When I was in my mid-twenties, and pretty new to the teaching profession, I once attended the retirement party of a man who had, years earlier, taught me. I have two memories of that occasion.
One was a story he told (most people about to retire have a pretty deep fund of reminiscence to draw upon for such moments). It came from a lesson he was conducting, with a class of juniors, about the New Testament – the Annunciation, to be precise. They had done the usual reading round the class about Mary and the angel, and the staggering news he was bringing her.
One pink-cheeked member put up his hand and said, ‘Sir, what is a womb?’ (He pronounced it to rhyme with ‘bomb’.)
The teacher said, ‘I told him he didn’t have one, so he didn’t need to worry, and we carried on with the lesson.’
The second thing I remember was the thought that went through my head while I was listening. To think that I was in the same room as a member of the same profession as mine who was retiring. Retiring! It was as if he had said he was planning to go to the moon for his holiday. It was totally beyond my range. Retirement! Youth can not get its head round such a concept. What did it mean? What did it involve? What did it feel like? What did you do?
Of course I knew – or thought I knew – about the obvious things – like being sixty, and not having to mark any more exercise books, and queueing up at the Post Office every week to draw your Old Age Pension. I shared the misconceptions of everybody else about ‘putting your feet up’ and ‘having time to do all those household jobs’ that you had been postponing for years, and ‘amusing yourself’’. But that did not get me very far.
It was about as accurate and as comprehensive as imagining that a dentist’s life consisted solely and entirely of saying ‘Open wide’. Very few people stop to think much about it because they have not got there. They may have ‘made plans’ and ‘downsized’ and taken out endowment policies and pension plans, but that is just prudence; it is not experience. It doesn’t tell you much about what it feels like.
Perhaps the simplest way to sum it up is to make a comparison: the day you retire, a door shuts. The next day, and ever afterwards (if you keep your wits about you), doors open. Many of which you could not possibly have foreseen. When you start being a teacher, you have a pretty good idea that you will spend a lot of time on your feet talking and a lot more time sitting down marking and writing reports. When you start ‘retiring’, it’s not as simple as that.
However, there should be one thing you ought to be sure of: you are not going to be bored. Dammit, you have spent your life teaching children how to occupy their minds fruitfully; it would be a pretty poor show if you couldn’t then do it yourself.