Eventually Freedom

After 30 years of working for the same company, my oldest brother, Anthony, retired. He’s been working since he was a kid. Whether he was hurling the local newspaper from his bike or hustling kids at school to buy Play Boy magazines, he was always trying to earn a buck. Nothing came easy to him.

I remember one (rare) occasion that my father treated us to an ice cream cone, and Anthony was excluded from the treat. I guess Dad felt Ant could buy his own with his paper money, but my brother had bigger plans for that hard-earned cash; so he just smiled and watched us lick our cones and relished the thought that his money would eventually buy him a new bike, so he could deliver the papers quicker.

He went from chucking newspapers and peddling Playboy magazines to dispensing gas, clerking at Loblaw’s grocery store, and a host of other low paying jobs earning enough money to put himself through 4 years of college. Eventually, he landed an interview with Rockwell International in Los Angeles where he got a job, married his home-town sweetheart, moved her out to the West Coast and promptly got laid off with hundreds of other Rockwell employees.

Small town kid made it big in Los Angeles, Ca, was the pride of family and friends back home in upstate New York, married his school sweetheart, moved her to La-La Land and then lost his job. Frankly, had it been me, I’d had probably gone to my closet, closed the door and asked to be left alone for a few months or so. But not Anthony. He had a wife to support, a life to live and a whole slew of friends and relatives in upstate New York expecting him to do good.

And do good he did. He picked himself up, brushed himself off and never looked back. He and Lucy had three lovely girls and made a great life for themselves with a lot of hard work, perseverance and unconditional love.

I’m happy for my brother. He’s earned the accolades, the parties, the well-wishes and recognition. It’s time for him to buy an ice cream cone and exchange his dress shoes for a good pair of boating shoes and enjoy his well-earned retirement.

During one of my morning walks recently, I began to think back on my retirement in 2008 and couldn’t help but see the obvious contrast in events. No accolades, very few well-wishes and one party that was hastily put together by a well-meaning, loving co-worker.  After many years of teaching special needs kids and facing the ever demanding work load of meeting the legal, district, and parental requirements associated with my job, my immune system crashed and I became physically and emotionally unable to meet the day to day demands of my job. Simply put: I had to stop or face an early death. I decided to stop. And because I was 52, I couldn’t opt to take a regular retirement, and so I went out on a medical retirement and thus began my walk of shame.

My school district was not pleased. Replacing me was not easy. The district decided to thank me for my years of service by denying me health benefits. My union representation was worthless and I was too sick to fight. The Princess eventually drove me to my classroom, and we packed up my belongings one Saturday afternoon with the help of another friend and co-worker. We packed up my car, locked up my classroom one last time and as I handed my keys to my co-worker, I remember taking one last look down an empty hallway at a child-less campus and thinking, “I gave this school and these kids all I had. I had nothing left to give any more. My body was exhausted and was too weak to go on. I had to stop. And it was ok.”

The problem was that it wasn’t ok for others. It was shameful. It was wrong. I was somehow not a regular retiree. Friends asked me if I felt funny working on my garden for fear of being caught by a CalSTRS representative for not looking disabled. Relatives promptly corrected me when I said I was retired and informed me that I wasn’t really retired, but collecting disability monies. And very few people offered congratulations on my many years of service, my many years of working with a population of kids and parents that few individuals would even go near. Somehow I was put on a walk of shame; a treadmill of dishonor. After all, accolades and congratulations are for those who stick it out, those who persevere, or so we’ve been lead to believe. Those of us who leave under any other circumstance need not have acknowledgement; need not have the praise. We’re a society that promotes perfection and winning and have little tolerance for disabilities and differences.

Let’s place blame and shame on those of us not strong enough; those of us not healthy enough. Blame will strengthen the individual. Shame will heal the sick.

Somehow my body’s unhealthy reaction to constant stress and pressure was my fault. I needed to man up and put on my big girl pants, or so I was led to believe.  My job not only required multiple credentials and the ability to teach a variety of learning differences, but at the end of my career, I was required to drive to three schools and cart lessons to each of those schools.

My first summer home to upstate New York after I retired was a mixed bag of excitement and shame. No praise for me. No accolades or honors. I was a loser, a quitter and a failure. The fact that my body and mind crashed was all proof that I was less than and not worthy of praise.

It’s been over 8 years since I retired and the sting of leaving still lingers, still haunts me, still hurts. But my identity today no longer rests on the shoulders of shame; the identity of failure. I retired as a special ed. teacher and I’m proud of my contributions.

Today I’m a writer – a story-teller of sorts. And I’m proud of myself and happy to be me. So, congratulations to my brother and congratulations to ME! We’ve both done good and I’m happy that we’re both free……

Have a great day, People, and I’ll catch you the next time, looking at life from my shoes.