The Big Retirement Speech (again)

This is the speech I ended up devising for the 2009 Andrew Alumni Banquet. Pretty pathetic, I admit, but I tried. (And, boy, did I mistake who the audience would be. You’d think after 32 years that a good portion of the crowd would be former students—as I clearly intended from the wording here. But that was definitely NOT true. I believe only two, maybe three people were former students of mine. Oh well.) Here’s the speech:


“Ch-Ch-Changes”

Thanks for having me speak here tonight. Mrs. Baugh helped me by letting me know your theme was “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” However, I know she intended to use that theme for her presentation, so I decided to use another song—“Ch-ch-changes.”

Unfortunately, there’s just one problem. I don’t think I’m ready to do this… I haven’t completed my assignment…

These are my excuses for not having a better speech:

  1. I am lazy, to start with, and summer is just too near (hey, if the seniors can use it, so can I)
  2. There were better things to do (like loafing around on Facebook).
  3. I had to mow the lawn.
  4. In four days I had senior critical essays, sophomore book reports (two sets), junior critical essays, and English III book reports—not to mention other homework assignments.
  5. I am lazy.
  6. Meg needed help with her music and the projection screen (and those things I could actually do).
  7. The dog ate my speech. It was a huge speech-eating black dog. And I mean HUGE. Gigantic for a dog. It might have been a werewolf. The werewolf ate my speech.
  8. Yesterday was our wedding anniversary. So Janet and I had to celebrate.
  9. Our printer doesn’t work. Really. I just couldn’t get it to print my speech.
  10. I didn’t know you really expected me to give a speech. Come on. I’m retiring. My career is just about over. Why should I have to work this hard this close to the end of the game?
  11. I just had too many good ideas, and I couldn’t get them all into one speech.

Some of those are actually true, and some are just inspired by things I’ve actually been told over the years. Admittedly a lot of them are things I hear lately (the old memory just isn’t as good as it once was—so don’t expect me to know your names; besides I figured I shouldn’t use old-fashioned excuses that some of you may have tried yourselves—just too embarrassing for this stage in your lives).

Isn’t it amazing how things change and don’t change at the same time over the years? I composed the rough outline of this speech on a computer. A decade ago, although I’d’ve had the computer (the very same computer in my case), Facebook wasn’t even someone’s dream yet, and I was still a little skittish about buying anything online (I mean, sending my credit card number from computer to computer potentially all over the world; isn’t that just insane?). Twenty years ago, 1989, I had recently acquired my first Macintosh—the little old cream-colored cube, and I was fascinated I could make play programs myself. Go another five years earlier and I was using a good old Apple II with the two giant floppy disk drives and the green print on a black screen to type things for a dot-matrix printer. Jump back to my first years in Andrew, and I was scheming to get my hands on one of those IBM Selectric typewriters whenever possible to speed up typing tests. Heck, in my first years here, we were using one of those purple-ink duplicating machines to make copies. I don’t think the school got a copier until after Janet and I were married.

The school used to send us out on snowing winter mornings—at about 4:00 A.M.—to skate our way across the state to speech contests, and no one even shuddered for a millisecond that we didn’t have a cell phone or GPS directions. [I’m pausing here for the polite laughter.] Of course, those same buses (well, not the very same, …usually) still pull out on the same Saturdays in January, February and March and face the same weather at a lot of the same schools we always have traveled to. Just nowadays, every kid is texting continuously the entire time and uploading sixteen thousand photos of themselves and friends with one arm always out of frame. In the old days I worried about every kid remembering his or her script. Now you still worry about that and about their stupid cell going off mid-performance (and worse, the kid answering it).

“Ch-ch-changes.“

The school itself hasn’t changed much. Yes, there’s carpet down in nearly every room—even the library this summer. I kind of miss Lucke’s dynamic colored swooshes on the corridor walls. Gone now. But we have all these new artworks in the gym. The rooms have gotten new super-bright lights and fresh paint jobs—even mine; the old two-toned orange that terrified me on the day of my job interview is now a tasteful pale lavender. I traded in that old fox-scented heat blower for clanking radiators a good while back. The exterior windows changed a long time ago… —so I guess for our current students that’s something not really changed at all.

