This August 2nd will mark the 45th anniversary of my raising my right hand and taking the oath that delivered me into the United States Army. Which means if I’d chosen to make the service my career I could have retired. Twice.
If I’d stayed in the employ of Uncle Sam I don’t know that I’d have climbed very far up the ranks. I mustered out after my two year hitch (I was a draftee) at pretty much the same pay grade as when I’d taken that oath.
Though I never considered making it my career the army was a good thing for me. I made lifelong friends there, served in a beautiful part of the world – Bavaria, in southern Germany – and took full advantage of the GI Bill when I went to college and a VA loan when I bought a house.
It was after I reentered civilian life that I found the career that would prove to be my life’s work. At college I became smitten with literature, with the people who wrote it, and specifically with how they manipulated words to the best advantage. I fully intended to get my advanced degrees and spend my life as a university professor. I even cut a deal with the dean of the English Department at Sam Houston State whereby I would take graduate classes at night, teach freshman English during the day, and finally, after getting a doctorate, apply for a position there. Then, the way I had it figured, I’d settle into a comfy office on that pretty campus and spend whole decades lecturing about great writers and their work. That was the plan.
But you know the old proverb: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
My father suggested that I, just as a sort of fallback insurance policy, get my state certificate to teach in public schools, which involved a semester of practice teaching. At the end of that semester I was offered a job at that school for the next year, and I couldn’t pass up the enormous annual salary (a little over eight thousand in 1977).
The rest, as they say, is history.
Would I have made a good professor? I like to think so. I might have even made a good career soldier. Who knows?
What I do know is that the career I’ve had as a public school teacher has been enormously rewarding and – with the exception of having to place entirely too much importance and waste too much instructional time on a single politically generated statewide test – it’s been enjoyable. I’ve always considered myself lucky that I never suffered through Sundays dreading going back to work on Mondays. And I think I’m even luckier to have taught so many good students (and my fair share of bad ones), some of whom might actually have benefitted from the fact that I was there.
I’ve always encouraged those kids to spend their lives trying to make a positive difference in the world. And I still believe good teachers do just that.
I made some mistakes, and I have some regrets regarding how I handled some things, especially when I was young and didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. And I’ve done a good bit of grumbling in the teacher’s lounge about that state test, about lazy students, and about sundry other things.
But, overall, I wouldn’t trade my career for any other.
I’ll retire this Friday after 40 years as a public school teacher, 35 of them in one high school. It’s a little overwhelming to think of the countless memories I’ll have of the thousands students and hundreds of colleagues and the events in that building that I will step out of for the last time in a few days. And being there for so long has provided a unique perspective.
A couple of years ago a girl raised her hand when she should have been reading her assignment and informed me she didn’t like “Beowulf”.
“Neither did your mother,” I told her. “But she managed to take a stab at it anyway.”
I doubt I would have been given the opportunity to use such a fine line if I’d spent my career in the army.