The Keys of My Life

Friday, June 10, 2022, was the last day of school where I taught upper school religion this year. Today I will turn in my school keys and walk out of the door as a retired teacher–again.

If you follow me on my website or on social media, you may have seen my personal essay “I Loved Being A Classroom Teacher: Covid 19 Stole That From Me” published by HuffPost on January 11, 2021.  At the time, I was so upset to leave my classroom against my will that I couldn’t even say “retired” out loud.

This time is a little different. This time I made the decision, after much discussion with my family, to retire from the classroom. I’m 99% sure I’m happy with my decision, although today when I turn in my keys, I can’t promise I won’t be teary-eyed and second-guessing myself.

What is it about turning in a set of keys that makes me so upset? In the summer of 2020 when I turned in my keys after deciding not to teach pre-vaccine during the pandemic, I was shattered. I walked next door to the church and sat in the quiet, cool, stillness, and prayed that I was making the right decision. This time, I’m not quite at that stage but, still, I’m not looking forward to handing them over.

Even with all of the technology available to us today, keys still play an important part in our daily lives. Keys to our cars (even with fobs to unlock them, and in some cases, to start them, too). Keys to our houses (even with keypads and auto-opening garage doors). Keys to gym lockers (not that I would actually know about that, lol). Keys to our workplaces, which for me has always been a place of order, efficiency, and professionalism. I might have to turn my house upside down to find something, but at work, not a chance. Twenty-four years as a paralegal and eighteen years in education, and I’ve always left for the day with my desk cleared off, files in order, and everything ready for the next day of work or teaching.

My parents lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Anything that wasn’t in the trunk of their car when they evacuated to Houston in 2005 was gone, a victim of the ravaging waters of the Mississippi River as it breached the levee north of their home in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. When they drove away on that fateful day heading for a La Quinta Inn in The Woodlands, Texas, they both had their house keys with them. Months later, when they were finally able to drive into my hometown, those house keys were a bitter symbol of what was lost, a five-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-car garage home nowhere to be found. 

We spent two glorious years in Belgium for my husband’s work. We loved the house that we lived in. Our landlord was a genteel, older man who had built the house himself, in the “American-style” he was so proud to tell me. When we moved back to the States, I somehow managed to leave with an extra house key in my jewelry box. I found it months later when our sea shipment arrived. This time, that key is a symbol of happy memories of a lovely home in a foreign country learning so much about Belgium and her people and culture.

I started working right after graduation from college in 1978, and except for those two years in Belgium where I volunteered daily in the school, I’ve been employed ever since. I’ve always had “work keys” on a separate key chain, hanging from a lanyard so I could distinguish them from my “home keys.” After 42 years of working, why is it so hard to turn in these keys?

My husband keeps reminding me of all the things I love to do that I never have time for: writing, cooking, reading, crafts, and swimming. Turning in these keys means I will have time for those things, along with more time to “relax,” which he says I don’t know how to do. I feel quite differently about that. Work has always given me the discipline I needed to get things accomplished. Without a schedule, I worry that I will just spin my wheels and waste time. I have two book ideas I’ve had for years (decades if I’m honest) and now I will have time to actually attempt to get those ideas out of my head and onto paper. 

While most people look forward to retirement and count down the days of being free of a 9-5 schedule, I have been actively trying to wiggle my way into a part-time job. But, I know deep down that I need to just let it go (key the music). Getting these thoughts out of my head and into essay form is my way of dealing with all the feelings I am having, the shoulda-woulda-coulda feelings. As my younger daughter said, “So proud of your run, Mom.” I’m proud of it, too. So, I’ll just hand in those keys, turn the page, and start a new chapter. Wish me luck!

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