"I at least go on very comfortably without the belief that the cosmos, whether it wears a beard or not, needs me in order to know itself. I suppose it needs me as it needs any grain of sand, because I am here. And the whole, if there is a whole, would be I know not how much other, if an atom were subtracted from it, but I do not believe that a shudder would go through the sky if our whole ant heap were kerosened."
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
I am in one of those curious cycles that make a person think there is something to the movement of the stars, something that does affect our lives. The last two weeks I have been getting connected with former students in the most wonderful ways. Almost every day I have had emails, letters, visits, etc. going all the way back to the beginning of my years at the Salt Mine. In various ways, all these grads said thank you to me for my role in their various lives. Three different students wrote poems for me. One sent a magazine with her writings (thanks, Brady!). Three visited me personally. One sent a note saying that he was rethinking a lesson we did with Thoreau back in the early nineties. This morning I got a sweet letter from my Uzbek girl saying how she would like to keep connected.
It has been the most uplifting and gratifying series of days. Maybe it is a result of the simple accumulation of forty years of teaching. My first class taught by me (like Ann Elk's theory) was back in 1967, literally. It is also a consequence of some kind of connection that I am able to make with my students. Many of them keep a thread of significance with me, choose not to go off into their lives without a finger on this part of their pasts.
I do think and know that the Salt Mine in former years had the talent to hire teachers whose personalities were similar to mine in that area. Others of the first twenty years of SMHS also keep connected to graduates. And that trait of "family" connectedness is almost unique to the Salt Mine, from what I hear. I know of no other school that can claim such personal loyalty to the teachers. And I give credit to a series of administrators who trusted hiring of new staff to people who would be sensitive to that quality. It created for many years a warmth and trust among teachers and students, a unique environment.
This connection with grads comes at a time when I am seriously trying to plan my likely steps to retirement. At least I need to think seriously rather than in my usual humorous joke with the kids that I have one foot in the grave. One of the grads told me this week that he expected me to be on staff to teach his child, who is of the age to be a freshman next year. It set me back, as I had to face the actual fact that I will certainly not be around to teach senior English to a member of the class of 2012. I will be lucky to be alive, to say nothing about working.
Oh, well. One of our administrators told me that all these great connections were "compensation for dedication to teaching," a nice phrase. And true. Of course, compensation in the form of long green is nice, too. In the long run, when I am living on social security baked beans, it will be all the compensation left. (The school will say good-bye to me with no tears, believe me.) So, I think, all those threads connecting me to the students I have taught will be what have to keep my sense of self-value afloat during the further years of decline.