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Friday, Dec. 26, 2014

The Rip Van Winkle chronicles

Saturday, February 6, 2010

For some months now, I've come to believe I'm now -- and have been since I retired from teaching, some six years ago -- living in a new world. Not quite, mind you, a "brave new" world, like Aldous Huxley's drug-altered landscape in the mid-1930s, but a changed one to which I've got to get accustomed, nonetheless.

Yes, I swore I'd never let myself get locked away inside the college walls when I began teaching, 32 years ago, I vowed I'd stay in touch with the ever-changing outside world.

Well, I think, in retrospect, that I failed. In retirement, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle. Last May, at the 50th reunion of Taft, my Connecticut prep school, I learned that out of the 104 classmates with whom I graduated in 1958, 14 had already died. I thought I'd followed the obituaries in the succeeding bulletins, but that total stunned me. One fellow had finally succumbed to a lengthy illness, but all the others had just dissolved into space. Ralph had been lost in a summer boating accident; Louis had fallen sudden victim to AIDS while in Panama; Michael, luminous in his government legal position as lifelong scourge of corruption, had died of a heart attack.

My father, on the occasion of his own 50th college anniversary, drove north from Columbus, Ohio, to the nearby town of Delaware, the location of Ohio Wesleyan, and parked in the nearest lot. There he sat and stewed for an hour imagining how his classmates would look after all those years. After all that time, watching his faceless classmates wander toward the hall where they were all to register for the coming festivities, and without even emerging from his own rapidly cooling vehicle, he started it up again and drove back to Columbus.

It's taken me this long to understand why he did that. I'd a done the same, Pop. We all pass blithely through some early stages of our life oblivious to our own aging. When we reach our retirement age we can't think of anything else.

It's the fault of our career in teaching! While kids may complain that a classroom clock slows down agonizingly when they're in their room, and we teachers want to tell them that's not true, we teachers ought to face facts and admit that as long as we're teaching, without a sabbatical or other break of a few years, the classroom clock has indeed stopped. Each of our freshman students is 18 years old. She's that old when she comes in, her freshman year in 1973, and she's the same age when she leaves my classroom in 2004. If I prefer to ignore the whitening of my own hair and keep tabs only on the white-free hair of my eternally freshman students, year after year, I can pretend those kids don't age a day -- and neither do I.

Unfortunately -- and the day arrives like the sudden opening of a vacuum-sealed jar of pickles -- retirement comes suddenly. And, with it, the nasty smell of old Reality.

This week, for instance, Ginny and I got an e-mail message from the sister Jill of the best man at our wedding, some 40-odd years ago. Jack had been a happy-go-lucky son of John Mitchell, Nixon's Attorney-General. I hadn't seen him since, before Ginny, little Jessica and I moved from New York to the Midwest, Jack and I, at Jack's mother Martha's Port Washington house, midway through one early morning, and with a bottle of Canadian Club between us, Jack lamely playing a guitar, the two of us sang "Oh, Shenandoah" again and again and again, until we got it right. I still remember having a roiling good time with my friend Jack that early morning.

Jill's e-mail reported: "Your e-mail took me quite by surprise. Jack . .. . passed away many years ago now. He was in a coma for several years before he died. When he passed away he had three boys who were young: two in junior high school and one in elementary. I'm glad you had the chance to know him; he was fun . . . a bit acerbic at times, a good, fast wit. And, like his Dad, fast with the joke or the jibe. . . . "

Some memento mori are more personally penetrating than others, aren't they?