powerball lottery is my retirement strategy.
Leigh is a bird of another feather.
To understand the conundrum Leigh found herself in, one must understand how she is wired. Shortly after I met Leigh, two things were made abundantly clear; a) she was going be a mother, and b) she was going to be a teacher. Being married was a perk, but I was not in the top 2 of her life goals; I needed to be comfortable with that. As one friend noted upon learning of Leigh’s degree in Early Childhood Education, “I guess Pat is a lifetime case study.”
One of the complaints I’ve had over the years is that our kids, and her students, always came before me. The fact is that near the end of the line that starts with our kids, other people’s kids, me, family, neighbors in need, and golf girlfriends – is Leigh. She puts everybody before herself. That’s the book on Leigh – she’s like Mother Theresa, in yoga pants, and happens to golf, drink beer, read fiction, do snow angels and go hot-tubbing; and other secular activities.
As contrasted to my flitting ideas of retirement, Leigh’s vision is a trifle more balanced. Grand-parenthood seems to be a perfect blending of parenting and teaching. Golfing, gardening, hiking, travelling, and reading in a rocking chair are all part of her life’s mural, with being a grandmother now at the center. This is the picture of her ‘Promised Land’.
Despite the impending arrival of the Promised Land, contemplating leaving her “dream job” has not been easy. As much as I try to find the words, I cannot articulate how important her career has been to our family. To define the value of this job purely in financial terms cheapens the richness of her story. It’s not the money that was crucial, rather it was the emotional stability derived from the gratitude and lessons she learned. Having these students in her life helped her keep a balanced perspective in our home, and kept our family together.
Preschool is not just a baby-sitting service, although Leigh was often the first “non-family” to be entrusted with the care of these children. This can make for an enduring impression, both ways. This past week while having lunch at Panera Bread, a woman at the next table said to Leigh, “I think you were my son’s preschool teacher!”
“I remember William….” Leigh immediately replied, smiling. The boy, 23, just graduated from University of Pittsburgh. Leigh didn’t have the heart to tell the mom what she remembered most about William was his talking about “sword fighting” with his brother while they stood at the toilet bowl at home. For the record, “sword fighting” is not permitted in Leigh’s preschool.
Changing demographics have been a story as well. Increasingly, students, and parents, have shown up with little or no exposure to conversational English. While this presented an opportunity to develop social skills stressing diversity, patience and tolerance, some stories are heartbreaking. Some I find funny.
Prior to the inevitable clash of cultural diversity and political correctness, I was drafted to play Santa at the annual holiday party. It really doesn’t matter what your path to salvation is, there is something about a big, fat, bearded guy in a red suit that makes most kids smile; and some parents as well.
Standing in the hallway awaiting the signal for Santa to enter the party, one of the Moms said, “It’s so nice of you to do this! The kids just love it!”
Adjusting my beard and slinging the bag full of presents over my shoulder, I leaned toward her and whispered “I’m not really Santa, I’m just sleeping with the teacher.”
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” I bellowed, leaving the speechless mother in the hallway. The kids thought I was great!
For 25 years I’ve listened to the stories of her ‘other’ kids; heartbreaking stories and heartwarming stories. I will miss them. I will miss the annual cache of Starbucks gift cards and Hershey’s chocolate candy at Christmas and at the end of each school year. I’ll miss reading the heartfelt thank you notes from grateful parents. I’ll miss hearing Leigh describe with delight the squealing of 4 year-olds running into her arms on the first day back of the new school year. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, repeat customers speak volumes.
I’ll miss seeing the confused look on student’s faces when they see her at the mall, or at Dairy Queen. I’ll miss hearing how awesome a teacher Mrs. McBride is.
I don’t think I’ll miss her enduring the pain of students who are sick, or suffering, or stuck in a troubled home. I know there will always be someone who is getting her attention, her prayers, and her help. It’s just the way she’s wired.
Leigh’s decision to retire from teaching did not come easily, but I think she’s good with it. I am certain there will be glimpses of grief and regret in the days ahead. But I also know that she is not retiring from life. What lies ahead will fill her heart, and her calendar, with plenty to do. As she closes the chapter on this book, I can only hope one of those books she’ll read next will be the next “50 Shades..”