This story is by AL Botsford and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
No matter how long we’ve lived, we can’t predict when we are going to change. Sometimes, by the time we’re aware of changing, it’s already happened. Such an unexpected sea change recently swept over me. Only after some confusing months did I grasp what had happened.
At one time I was a productive professor, scholar, and colleague. But last year I had a dry scholarship period when I wrote only one paper. Writing that paper was the hardest thing I ever did. I missed every deadline the editors set. I felt like I was learning to write in a foreign language or had suffered brain damage. I also avoided professional conferences, even though I’d traveled frequently and enthusiastically in previous years. I had no desire to travel or sit in hotel banquet halls.
Students’ evaluations of my classes went down. For the first time in my career, the number of disapproving comments exceeded the approving ones. If I’d had such evaluations when applying for promotion, I would never have been promoted to full professor. I had enthusiastically performed service in the community and the college. I’d served on committees considered prestigious and significant. Now I was ducking committees and avoiding college events, holiday parties, everything except mandatory meetings and graduation. After 14 years at the college, I watched my star falling. I was fearful that I was losing my grip. My fortune had reversed. I was dead wood. And I didn’t know why.
Not that I was ever first in the hearts of my countrymen. I wasn’t selected for awards or recognition, for instance. In fact, I stood in the library last year looking at the photos of the faculty whom the librarians had selected for recognition. Mine had never graced the space. I’ve gone to the student luncheons for best teachers. I’ve listened to speeches by faculty honored as the outstanding faculty member of the year. I have to admit that I have been pained, envious of them on some level. Some people succeed in establishing relationships, I thought, A fortunate few succeed in relationships as well as scholarship. I succeed in scholarship. That who I am: a reclusive scholar.
Despite my best efforts, my involvement in the college was more like serving a sentence. I felt imprisoned in rooms for hours with other people, to talk about issues I wished I were interested in and tried hard to be interested in; in fact, I was not. Such meetings were ethnographic excursions among natives from the Isle of Academia: with strange vocabularies, behaviors, and world views.
No doubt I have to factor sour grapes into the situation. It’s clear to me now that I wanted the popularity and esteem from colleagues, students, and administration. These grapes were out of my reach. Yes, I was honestly pissed about it and thus the anger; no, the rage. Besides, I’d ticked off way too many colleagues with my attitude. I steadily wrote papers while conveying that committees were a joke and administrative positions, a crock. No love gained there. There are no rewards for bad behaviors.
I thought, too, about all the hard work and the enormous amount of time I had invested in attaining this position. I prepared myself for it during mid-life, over seven highly stressful years of doctoral study, while balancing a tumultuous marriage, with two young sons, and a full-time professional position. To leave now after all this struggle felt like a defeat. Had I wasted my time and years of my life? Had I made a wrong decision to invest all those years in getting a doctorate only to burn out? I lived with guilt about taking time from my family. Had I finally reached a dead end?
I honestly didn’t want to do it anymore! It seemed to me that some other scholars had more drive, to write books, for instance. Forget writing books, after my last experience writing a chapter! Some professors become chairs of their schools or professional organizations; I didn’t want to be a chair or an administrator. That would be hell for me. I work best alone. There are many people like me, who like to work alone and are most creative working alone. For us, the process of discovery and creation are the rewards.
Maybe it truly was time for me to leave, I decided. I’d been to a few farewell parties for faculty favorites among students and colleagues, and I knew it wasn’t going to be that way for me. I didn’t expect anything but an obligatory farewell party. That would be so pathetic and humiliating. Who would come and why, except that they might feel an obligation or enjoy seeing me off? Leaving means facing these painful realities, which give me a sense of failure, sadness, and self-loathing.
I haven’t been able to find words for what I want and need to do next. It isn’t retirement, though. I haven’t accepted the possibility that I am fading into obscurity, as retirement implies. At 66, I’m not ready to say that I’m old: I’m active and healthy. “Old” refers to aged people who have reached the point of decrepitude and creep away. Then a few years later, a message from administration pops up on e-mail to announce the retired person’s death and where to send condolences; that is, if anyone remembers them. But maybe this is what happens; this is what it feels like when you reach this point in your life.
Forget retirement, then: I could always resign. The problem with resigning is that it smacks of termination for bad behavior, like slamming the door on the way out. It’s to save one’s face and cover one’s ass. Resigning hints at internal rankling, bad faith, rumors, and gossip. Resigning is ambiguous and vague. “Resigning to spend more time with family” is an excuse used by politicians and business people who’ve screwed up. They say it to camouflage an impending investigation or as part of a deal to avoid one: “Leave now, and we’ll drop charges.” That isn’t my situation, although if I continue for much longer in my annoyed mode, I might escalate my provocations to the point of forcing the situation. I’m fearful that I am capable of doing that unless I find a better way to resolve things. It’s an old childhood ploy: “If you don’t know the answer for yourself, provoke enough other people into figuring out what to do with you.” Maybe they’ll sideline or even terminate me?
Another possibility was leaving for bigger and better things,” as in this announcement: So and so is leaving to assume a new position as (fill in the blank) at (fill in the blank). We thank her for all of her incredible contributions to the college over these many years. We will miss her and wish her the best in her future endeavors.” No, that would be ludicrous because there is no position better than the one I have. What could be better than having tenure, no supervisory responsibilities, at least four months off, 80% of my time discretionary, little oversight by anyone about anything, a decent salary, benefits and a ten-minute commute from home. And they pay me for this? And they call this a job? People had told me they would kill for this job. What else could I possibly want?
Well, there are things I want. I want to read the books I’ve been collecting for when I have time to read. I want to listen to the music I bought after hearing a few exquisite bars of it on the car radio or in a cafe. I want to become the best short story writer I can. I want to travel more with my husband. I want to camp in the Vermont woods with my grandchildren, ages four, seven, eight, twelve and sixteen. I’ve even bought a tent for all of us to sleep in: The Hilton, we call it.
I want more of what I felt last Saturday when I danced with my grandson Isaac, pressed against me as I held him, my arms aching from his weight. I mouthed these words to my husband, “Is he asleep?”
Smiling, he mouthed back, “No, his eyes are wide awake. He’s in a trance!”
So Isaac and I continued to dance around the kitchen in slow, swooping, twirling, rocking, dipping, back and forth waltz steps, then two steps, then just swaying in place. Isaac did not move until minutes after the music had stopped. He raised his head from my shoulder and dreamily looked into my eyes. I am certain we were looking into one another’s souls.
I’ve given this unexpected turn in my life lots of thought. I finally figured out what to do. It feels right, feels genuine and with no regrets. I’ve even written an official letter to give to the dean when I return to the college next semester: “This letter is to inform you that I will be leaving my position at the end of the academic year. Thank you for all of the opportunities and challenges in my years at Blah Blah College. I hope that I have made some modest contribution to the research and literature during my years here. Now it’s time to move on to an even more fulfilling life: as a grandmother dancing with my grandchildren.”