RAMBLINGS • Contentment Heading To The Finish Line

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If I were a runner, I'd sense I am in the home stretch. At 75, I don't know how much longer I'll be striding down life's track, but I am self-aware enough to know I've run farther than the distance I have yet to cover. Perhaps that's morbid, but I prefer to call it reality. Even so, thoughts of the approaching finish line are rather recent developments; it's as though I've rounded the last curve with 100 meters to go.

I've had flashes of my own mortality before, as we all have.  I had a second, perhaps third cousin (his last name was Deabendefer, and we rode the same bus to high school together, so we became friends on those 17 mile trips; those were the days that the cartoon Huckleberry Hound was on the television and a topic of at least one weekly conversation) who died in his early twenties in an ugly tractor accident. He hooked a chain onto the bumper of a car that slid off an icy, snowy road to be a good Samaritan. Evidently ice had accumulated on his left boot sole because it slipped off the clutch pedal as he accelerated, and the tractor flipped backwards on top of him. We were out of high school by then; in fact, I was in college in North Carolina when I heard about the accident, but I still thought, "That could have been I." Actually, because I was not yet an English teacher, the thought was probably, "That could have been me."

I came home from college to run our farm twice - when Dad had surgery for lung cancer and less than a year later when the cancer had spread to his brain in a terminal fashion; watching him fade away was hard, but the cancer was a result of his pack-a-day cigarette habit, and I didn't smoke. Besides, I was too sure of myself to consider my own mortality then. Judy was also in the picture; we were married eight months later, and I thought we'd both live together forever.

When Dawn and Jenni were still small, we lost two premature infants -- Jana lived 11 days in the preemie unit in St. John's; because we prayed, we assumed she'd pull through. It was in the mid 1970s, when the premature mortality rate was higher than it is now, and she didn't make it. Brandon was born a little more than a year later; at six months, he didn't even make it to Springfield. The doctors assumed Judy had a tear in her womb that wouldn't permit her to carry to full term, so we didn't try again.

I was so worried about her that I couldn't worry about me, and both of us wanted to be together to parent Dawn and Jenni. I thank God we were able to do that; Dawn was 21 and married for two months and Jenni was 19 and in college when cancer took Judy.

I also, perhaps perversely, thank God that we knew her death was coming. She had breast cancer surgery in 1980, and we were assured all would be well. We wanted so badly to believe that, but reality came four years later when bone cancer was discovered. The prognosis? Despite radiation and chemo, neither of which she had immediately after the breast cancer surgery, we were told she probably had five more years or so to live. No one was to blame, though I suspect her father thought it was my fault for not pursuing treatment more aggressively.

We grew closer in those five years than we ever had before. She had a battling spirit, one that said, " If I'm going to die, then we're going to enjoy what we have together for as long as we can." She wouldn't allow me to be morose, to sulk, to be victimized by self-pity because she wouldn't allow herself to give in to those feelings. Her priorities were in tune with the universe.

As I look back on them, those were among the best five years of my life. The next three were rather a blur; I depended on family, including the grandchildren who became important to me, friends, my job(s), and faith to keep plugging along until the skies became sunny again.

I sensed death leering at me when the state encouraged me through incentives to retire at 62. One negative incentive was the threat of returning to college as a requirement of certificate renewal; I had avoided classes in education like the plague after a professor I had for an Educational Philosophy class when I was a junior didn't know much about philosophy in other areas of academia. He was one of the least inspiring teachers I'd ever encountered, and he was in charge of the student teaching program, so I took literature classes instead. Even at 22 I found it ironic that people who couldn't teach were assigned to teach others how to teach. Later, when I attempted to sit through ed. administration classes at SIUE, I had to quit because the instructors were so ineffective, so I chose retirement rather than a slow death sitting in someone else's classroom in 2007.

A positive incentive also existed; in its wisdom, the state offered us oldies an early retirement package. If  I (or anyone else) told the school board of plans to retire three years in advance, we'd receive extra pay over those three years. I used the money to pay down debt, to purchase a pre-paid funeral plan, and to buy the 2005 Thunderbird that I and my grandkids have driven since then.

Besides, although I feared the effect of not teaching (a way of staying busy all the time, seemingly a necessity for my mental well-being) might have on my longevity, I sensed the generation gap was widening. I was 24 when I stepped into an English classroom as the teacher in 1968, almost too near in age to my students. Many were from the same type of farm background that had influenced me; we shared the same tastes in music and other social interests; we understood each other. Twenty years later I had two daughters in high school and I was still within touch of their culture.

From the mid-1990s on or so, though, I felt I didn't understand those creatures in front of me, nor did they understand me. They were harder to motivate; the work ethic I wanted to project wasn't as often reciprocated. From that perspective I felt it was time to go.

Besides, I had the junior college adjunct job at Lincoln Land in Litchfield to keep my mind occupied. I retired from HHS in the spring of 2007; I stayed at Lincoln Land until December of 2015, when I realized I was so far behind technologically-speaking that I was becoming disconnected from those students. The day I saw a student using a split screen – one side for a source, the other to compose his research paper – was the decision-making day. I do look back at my 39 years at HHS and the 24 years part-time at LLCC with many more fond memories than regrets, but it was time to end those chapters of my life.

I smirk with enjoyment (I hope I can be forgiven for that) when I hear of the teacher shortage now in Illinois, though. I remember driving to a school in southern Illinois to give public testimony at an evening hearing when the state proposed educational reform aimed at the teaching profession. The representative of the state board or state department of education who spoke said the intent was to "... make Illinois teachers the best trained in the nation."

When I spoke, naively thinking common sense could change the misconceptions of bureaucracy, I told the assembled group how I came into teaching with a provisional certificate when warm bodies were the biggest need; how really smart people avoided becoming educators because pay was so much better in every other field that required a college degree; and how the best teachers I had known were in the field because of a wish to serve and build the community, not because of training.

As I saw them then, the problems were the continuing dumbing down of curriculum, the insistence that all students should be treated equally in spite of disparity of abilities, and the always-widening spectrum of societal ills that schools were supposed to solve, from parental child abuse, child hunger, and health care to poor parenting. The state was and is lucky to have the dedicated teachers they had and still have. I also predicted that implementation of skills tests for would-be teachers and continuing education requirements for recertification would result in teacher shortages. I enjoy saying, "I told you so."

I don't know how many years I have left to say that, nor do I care. However, I suspect my kids and grandkids worry because I recently completed my will and signed a power of attorney and living will papers. I've also written my daughters letters as to where important papers can be found.

That doesn't mean a change from looking down at the grass growing to looking up at it from underneath the sod is imminent. It just means it was time to do those chores.

I have had much content in my living despite some rough patches. I hope to have content in my dying whenever that time comes.

One ought not expect more than that.

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