I remember the end of a summer term in 1979, the conclusion of my first year as a teacher. We were saying farewell to a teacher who seemed impossibly old (he might have been 62!), and was retiring after 40 years in the profession. Now I’m retiring in my turn (in fact, my term finished last Thursday, 6th July), I’ve been recalling his parting words.
In his strong Welsh accent, Gareth (I think that was his name) told us not to worry about him. “Please don’t wonder what I’ll find to do in retirement!” He said. “I’ll find plenty: besides, when you’re back at work in September, that’s when I’m going on holiday.”
If that was intended as advice for his colleagues, it was certainly a piece that I took to heart.
I’m now retiring after a mere 39 years in teaching, 27 of them spent as a head. For many years I was considered a youthful headteacher: well, I was. Nowadays, I tell young colleagues, “You know, I was very young head, once.” They shake their heads in response, and adopt a meaningless form of words to conceal the fact that they don’t believe I was ever young.
I’ve had a lot of fun in the past few weeks. Not only have I enjoyed two or three retirement celebrations a week, thrown by one body or another, ever since the beginning of June: I’ve also worked through the usual range of events traditional to schools like Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School: prize-givings, concerts and, unusually, a performance of the evergreen musical, Oliver!, in which I was invited to play the part of the bumbling Beadle, Mr Bumble.
People, particularly my students, have been constantly asking, “Won’t you miss this?” The answer is yes, of course. It’s the privilege of teaching to have the pleasure of working (and having fun) with wonderful people of all ages – teachers, support staff and students alike.
But it’s not the easiest of ways to make a living, involving early mornings and late evenings. You can’t have those jolly bits without the daily grind and the long hours: and I’m 61. So it’s time to go.
Both of us teachers for our entire adult lives, Katherine and I will miss that intense, stimulating and rewarding world. But others must take the reins now, and we shall be able to pick and choose what we do in retirement, whether in the educational sphere or elsewhere.
But that’s what’s so exciting about retirement. We can choose! Since I love writing, I shall keep writing, for sure. Perhaps I’ll even finish that novel…
Then there’s the music that we both love: we trained as musicians, and in recent years haven’t had the time required to do it properly.
During all last week’s farewells, I hardly cried: I thought I might, but I think the prospect of the new life on which we’re embarking perhaps outweighed the sorrow of parting. Does that sound selfish? I hope not. You have to recognise when your time is up: it is, and we do!
Last Thursday, as I started my last term-time day at the RGS, I received an email from one of my oldest friends (himself a former head and English teacher) who included the final section of Tennyson’s Ulysses. Maybe that poem, sent in such timely fashion, also helped me through. It’s a powerful, stirring piece, and instantly struck a chord with me with its bold vision of a future even for the middle-aged! (Ulysses had, after all, been wandering a long, long time after the fall of Troy).
So I share this with you, as I, like Ulysses, embark on my next voyage of discovery:
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.