Retirement is a strange beast, an opportunity to free yourself from your identity. The You you’ve been for the past 30+ years is about to become a part of the past. In the coming years, you’ll hear folks talk about that You in the past tense as they fondly remember bits and pieces of the continuum that defined who and what and how You were for the better part of your lifetime.
I taught for a while, and even if you taught for more than 20 times as long I understand what it’s like to stop. I understand the awkwardness of running into an old student and hearing them reminisce like it was a lifetime ago. They will have moved on a quarter century ago; you’re still counting in days.
Perhaps this sounds like a bad thing, but I assure it’s only scary in that it’s unknown and it’s only bad in that it’s different. This is a life change, to be sure, but more in the sense of a metamorphosis rather than a catastrophe.
You have dedicated your life to teaching, and that gives you something most folks won’t ever find. While the average person has no way of knowing how or even if they’ve made an impact in another, teachers spend their time intentionally equipping people for life. You stood at the door of the plane, handed thousands of kids a perfectly wrapped parachute, gave them a word of encouragement with an expertly timed shove and a promise to see them on the ground.
Welcome to the ground, we’ve been waiting for you. It’s been a crazy ride for each of us, and finally you get to hear all about it without having to spend your free time packing more parachutes. Now it’s my turn to share a little about what I’ve seen since you turned me loose on an unsuspecting world.
I can’t begin to fathom the challenge it must have been to teach me. I shudder to think at how much medication the public school system of today would dump down my throat. But instead of punishing me, or forcing me to participate in class the “right” way, you had the courage to let me sit in the back of the room and study math.
That absolutely changed me, my life, and my future.
Since then, I have expected an education on my terms. I took the classes I wanted in high school, and when they ran out of classes, they made more. Because you were willing to let me learn math as fast as I could, I took differential equations and statistics in high school. It was 2 years in college before I saw any new math.
But in college too I asked for more opportunities than they were prepared to offer. I took crazy courses like cryptography, complex analysis, and chaos theory. I asked for classes they couldn’t find teachers to teach, because I had the confidence that I could learn whatever was asked of me.
It may seem a strange thing to thank a teacher for letting me teach myself, but I’m convinced that was the much more difficult option for you. And it’s ridiculous to pretend that the only thing that you taught me was how to teach myself. I remember very long study sessions with the MathCounts teams; we would never have done as well as we did without your leadership. I still have nightmares about some of those problems.
MathCounts too was a life changing experience. If there’s one thing I’m still obsessive about, it’s solving ridiculous problems. The real difference now is that I’m paid well to solve ridiculous problems. Well, that and you don’t have the answer key. At least, I don’t think you do. If you do, I’m honestly a little disappointed not to find a photocopy packed in with my parachute; that would have been useful a time or two.
When I was told you were retiring, I thought it would be fun to write you a quick little note. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that you had more to do with my meta-education than pretty much anyone else. All I wanted to do was grab a pack and leap out the door. I didn’t care about getting it on quite right or pulling the cord at the right time; I just wanted to jump as far and as fast as I could. And you did the one thing no instructor in their right mind would ever do. You let me.
Welcome to the ground. It’s been a crazy ride. Enjoy your well-deserved new You.
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