What do you say after 30 years of high school teaching? This little speech attempted to make a beginning out of the end of my full-time teaching career. It was given the evening of 6/11/09 at the EFHS Retirement Dinner at the Storrotown Tavern in West Springfield, MA.
Trust me, it is far easier to stand here paying tribute to a retiree, as I have done a number of times in the past, than it is to be the object of professional attention and affection. I want to deeply thank my family - my daughter Emily, my son Conor , my future son-in-law Ryan , my twin brother Larry, and my dear friend Tom along with so many close friends who are here with me tonight. You shared my happiest moments: my marriage, the births of Emily and Conor, and helped me through my saddest. And help you did. How many can say as I can that Tod Couture has cleaned your pool, Rich Monteroosso has mowed your lawn, and Brian Mazzone has delivered papers and projects not just to your front door – but down the hallway to your bedroom when you were out of school with a broken ankle. I am one lucky and grateful lady.
But, for the sake of time and emotional perseverance, I’d prefer to mostly stay in the moment that we share right now. And, in that moment, I am struck by two faces. One is that of Carol Bruce, a Fermi retiree of a dozen or so years who was my geography and American History teacher when I was a student at Enfield High in the 1960s. Long before the expressed mission to teach writing across the curriculum Carol – a social studies teacher mind you – taught me how to write – a research paper on Nigeria freshman year and analytical essay after analytical essay after analytical essay in American History – junior year. The other face that strikes me is that of Erin Clark – one of Fermi’s youngest teachers who I had as a student at just about the time that Carol retired. I guess you could say that what I was to Carol Bruce, a student who went on to teach in the same school system, Erin is to me.
My colleagues here tonight know that Erin teaches in 316, the room above mine. I often hear her students moving their desks, for group work, for simulated battles, for review rounds of Jeopardy – and I think what energy, what vigor, what passion she and all the younger teachers at Fermi have. Well, in the Faculty Room over lunch last week, Erin looked me straight in the eye with the same piercing look she would give me when she sat front row center in our World Literature class well over ten years ago. This look, as I recall, was always followed by probing questions like: how was it possible that the Odyssey’s Penelope could stay so true to a husband who was gone for 20 years? Well, at lunch a week ago, Erin, the teacher, had that same inquisitive expression as Erin, the student, use to have. Recognizing the look, I was still unprepared for what followed.
This time, Erin’s question was, “Now that you’re about to retire, what words of wisdom (yes, she really said words of wisdom) do you have to impart (her verb, not mine) about teaching? As soon as she posed the rather weighty query I experienced a flashback to 1972 where I was ending the day in Room 200 and Tony Torre, the Assistant Superintendent, was at my door. He had just been appointed to that position, having served a year as Fermi High’s principal, and there he was at my classroom threshold asking, “Laura, now that you’ve taught for a year – what is your philosophy of education?” I remember looking at Assistant Superintendent Torre – in 1972 – and saying (and to this day I still don’t believe I said this), “Gee Mr. Torre. I’ve been so damn busy planning, teaching, and correcting, I haven’t had any time to think about my philosophy of education.”
As with many of you here tonight, life continued to be very busy through the ensuing thirty-plus years; but, getting back to Erin’s question, I really didn’t want to give her the same response I gave Tony in the 70s. So, I began to think about a fresher reply and I thought and I thought and I thought– until, after a few days mind you, two words came to me: consistent morality. That was it. The secret to being a successful teacher was a consistent morality - a commitment to regularly doing the right thing. And where had I gotten these two words after decades of planning, teaching, and correcting, yet within two weeks before I was about to retire? Not Homer, not Shakespeare. I got them from Colt McCoy, of all people, the University of Texas quarterback who spoke to the Teen Leadership classes here at Fermi earlier this month. Go figure! Colt talked less about football and more about how his grandfather would advise him to do the right thing wherever, whenever, offering him a Truth or standard that doesn’t change with some of the people – some of the time. Colt was all about integrity – on the football field and off.
Carol Bruce’s classroom had a consistent morality. Teaching social studies, coaching tennis, supervising practice teachers – she was always the real deal. I’ve sought that kind of fairness along the way – in myself and others. And, from what I see, Erin, along with many of the younger teachers at Fermi, are getting the knack of it as well. I wish them well as I leave the only high school system I’ve known since I was a teenager – with one last goal in mind. And that’s finally being able to give Assistant Superintendent Torre an answer to his question next week at graduation. Other than that, I’m looking forward to less correcting, more reading and writing, there’s a wedding to be planned, and finally – a recent addition to the list – following Colt’s last season at the University of Texas.