For the last few weeks I’ve been having a desire for champagne. And yet, I’ve nothing to celebrate. My sister died just two months ago. Why should I want champagne?
And then it strikes me. Yesterday, I taught my last class. That’s something to celebrate. It’s odd how desire comes before logic. Strange how the unconscious mind can work.
I am retiring. How can that be? Retirement is for mature people. Not me. I have too many fears about my retirement. It’s normal friends and colleagues who’ve been through it tell me. The problem, I answer, is I have never been comfortable in the normal mold.
They attempt at reassuring me by telling me that I’ll have lots of time to travel. Envy spreads across their faces. I thank them for their kindness. Try to sound up-beat but all I can think about is how foreign cities can make you feel so lonely.
Retirement is for people who know who they are and who have specific goals for their golden future. Not me again. I am still consumed with questions I asked myself when I was twenty. What will I do when I grow up?
Teaching never figured in my imagination when, as a teenager, I was dreaming about my future. What I saw instead was being a detective fighting crime or writing coming of age novels such as The Catcher in the Rye or The Stranger. But way back then women weren’t allowed into the police force and a writing career seemed as unattainable as going to Jupiter.
So, here I am, retiring from a thirty-three year teaching career that I’d had no intention of ever embarking upon. The first fifteen years were consumed teaching English lit and English as a Second Language. It was during the ESL phase of my career that I became interested in writing crime fiction thus fulfilling both of my youthful dreams. I went back to school to acquire some credibility as a crime writer. What I imagined for myself then was far from spending eighteen years in front of a classroom but rather travelling around the globe signing autographs as a best selling author.
But life or fate or whatever you want to call it had other plans for me. I got a job teaching criminology. Drug addiction and crime to be exact. In French.
Piece of cake, was my cocky attitude. After all, I had learned French as a kid on the street. I was perfectly bilingual. Ha! Did you know that “street” French is not the same as “academic” French.? Even, today, after eighteen years of teaching in French, of taking French grammar courses, and living with a French speaking man I still approach writing it like I approach getting into a freezing lake. Because I am terrified of me mouiller, as they say in French, I keep what I have to say to the bare minimum: memos, commentaries of student papers, e-mail’s. Forget writing the minutes of our departmental meetings.
When I taught ESL I was burning with arrogant confidence. Why shouldn’t I be? I was teaching my native language to people whose language was other than English: Russians, Vietnamese, Arabs, French. I had more than thirty years of practice ahead of them. I was the rock star and they were my fans.
Teaching criminology was a struggle for me. Yes, there was the language issue to deal with but as a new teacher in the department I was thrust into giving courses that I was soon to discover I knew little about. Community resources. Penology. Juvenile Institutions. The hours I spent doing research and preparing my classes left no more time for my writing. Besides, who can focus when your heart is breaking from having to watch human suffering brought on by other humans?
Then, there was an opening to teach drugs and crime. Finally something I knew something about. Like others of my generation I had experimented with drugs and that, I thought, gave me the right to think I had expertise
When you teach drug addiction and work with addicts you get to hear over and over from the addicts that they never again reach that euphoric high from the primal period of their relationship with drugs. Such was my experience teaching criminology. Like a cocaine addict I was always seeking that euphoria which I had experienced while teaching ESL. I became the fallen star thrown into a position which left me metaphorically (if not at times literally) craving for that first high. Like the coke addict, it was hard to find.
In the midst of teaching my last class I remind myself that this is it. I hear a laugh coming from one of the students. “What’s so funny?” I ask.
“The smirk on your face,” she says.
I’ve got a smirk. That’s a good sign, isn’t it? A smirk. “This is my last class,” I tell them. They are too young, just starting off on their own careers for any of this to mean anything to them.
“Did you feel sad,” one of my colleagues asks me later.
“No. It feels right.”
“That’s reassuring,” she says.
“It is,” I say.
To tell the truth, I only now feel really confident and ready to teach criminology. But it’s too late. I think I’ll go open that bottle of champagne.