Feature

Retirement Straight Talk

by Donald R. Draayer


On the morning of my 65th birthday I walked out the front door of our home to pick up the newspaper. Hanging between two trees was a 4-foot-by-8-foot Happy Birthday sign, placed there during the night by neighborhood teen-agers who had grown up while I was their superintendent.

What tugged my heart, of course, was their thoughtfulness, but what first caught my eye were the big letters “DR.” in front of my name. In retirement almost no one calls me “doctor” anymore.

Obviously, this particular transition is minor, even petty, but that’s not the case with other transitions I’ve encountered since I retired in 1995. After 38 years as a teacher and school administrator, including 24 years as the superintendent in Minnetonka, Minn., I have discovered that retirement is not one transition but many, affecting all aspects of life.

As a farmer’s son, I long have viewed learning like new growth that springs forth from moist, fertile ground. I entered education to be the planter, the gardener and the harvester. This transforming magic fulfilled me all of my professional days and gave special purpose to my life.

However, I am finding that retirement is like virgin soil. The ground must be cleared, plowed and fertilized. New possibilities must be turned over in the mind and heart. Learning doesn’t end in retirement; it shifts to brand new terrain.

My own journey appears to be following the nine distinct stages of retirement culled from stories of 300-plus educators who have shared their retirement stories with me in the process of writing a book on this subject. However, each story is unique. Like the Russian proverb says, “There is no pathway; the pathway is made by walking.”

My retirement has surfaced a multitude of interconnected decisions, raw emotions and values that I must examine not once, twice, but nearly every day in every nook and cranny of being and doing. Like an earthquake, my retirement has given rise to everything from minor tremors to major aftershocks.

Rude Awakening

Although the concept of retirement is well engrained by such things as paycheck withdrawals for Social Security, the reality of retirement can come like a gentle whisper in the night or a lion’s roar, loud and threatening. My awakening was not a heart attack, cancer or other illness. It was this invitation from a friend: “Would you please present yourself to a distinguished group of educators for possible group membership?”

 

My friend, a retired superintendent, refused to say more. “Trust me,” he said. Of course, I went.

The 85 educators—all older, many retired, and each holding a well-established reputation—started with dinner and then moved to another room. They instituted a ritual that enjoined me in some good-natured teasing. They flattered me. They honored me. And then they voted unanimously to approve my membership. They labeled me, “Soon to be retired.” It was a defining moment in my head.

Raw Emotions

Then the emotional furies that accompanied my retirement first appeared. Can I afford to retire, having worked in several states with no full pension rights anywhere? Where will we live? Should I, or could I, do some other work for a few years? If so, what jobs are available? Am I employable?

 

My parents, married during the Great Depression, worked long hours on their vegetable farm and required similar effort from all four of their children (including me, the oldest). Concurrently, country school teachers fed high expectations in matters of the mind. The strong work ethic they instilled turned out for me to be a life sentence.

Thus the joys of my retirement were overshadowed by fears about retirement. Work so defined me over the decades that I wondered, “If I no longer work, what good am I?” Work associates, neighbors and friends unknowingly fed this fire of self-examination: “What will you be doing in your retirement?” My mind associated doing with work because a lifetime of service had made task completion and self-worth close relatives, if not identical twins.

Early on I yielded to an inner voice that said, “Retirement is O.K. if you include enough work-related activities.” I told people that I was going to be an educational consultant and handed them my newly minted “business” card. It was like a security blanket in the months prior to my last day of work.

Relationship Upheaval

Life in the fast track as a superintendent is a huge contrast to home alone as a retiree. I discovered that the receptionist’s “hello” in the morning and the evening custodian’s “good night” had been meaningful social encounters. They acknowledged my existence. They affirmed a team relationship in which every person, regardless of title or role, gave and received. Community is born in the midst of such human interaction.

 

Retirement severs a host of relationships or puts them on a different plane. Meetings with mayors, United Way officials and community activists cease. No longer are computer specialists at your beck and call when a hardware or software glitch develops. No longer do people button-hole you about this or that project.

Relief from the pressure cooker felt great at first. Reading the entire morning newspaper, washing the car, cleaning out the garage and staying a couple of extra days at the cabin were great stress relievers. I read a stack of books. We went to more movies.

However, I soon began to feel isolated, out-of-touch and in need of more human interaction. The built-in community called school had disappeared overnight. (Indeed, I needed to ensure conscious and deliberate disengagement to be fair to my successor.) My wife was happy with the busy calendar she established prior to my retirement. Many other colleagues had moved to warmer climates or closer to family members.

