I just sent in my registration to attend the annual Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival; last year’s festival was what prompted me to finally make the decision to retire and the story is on my mind.
For many years I had been telling my family that I would retire in “five more years.” I didn’t know that I had been saying it for such a long time, but when my daughter-in-law pointed it out, I realized that she was right. I knew that I wanted to retire before I became someone “who should have retired a long time ago,” but I had been unable to make such a final decision. I truly love my work and therefore it’s not really work, it’s my passion, and it’s just who I am. On the other hand, I am feeling more tired more easily; keeping up with 13 and 14 year olds takes a lot of energy, and there are days when I’m not sure I’ll make it. Last fall I was feeling particularly weary; a leadership problem had developed in my school and I was overwhelmed and stressed. I resigned from a few committees and that helped, but it was hard.
The last weekend of October every year is the Keene Children’s Literature Festival, and last year’s roster of speakers was paramount: Katherine Paterson, Jane Yolen, Lois Lowry, Lita Judge, and Beth Krommes (winner of the 2009 Caldecott award). I certainly wasn’t going to miss that! The day was wonderful, and two seemingly random experiences that day changed my life.
First was listening to Lita Judge, a relatively new author. She had come to our school the year before, and I was entranced by her story and her style. In her presentation at our school, the audience was children; in Keene, the audience was adults, and that made it all different. The daughter of naturalists, she had grown up in Alaska, spending many hours sitting silently in small spaces, drawing pictures, while her parents observed raptors. She set out to become a paleontologist, and was nearly done with grad school when she met her husband. He took her to New York City and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; she had never been to an art museum and when she walked through the door, she told us, she broke into tears and knew that THAT was what she was supposed to do with the rest of her life. That moment changed her life. As her narrative continued, about how she taught herself to paint and how she began writing children’s books, I became lost in my own thoughts.
Then the second event happened: the power went out in the middle of Lita’s presentation. After a few moments, one of the other speakers suggested that since it looked like the outage could be fairly long (a squirrel had been electrocuted in a power transformer!), that perhaps each speaker could move to a corner of the auditorium, speak to groups of attendees and answer any questions people might want to ask. What a great way to pass the time! Lois Lowry came to my corner of the room, and I was enthralled by her stories of how she started out — as a terrible journalist, no less, according to her. When she asked for questions, I spoke up (something I just DON’T do in a group of strangers but I was hungry for the answer).
“How do you know when to stop writing?” I asked. She replied that it was one of the hardest things about writing, which is my exact feeling, too. She continued to say that she has learned, through her many years of experience, that when she’s writing, she one day notices that new stories and new characters are barging into the story she’s trying to finish. That’s when she knows the first story is done and it’s time to think about the next one. Soon after she answered my question, the lights came on, everyone returned to their seats and Lita returned to her presentation.
But I had changed. I felt pulled. I have always loved to write, especially poetry, and a few years ago I started writing a book about my teaching. I spend time on it as I can, but it’s never enough, and it feels like I’ll never be finished (hence my question for Ms. Lowry). I just love the writing. I have words in me and I love playing with them, and at that moment I felt that if I didn’t make a decision to retire, then I would never get to do all the writing that I feel compelled to do; it’s something I have to do. I just know it, as Lita Judge just knew that when she stepped inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art she was meant to be an artist.
That week, I wrote my letter of intent to retire, effective June 2011. Our district has a retirement incentive plan and we have to apply for it eighteen months ahead of time, so there was an actual deadline; I had three days to make the decision. I think it had to be that way; I had been pondering the idea for years and couldn’t settle it. I needed the deadline. I know that it’s going to be terribly hard to leave this job that I have loved — even as I told my closest colleagues of my plan that next week, I choked up and found it hard to talk. But I’m moving toward something new, and I hope it will carry me through the hard part next June. And I know it will be hard. I’ll be writing about it!