I have long been unacquainted with and resistant to the word retirement. It seems to go against my Aries, warrior, full-steam ahead nature, (plus, it’s not like Henry and I can just sit back and let the money roll in). My older sister kindly suggested semi as a way to soften the thought of retirement, ease into it. So I’m trying it on, concurrent with a few decisions about how I want to spend my days, and where I want to put my heart and effort.
On the school front, I’ve decided this is my last semester teaching on-campus. (I know, I know, never say “never.”) I am going to put all my academic eggs into the basket provided by Adams State’s Prison College Program through Extended Studies. That means creating even more print-based correspondence courses for incarcerated students, as I have been doing since 2013. Besides the usual (ENG 101 and ENG 102) I offer Introduction to Creative Writing, the Prison Memoir, and will soon add Creative Nonfiction. Incarcerated students are, by and large, my cup of tea. They are for the most part earnest, dedicated, appreciative, and willing to put in the time to develop their writing. Yes, of course being in jail means that they have lots of time, but I don’t mean the kind of time that any one of us can all too easily fritter away, or that spins us in circles, or that deadens us. I mean the kind of time that focuses on discovering what we really think and feel, taking honest stock of ourselves, and honing our craft so that our words can penetrate the fog, the distractions, the thicket of today’s world. Incarcerated students, for the most part, have also had enough life experience, especially at the bottom, so that they know what will happen to them if they don’t get on with the business of living, of pursuing a life of the mind and the heart.
I find this sensibility and focus are in stark contrast to many on-campus students. They’re not sure who they are or what they’re doing, much less what they want to study and become. (They’re also completely distracted by the lure of technology. That’s worth an entirely different blog post.) The more I teach on-campus, the more I’m in favor of what’s often called the gap year, only my version would be a year of service–to the country, to humanity, to the planet–in a variety of forms: Peace Corps, AmericaCorps, planting trees, making trails, cleaning up toxic waste, helping with disaster relief, feeding the homeless, working in an old folks home, volunteering in a prison, or of course, military service among a myriad of other possibilities. In my vision, a year’s worth of service would come with a stipend, food and board, and a hefty discount or even a voucher to pay for higher education if that is what the young person chooses to pursue. It would not only benefit our country, humanity, and the planet, but it would also give each young person the chance to see the world from a radically different perspective and to discover who they are in a radically different context.
What I’m trying to get at is I think the sadder but wiser student is a better fit for me, and that means incarcerated students.
This shift will allow me more time to work at home, which sounds right to me. That back and forth between studio, office, garden, greenhouse, horses, Henry, Aikido–all home based–feels like what I need to be doing as I start breathing down the neck of seventy years. I will probably continue to tutor at the local junior college (populated by sadder but wiser students), but I look forward to withdrawing from the head of the classroom.
The last two semesters have not been easy for me. There’s something consistently chafing and restrictive about the embedded structures and relationships of the classroom. Hierarchy. Passivity. Corners in which to hide. The omnipresence of technology, especially the handheld kind. The silent bell dictating beginnings and endings. Even the desks and chairs dictating the shapes of our bodies and what we do or don’t do with them. I have tried to find ways to disrupt/subvert these embedded constraints by including field trips to the gym so that we can incorporate movement, non-verbal communication, and Aikido principles into our English class, but I’m not sure how successful my rebellion has been, or ever can be, given the powerful undertow of the structure of the institution itself. Expectations. Peer pressure. Conformity. Compartmentalization. Not making waves. Not asking certain questions. Producing a product. “Norming.” The general slide towards disembodiment. A preference for visual/verbal/left brain learning. A distrust of kinesthetic/right brain learning. In short, I don’t think I fit. I don’t think I want to fit even if I could. And I definitely don’t want to MAKE myself fit, a problem which has always been my bugaboo.
So, I’m coming home. Home to writing my print-based courses, opening my “jail mail” from the mail box, and responding to people in prison all over this nation. Home to writing this blog, and whatever else wants to come through me. Home to painting and carving, and wherever THAT takes me. Home to the garden and self-sufficiency. Home to Esperanza and her field-mate Stormy. Home to teaching Aikido in our studio/dojo. And of course home to Henry, hoping for another ten, twenty years of being with my soulmate on this beautiful, fragile, jeopardized planet.