When it was time to retire after 25 years as a college professor, I knew it. No fuss, no bother. On my last day, I turned off the lights in my office, closed the door behind me and attached a note that read: “Wayne has left the building.”
That’s the way I tell the story now.
In reality, I fretted more over taking early retirement than I did over asking out a girl for the first time. I really had no reason to retire at age 55, except that I could. I was eligible for a pension, and we could afford it.
Something inside me had changed. My classes began feeling like déjà vu. I became less tolerant of departmental and state requirements. Worst of all, I grew less patient with students.
One afternoon, a student who had missed a number of assignments came to my office to proffer yet another excuse. I cut him off midsentence. “Please don’t tell me your grandmother died.”
“No,” he said in a voice so low I could barely hear him. “My father.” He pulled out of his backpack a copy of the funeral program. “He had cancer, and I was taking care of him so my mom could work.”
I apologized, of course. The student assured me it was all right.
“No, it’s not all right,” I said, more to myself than to him.
Earlier in my career, I had taught with a middle-aged man who one day announced at a faculty meeting he was quitting teaching. “I no longer like my students,” he said.
The honesty of his words had struck me. I admired his integrity and vowed to quit before I reached that point.
“So it’s decided,” my wife said. “You’ll retire at the end of the year.”
“Yes, I’m going to do it,” I’d say one day. The next day I’d say, “No, I’m not ready yet.”
I had never considered myself particularly indecisive, but now I was driving myself crazy.
As I contemplated retirement and bored my friends and family with my obsession, they would ask what I planned on doing with my spare time. This was of particular concern to my father-in-law, a Depression-era veteran who had done physical labor all his life. Even after his mandatory retirement, he found part-time work bagging groceries at a supermarket. I remember explaining to him that I didn’t want to work just for the money.
He looked at me as if I had made a joke he didn’t get. “What the hell else would you work for?”
When I tried explaining, it became clear how unconvincing my motivation to teach had become. I was ready to retire.
I was never worried about finding things to do once I retired. However, what I did worry about surprised me.
Would I be failing to meet my responsibilities as a man and a husband? The first time I articulated it in those terms, I surprised myself at how old-fashioned I sounded. My wife’s salary had surpassed mine a while back, and neither of us had a problem with it.
Was I lazy? I could hear my father, who had died almost 20 years earlier, admonishing my teenaged self for hanging around the house and reading all summer. “Get off your ass,” he’d shout. “Find a job.”
My wife tried assuring me that I had worked long enough to prove, even to our fathers, that I’m not lazy. “You earned this. You did your job well. You saved for retirement. You did everything right.”
I still worried.
These discussions continued for most of the year, until my department head called me into her office and said if I was planning on retiring, she needed to start the paperwork to begin the search for a replacement.
“Where do I sign?” I asked, as if the decision had been as easy as which pair of pants to wear that morning.
Once decided, I simply rode my white horse into the sunset, never looking back.
I missed my teaching buddies. Still do. Although we exchanged emails and met for the occasional lunch, it was no longer the same. I felt like an outsider eavesdropping on the lives of others.
I needed my own life. I signed up for art classes but soon learned I lacked both the patience and talent of a painter. The instructor insisted we start with a pear and get the shading right before adding strawberries. When he finally arranged the berries, I took one look at their indentations and shadowy coloration and decided I didn’t have that kind of life expectancy. This led to one of my most liberating moments: I quit. As a retired person, if I didn’t enjoy something, I didn’t have to stay with it.
I knew I enjoyed writing. So I returned to what I had always loved. As an English teacher I had written my share of professional papers but hadn’t tried fiction since my undergraduate days. I dusted off the computer I had associated with work and began a short story. The next morning I rushed to the computer to continue writing, even before the coffee brewed.
But I still had to surf another wave of insecurity. My job as a teacher had offered me at least a modicum of respect. Now I was just an old retired guy hanging around the house writing stories only his wife read. Joining a couple of writing groups helped. I offered criticism while I received feedback. Even better, I got some attention.
I had always thought of myself as self-directed. I discovered how much, in my own quiet way, I craved attention. If it hadn’t been for the editing groups, I probably would have returned to teaching, at least part time. Now I understood why my father-in-law sought work after retirement. He needed the human interaction. More, he needed to feel useful.
Although I continue to have an occasional pang of guilt, I’ve mostly settled into a lifestyle I describe as “doing nothing and resting afterward.”
“I was born for the retired life,” I tell friends. “Easiest decision I ever made.”
After teaching writing and literature in college for 25 years, Wayne Scheer retired to follow his own advice and write. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.