Looking forward, turning back: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

What I read

I’ve been glancing over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk for over a year now. The book’s cover showed up in New Yorker ads for a time and on my Amazon “Customers who bought this also bought” feed and on the digital galley platform to which I belong. I’ve passed it on the “We Recommend” table at the bookstore. Stopped. Read the cover blurbs about New York (I’ve never been), 1930s (not even I am not that old!), walking (on a good day, yes …) and just figured it wasn’t for me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish is everything I want in a good character: she is witty, perceptive, brutally honest, open-minded, and loyal. She’s also a bit tetchy. Yes, Lillian does traipse through New York City of an evening–New Year’s Eve, no less–but along the way she stops where she experienced some monumental shift in her eighty-four years. There’s the Back Porch, a corner bar where she stopped over the years for a cocktail and maybe a chit chat with the bartender. Delmonico’s, where she and her husband ate after the court date that finalized their divorce. Madison Square Park, where she lunched as a working gal and wrote her poetry. And Macy’s, where she took the U.S. by storm in the thirties, the much-talked-about copy writer, highest paid girl advertiser in the country with newspaper headlines to prove it. St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she arrived when life spun out-of-control.

And that’s how we learn her story. At each stop Lillian reflects on her life–and also meets someone in the present with whom she can connect. Because even though Lillian is eighty-four-years-old, she is forward thinking. We learn that her early life is by turns tragic and comic; her life now, a dance between reaching out and turning inward. As the night creeps closer to 1985, the reality of having one foot in the past, and one in the future becomes oh-so-poignant, and Lillian welcomes the time when the future is no more, when the end will arrive:

“The future and I are just about even, our quarrel all but resolved. I welcome its coming, and I resolve to be attentive to the details of its arrival. I plan to meet it at the station in my best white dress, violet corsage in hand …”


What I lived

I started Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at home on my bed, tucked in snug, everything around me dear and familiar. I finished it on an airplane returning from a visit with my son and his family.

And there’s nothing like a visit with one’s distant children to look back over life, even if only the motherhood part. (Although, truth be told, distance provides space to think about any number of life’s conundrums.) I did some things right. And some things pretty crappy. I wanted my family to be just. so. I wanted to get it right. (And you wouldn’t be inaccurate if you read “controlling” there.) I pushed and prodded at times when I should have offered a hug and one more episode of Power Rangers. I was a hard taskmaster when I should have let the dishes wait until morning. I accepted no backtalk when I should have let my chicks puff out their feathers a bit.

Somehow we survived and somehow we are reasonably amiable.

But Lillian’s experience is now in my field of view. Yes, the future is still out there a ways before I meet it, God willing, and knowing that means I have some time. Time to reach out while turning in. Time to figure out how I’ll “meet it at the station”. Time to figure out what I’ll leave in my wake.

The one where I retired: Six months and counting (Part 4)

School started on a Tuesday in late August and there I was for the first time in twenty-five years–home and in my PJs at 7:30 AM. First hour was about to begin.

To quote Shakespeare (as, I suppose, any good English teacher would do) I met that day with bated breath. Would I feel unmoored? Purposeless? Would I crave the hustle and bustle of football games and spirit week and SAT testing and staff meetings? Would I miss those 700 souls I’d lived with day in and day out over the past two decades plus a few?

I woke up and the wobblies were gone. I had planned well.

That first official retirement morning I spent walking in Frederik Meijer Gardens with friend Denice, my retirement ‘midwife’. She had blazed the trail a few years before me and was firm in her advice: 1) don’t rush into anything 2) let yourself meander through your days 3) keep your commitments to a minimum. After a year, she said, I’d know better how I wanted my retirement to look. That morning we wandered the sculpture garden and for once my direction was spot-on, and I didn’t get lost. We stopped to admire the farm garden and chit-chatted with the garden volunteers. I learned what amaranth was. We swapped stories on the boardwalk about herons and loons. Lunched at Panera. In the evening, my husband and I had tickets to see Lyle Lovett, our favorite summer concert tradition. Lovett is so entertaining, warm, and personable that you’d hardly think he was playing to a crowd of nearly two thousand. The perfect end to a milestone of a day.

And then came Tuesday when I unexpectedly babysat a sick grandson and Wednesday when I spent half an hour talking to a stranger–the young mom behind a farm stand at the Farmer’s Market–about public high schools and curriculum and her son’s needs and why she was homeschooling and … and you get the picture. I had time–and energy–to stop and connect without rushing on to the next thing on my long to-do list.

I’ve had no regrets.

The esprit de corps among teachers is a powerful thing, though, and those first six months I mourned the loss of my teaching buddies nearly every day. We were in the trenches together and that’s potent stuff. We kvetched together. Laughed until we cried. Got tipsy on the occasional Friday after work. Attended each other’s weddings and parent’s funerals. But even that ache is waning. I still see those who have been fast friends, and the rest are fading into fond memories of a life I no longer live.

I read more widely than I have before. Because I have the time, and I’m not reading Marzanno’s Classroom Instruction That Works for Professional Development (!). I’ve spent time developing my writing workshops. Through an online social media platform for neighbors, I organized a neighborhood book club with women I had never met before–not something I would have ever done in my previous life. I’ve taken a few online writing and blogging courses. I volunteer one very full day a week for an incredible organization that provides healthy home-cooked meals for individuals living with chronic illness.

While I no longer live at breakneck speed, juggling thirty-seven things at once, I do have busy days, believe it or not. (Although I suppose even that is relative!) And then sometimes I don’t–but I’m okay with that. I’m not living the high life that some retirees seem to because life got in the (financial) way, but that’s okay, too. I am living happy, wild, and free–and I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin.

Life is good.

