Juggling, Academic Life, and Retirement

Juggling work and family obligations kept my head reeling for years. I taught four courses a semester, was in Faculty Senate, sat on a number of committees, and often was an adviser for some of our majors. Research and publishing were stressed, but so was I — stressed, I mean. I am single, live alone (except for the pets), and had no one to do all the things that need doing or taking care of with a household.

True, the last few years that I worked I had a friend who helped me keep the house straight. She came in every other week for three hours. In between, I could mostly manage to keep things straight. Mostly.

But who else was going to run my errands? Cook my meals? Do the laundry? Pay the bills?

Me. No wife or house-husband. And the dogs and cats just didn’t care as long as their food was there and their needs were taken care of.

Some people hear that I taught 12 hours a week and thought that like other faculty who had the same load, I simply worked 12 hours a week. Oh, that that were indeed true! No, the truth is that we worked far more. We had a mandatory 10 office hours a week. That didn’t count the other meetings for students who couldn’t meet us during scheduled hours, or for meetings or committees. Nor did it include phone calls during “off” time, or time spent at home answering email or grading or preparing for classes.

Sometimes, I wanted a legislator — or anyone who thought faculty had a light load — to take my job for a week or two. I know it’s not as physically demanding as many laborers’ jobs. But believe me, most faculty members at public universities work far more than many people know.

The closest I came to publication for years was managing to keep up with research for classes. My summers? I used them for downtime, for de-compressing. Weekends weren’t enough for that, not after two long semesters.

I wrote — just not academic essays. I planned some, and I even have a draft of an academic book. But my mind seemed to turn off by itself. It clearly knew that’s what it needed. And what I needed for survival.

Then, of course, came more responsibilities with my dad. As his health worsened, I spent more and more time with him. I took on more responsibilities. I took him to doctor’s appointments; I was there for those appointments. I needed to know what was going on so that I could explain to him.

By the last year I taught, I was commuting most of the time. By the time I retired, I had moved in to his house, commuting to my house in Lake Charles on weekends when my sister came to stay. We referred to our “tag-team” method of caring for Dad.

My own academic work — and my own other writing — simply came last. I shoved it aside. I kept a journal. Eventually I started blogs.

But put myself first? I hadn’t really done that for years, not full-time, anyway.

Now I can. And it’s interesting. I am discovering what I want to do. Some of my plans for writing projects are yet to be resurrected, but I know that they will be. Soon.

My own house? That too was on the back burner for years. Now I’m paying attention — and money — to get it in order, to get long-planned renovations done.

Teaching was a wonderful profession. It was not something I’d planned — in fact, I often said that teaching was one of the last things I wanted — along with being a secretary. Yet when I was in grad school working on my MA in English at L.S.U. in Baton Rouge, I got a teaching assistantship. I took it to pay the bills and to alleviate expenses that my parents had taken on when I moved to Baton Rouge for school.

Within a week, I had an epiphany — this was what I was meant to do. My Aunt Jean tells me that she always knew I would be a teacher. I tell her I’m glad someone did, because I surely didn’t! Once I found my passion for it, my passion for writing took second place. Or even tenth place.

When we’re young, we often don’t know what we want to be when we “grow up.” I wanted to be a writer — a foreign correspondent, to be exact. Just how I thought I’d become that, I don’t know. So teaching surprised me. Seduced me. And educated me.

There were certainly times when I plodded through, times when I was weary. But the rewards of the classroom never disappeared. They continue, even now. When I see a former student, or hear from one, and they talk about my classes and how much they learned or enjoyed them — that’s still a reward. That’s what teaching is about. Touching those students and their lives.

Today on a Facebook page for Iota, Louisiana, there was a discussion thread asking if anyone remembered a particular teacher. I certainly did. She only taught me one class, for one year, but I still remember her. Years later, even after I was teaching at McNeese, I might run into her in Crowley, or even Lake Charles. She always had a smile for me. She always knew my name. She always had time to talk to me.

Teachers make such a difference. Too often, we dismiss them. We overlook the many fine, dedicated teachers and deride the bad ones who simply collect a paycheck.

Teaching might not have been my first planned career. But teaching composition and American literature at university turned out to be not just a job, but my avocation, my passion.

And when it was time to retire, I knew it. Not because teaching was stale, but because I had other responsibilities. And other desires. It was time to leave an opening for a younger professional.

I haven’t looked back since. I refer to retirement as “graduation,” and that’s accurate. For me, retirement was graduating all over again, into a new life.

At the time, that was a life of caregiving. As long as that lasted, I was grateful for the time and freedom to be able to take care of Dad.

And now it’s time for me. I feel like I did that summer of 1969, right after I graduated from high school and entered college (two weeks after finishing high school).

The world was opening for me then. It is again. And what I have to write about has been enriched by many years of teaching, years of dialogues with students about literature and life and writing, and by being a caregiver for Dad. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

Now the only things I juggle are my own interests, my own responsibilities for house things. I kind of like it.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Juggling, Academic Life, and Retirement

  1. roger miller

    Cheryl, thanks for the sharing and just for being you! Roger

  2. Seth

    Very nice and true!

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