Taking the initiative to form new social relationships became an imperative. Fax, phone and e-mail could not fill the void. I joined a men’s Bible study, volunteered in the community and talked to neighbors more. These contacts, consciously sought, brought new jokes, current stories and human drama. They filled my need for laughter, engagement and imagination. Within months my new retirement community began to form.

Sharp Dissonance

This transition from a built-in school community to a built-up community-at-large was aided by my pursuit of work opportunities. Networking and direct mail advertising to former colleagues opened doors.Within the first year of retirement I was representing the Search Institute, speaking all over the United States about the organization’s research relating to development assets in children. The University of Minnesota offered an appointment as a senior fellow, which entailed writing a syllabus for the graduate school course on the superintendency and an invitation to teach the course. Two consulting jobs opened, followed by more than I could handle.

Once again, work filled most of my days and nights. My taste of freedom in the first months of retirement had whet my appetite for more but did not still the hunger in my belly for professional engagement. The tensions between part-time professional work and other retirement options have grown during the past eight years.

One voice, reinforced by my wife, says: “Work is not the whole of me but a part of me.” Dare I believe this? My life is like a mobile hanging from the ceiling. Work, like a big weight, hangs from its center point. Other aspects of my life such as family, relatives, friendship, church, recreation, patriotism, learning and community hang there too, but more toward the edges.

If I snip off the work leg, will my life mobile suddenly become unbalanced and lightweight? If so, in whose eyes? My parents, who are long dead? My teachers, who also have passed away? My former employers, who quickly hired capable replacements? If not, then who? Could it be the tag lightweight would only be in my eyes?

Another voice, reinforced by a lifetime of work and professional honors, says: “Purpose and meaning are found in service to others.” Service above self is also my Rotary Club motto. But can service to others only be found in professional endeavors?

My granddaughters want me to cheer at their soccer and hockey games. My daughter needs help with twin babies and her 2½-year-old son during the day. Neighborhood kids seek me out for conversation. Aging uncles and aunts want me to visit more often. Friends are dying and their loved ones need comfort and love.

Gradually I am coming to the realization that retirement changes the venue of values expression, not the values themselves.

Unbidden Health Issues

Six months ago I experienced pain in the joints of my left hand and my grip could no longer open a pickle jar. “Nothing catastrophic,” said the doctor. “Early stages of arthritis.” He put me on an ongoing pill routine for the first time in my life.

My skin doctor says, “No more sun with those pre-cancer spots on your freckled face.” My audiologist reports that my hearing is becoming worse. A kidney stone recently gave me three days of intense pain. Advancing age and loss of vitality are clearly linked and become very personal in retirement.

Happily, for me, this downside health news is counterbalanced by good blood pressure, low cholesterol, sound eyesight, an active mind and a nose that still relishes the smell of fresh wood. Isn’t it time to give priority to my hobby shop, perhaps fulfilling some promised gifts to the grandchildren?

 

The Struggle Within

What do I want my retirement to be? If given a chance by long life, each one of us answers this question. No longer do I have to prove anything. I want to become less concerned about products, tasks or outcomes and to become more excited by human interaction in which family members, friends, neighbors and community citizens enjoy, uplift and love one another.

My leadership roles over the years put me among the people and in front of people, but never did the role quite allow me to be one with the people. I want to laugh, cry, hug and cheer with less reservation and caution.

I hope for more intimacy with my wife, more fellowship with friends and more open conversations with people I already know and others I will come to know. I want to live more fully in the spirit of love than to talk about the spirit of love. I want to be a blessing to others as much as to be blessed.

Significantly, the struggle within me between the old work as a professional administrator and my new work as a retired gentleman is still alive and well.

This past spring I said, “Yes” to a retired associate who asked permission to nominate me to a list of retired administrators, one of whom would be elected to a seat on the board of directors of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. Next weekend I will drive to Duluth for their board meeting instead of going to our family cabin, attending a football game or watching granddaughters play soccer.

Each of us makes our own retirement bed. Mine is filled with many pleasures, to be sure, but also contradictions and inconsistencies as my lifelong values find new venues for expression.

 

Don Draayer, the 1990 National Superintendent of the Year, retired in 1995 from the superintendency. He can be reached at 5906 Holiday Way, Minnetonka, MN 55345. E-mail: dondraayer@mn.rr.com. He is the author of Retirement Straight Talk: Stories and Wisdom from Educators (ScarecrowEducation).