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Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

5–4–3–2–1 — Blast Off!

Just as the SpaceX Dragon was preparing to blast off earlier this week, I, too, am preparing to blast off into retirement. My final day of teaching is Tuesday June 2, and as I look back over my career, I see five distinct phases.

Summer Work in a Factory. The first job where I actually had to work a full eight-hour day occurred during the summer of 1968, just before my senior year of high school. I can vividly recall waking up at 6:00 every morning, well before anyone else in the house, to get dressed and eat breakfast and, then, walk to my job as a fork lift. No, not a fork-lift operator, an actual fork lift. My job was to carry boxes of supplies to various people in the factory who would shape those supplies into plastic products (such as dolls or other toys) or add parts to the basic shells. Later, I would return to the various stations to pick up the finished products and load them onto train boxcars at the rear of the building. The work — from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm — was hot and dirty and persuasive; it persuaded me that I did not want to return to factory work ever again, and I definitely needed to attend college.

Two Years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. During my senior year of college, I realized that I didn’t want to go immediately from a college classroom as a student to a high-school classroom as an English teacher, so I signed up to join the Peace Corps. This was probably the smartest move I ever made. With my athletic background, I qualified to work as a physical-education teacher in Costa Rica, and this really allowed me to expand my modest horizons. I had the opportunity to travel, I experienced a new culture, and I learned a new language. I understood, really for the first time, that my small, sheltered, and isolated world was not the center of the universe. In some ways, I was a little kid again — teaching my Costa Rican students to play games other than soccer (basketball, volleyball, baseball, and track and field) — but in other ways, I was a young man who gradually realized that he could positively influence the lives of others, especially young people. This experience reinforced my desire to teach, and when I returned to the States, I began my more formal teaching career.

A Decade in the Catholic School System. Since I had grown up in the Catholic School System, I was actually quite eager to begin my career there, and I began by teaching six sections of 11th-grade English. This was perfect for me as a new teacher because I only had one preparation each day. The first time I went through the lesson, I’m sure I was a bit shaky, but by the end of the day, I was pretty smooth. During that first year, I also coached the boys’ freshman basketball team, and I volunteered often to chaperone dances or field trips, whatever was going on. I absolutely loved being with the students. Unfortunately, that school closed after my first year there, so I moved on to another school within the same system.

At my second school, ironically, I taught freshmen, sophomores, and seniors, everyone but the 11th graders. Preparing three lesson plans each day was much more intense, and during one particular busy year, I taught seven classes every day. Though that year was overwhelming in some ways, it also made me a better teacher because I had to become better organized in order to survive. I also continued coaching: boys’ freshman and jay-vee basketball for one year each, three years of varsity baseball, and eight years of girls’ tennis plus I served as a moderator for an academic team which competed against other high schools for a few years. Again, I volunteered as often as I could, and I only began to slow down when Barbara and I got married after my seventh year there, and Maria arrived a year later. After my ninth year, this Catholic school also closed, and my decade as a high-school teacher came to a close as well.

Another Decade or So as a Writer, Editor, and Proofreader. While I don’t think I was the cause of those two school closings, I decided at that point to explore another field, though one connected to my desire to do more writing. Thus, I worked for almost 11 years for a financial publisher, and that time served as a terrific apprenticeship because I was reading, writing, and editing just about all day, every day. I had moved from the theoretical world, so to speak, to the real world, and my fellow workers were now reviewing my work just as I had previously reviewed my students’ work. During that time, too, I realized how much I missed teaching, and I began to teach on a part-time basis in our community education program and at a community college. I had moved from being a “teacher who writes” to “a writer who teaches,” and I feel like I’ve moved between those two positions ever since.

Two Decades as a Community College Professor. After teaching part-time at the community college for a while, I applied for a full-time position, and I was hired to work as a “Writing Specialist” in The Writing and Research Center. This was a bit of a change because instead of teaching a full classroom of students, I began working one-on-one with individual students. The change was appealing because I didn’t have to create daily lesson plans or read a mountain of essays when I went home at night. Instead, I was able to create handouts for students on various aspects of writing and to also use my free time to do even more creative writing, both fiction and nonfiction. I felt like I had become a “writer in residence” at that community college, and these last 20 years there have been most enjoyable. My students have always pushed me to make my ideas clearer and more concise. My fellow teachers and librarians have always been kind, considerate, and generous with their time and suggestions when I pestered them with questions and requests for help. And the other employees on campus have always been supportive and encouraging, no matter what crazy idea or project I wanted to explore. I am sincerely grateful and blessed to have been placed in such a nurturing environment.

Now, however, I am about to retire. Initially, I thought the 2020–2021 school year would be my last, and I would retire at age 70. That plan changed, though, when the school offered a retirement incentive, and everything else changed drastically as well when the virus arrived and the quarantine followed. So during the last two months or so, instead of the typical end-of-semester craziness in The Writing and Research Center, I found myself sitting near my computer at home — in the basement, no less — working with a much smaller number of students either through email or Zoom meetings. The contrast is stark, but believe me when I say I am not feeling sorry for myself. I have enjoyed a long and fulfilling career, and I feel truly blessed by all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.

In closing, I think of Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The Good Lord has definitely blessed my past, and I look forward to the plans He has for me in the future.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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