The one where I retired: A bit of the wobblies (Part 3)

Before school started last year–before my hall buddies returned to long, hot days in un-air-conditioned rooms, a new principal with all the uncertainty that brings, and meetings, meetings, meetings–I met friend Lindsey, my neighbor in the room next door, to set up a little surprise that I hoped would soften the institutional edges of my teacher friends’ days, even if only a bit. My going-away present to them.

Because teachers don’t get squat when it comes to comfortable–or nice-looking–interior decorating.

The district Central Office and high school offices had been redecorated at least once each during my tenure with the district … but my room in the original wing? Nary a lick of paint in all those years. A window that had no latch so that snow would sometimes blow through the crack. An office desk at least forty years old and file cabinets even older. For more than a few years, I’d tripped over a loose carpet seam until it was finally replaced. No working lock on anything (cupboard, desk, or cabinet) to hold my personal belongings. Staff break rooms are a mix of cast off furniture and appliances and the rest rooms are barely a step up from a highway rest stop.

But I digress.

What I was not prepared for the evening before school started–the year I wouldn’t return–was the wave that washed over me, memory so powerful it nearly knocked me over. The dusk was warm, sun sinking behind the trees as the band and color guard practiced in the parking lot–flags twirling, megaphone blaring, xylophone tinkling–just as they do every autumn. The halls were quiet as I climbed to the second floor, lights dimmed on the timer. And there was that smell, distinctive only to school buildings–some indeterminate combination of sweat and Expo marker and gym shoes and dust.

There is no other place on earth like this. None, I thought to myself.

And I remembered walking up those same stairs over Christmas break, probably to make copies or rearrange desks or change a bulletin board. How I climbed those stairs to leave lesson plans the night my dad died. I remembered leaning out of my second floor window oh so long ago to wave to my son (then 18, rebellious, bedecked in chains and JNCO jeans) when he dropped off something or other I needed from home. I remembered standing at the door of my room after state testing, passing out M&M(E) bars to the juniors I proctored. I remembered stacks of enveloped invitations and prom favors that covered every flat surface the month before prom. I remembered the personal protective order I filed against two students, the media hullabaloo that followed–and the administration that, in many ways, failed me. Reciting the pledge each morning with black, brown, white, and native kids; gay and straight; able-bodied or not; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh. I remembered the times I called for Mr. MERT–frantically–while also trying to comfort: “It will be okay. Help is coming, sweetie.” I remembered dark, dark days of my own when Room B209 was an anchor and it was my students who kept me putting one foot in front of the other.

But I didn’t take a peek in the room at the top of those stairs, my home away from home for close to twenty years. Memories or no, I couldn’t. It was no longer my room–I knew that. This was no longer my place … and I was okay with that.

Which is not to say I left dry-eyed.

The one where I retired: The Prologue (Part 1)

Six months ago I set out on this new retirement journey, and I want to remember my experiences along the way. I wrote this prologue two years before my last day of teaching and kept it hidden away until now.


Early June 2016:

Yesterday–before I left for the summer–I tore another June off my desk calendar, ticking off my twenty-third year of teaching. Since I’m only a couple years from retirement, I’ve started to  think about about my identity as ‘teacher’–and more importantly, what the loss of that role will mean for me. Before this gig, I was ‘homemaker’, marriage coming in my late teens and then my first pregnancy soon after. When the marriage ended and I went back to school, I substituted ‘student’’ for ‘homemaker’ and eventually settled on ‘teacher’.

For the next twenty-three years, that was me–the role I’ve played longer than nearly any other. I graded papers over countless weekends, worked on lesson plans at night, ran copies before and after school, herded 120 plus sixteen-year-olds through five successive hours each day. It was up at 5 AM and to bed at 9 PM. I filed and organized and decorated each August. I drooped and stashed and tore down every June.

So I’m beginning to think about what my good bye will mean for me. I need time to break it to myself gently because that’s how I deal with life. Little-by-little I disentangle myself; bit-by-bit I take another step away. Emotionally, this can’t be a ripping-off-the-bandaid type of departure.

Last week I read a wonderful book about high school in Poland, Korea, and Finland titled The Smartest Kids in the World. (This won’t be a book review, but let me suggest you get the book and start reading now, it’s that good.) Author Amanda Ripley followed three American high schoolers who were dissatisfied with their schooling in the States and became exchange students. Ripley framed her portraits of the teens with statistics and narratives about the success of the education systems in their respective countries. It was clear from the data that other countries have strengths we don’t. The American teens felt their experiences in Polish and Finnish high schools gave them something their home schools never could: higher expectations, greater social freedom, schooling and teachers held in higher esteem. (Korea was a mixed bag because of the hagwon system of after-school tutoring sometimes referred to as cram-school.)

There is plenty I’ve become disenchanted with over the past twenty three years myself. Teachers now walk in lock step, we’re continually testing and reviewing data, we’ve seen our pay and benefits shrink year after year. When I was a fresh, wide-eyed teacher I couldn’t understand the jaded, worn-out senior teachers. Now, sadly, I do. So somehow in the next few years I need to figure out what memories I’ll let define my teaching career. And I’ve started to cherish those times (sometimes with a lump in my throat) I know are coming to a close–like reading long passages of literature aloud, conferencing with students about their rewrites, and connecting a teen with a good book.

And this.

A few years ago our then-new principal (a Troops to Teachers guy, as I understood it) started the practice of reciting the pledge after morning announcements. Seven hundred voices join together in tradition, one that brings back my own school days.

I watch my motley assortment of teenagers–diverse in race, economic status, sexual orientation–pledge their allegiance to our country, the God of their understanding, and each other, and I am moved, at times, to tears.

This, I will remember.