What changes the most are the faces. Sure, we still have plenty of faculty members that anyone in the last forty years can recall. but many are new, and quite a few are going to be brand-new this fall. I’ve seen five sets of administrators in my time. Fortunately the school secretaries maintain a constancy and great work ethic to keep everything running smoothly.

But the real faces, the ones that count, are the students. I sat down with what yearbooks I have this afternoon to try and come up with some things to say here tonight, and what tugged at me were all those people. Sure, I looked at the play pictures and speech photos, but I was drawn to the senior group photo each year and got thoughtful about all these people, with whom I intersected for only a few short years in their youth, and what they’ve done and become in the years or decades since.

A few I’ve kept up with, a few more than it could have been lately thanks to technology. Facebook has made me acutely aware of how scattered about the globe so many of our alumni have gone. Don’t believe me? Right now one alumna is in Turkey, on vacation from the Mayo Clinic, while another takes time from his military job to travel to Pisa while he’s stationed in Italy. Others are living in the Caribbean, working at Oxford, living all over the United States, and sitting right here in this gym, too.

I even sought assistance from that community on Facebook to help with this speech. I admit it. I had nothing but some random thoughts until today, so I put out my plea on Facebook. Bev Steil assured me I’d do fine (several times; thanks Bev), and Tim Ruff popped up out of silence—working and rearing his kids—to suggest that I should present a humorous poem. After all, it worked for him… at Prom, at graduation, at a friend’s thirtieth birthday. Another friend reminded me that she and her buddies in group improv used to randomly insert a phrase that made me laugh, just to hear me laugh. —Thanks, Carrie D, but I don’t know if “retirement guy” will amuse anyone else but us. One of our current sophomores, since I was whining about all the homework distracting me from writing this speech, suggested I should simply count the sophomore book reports for extra credit. Gracie Bagosy Hessong wondered if I wasn’t still assigning too much homework… My first-semester SES figured it would be best to extrapolate on what a fantastic student secretary and human being she is, and she is, Em Jo (but I don’t want Reid to feel bad if he doesn’t get mentioned).

Finally, when I pleaded with all my “clever, insightful, wise and funny” friends to basically go ahead and write this speech for me (after all most of my Facebook people are current and former students or fellow faculty, with only a smattering of my acquaintances outside of school mixed in), Vicki Haxmeier Gould responded with a laugh: “Oh, so we’re all clever, insightful, wise and funny. Seems like not too long ago, when we would be exhausted from a long day of school and staying late at night, rehearsing our little hearts out at play practice, in fear that we might screw up a line and be sent home after being called schmucks of course…” Yes, she was kidding, but, you know, I am rightly rebuked. I told one newspaper interviewer I was retiring because I felt I’d gotten too grumpy in recent years. I guess I’d forgotten what a grump I’ve always been. Far grumpier than you delightful people (and your kids) have deserved.

So now a new guy—who’s coming to school for an unpaid preliminary bit of preparation on Thursday, by the way—, Mr. Austin D. Hall can try a less grumpy approach. I think he’s going to be great, so please give him all the help and support possible. I personally believe requisitioning your support for him and the future of Andrew Community School might be the most important reason for me to actually be here giving this pitiful excuse for a real speech.

…—And why are we here, Mrs. Baugh and I? You could have invited us any year, you know. Why wait until now? …Because we’re retiring. Give us a few short weeks and we’ll be out of here. Is that what you thought? Might as well get one last performance out of each of them?

So you invited us here to speak because we’re retiring. I wish I had some deep pearls of wisdom to impart on my way out, but that is what I do (did?) in the classroom. All those great writers we read together certainly said deeper stuff better than I can. I just hope maybe something from all of our studies got through… into you…

However, in honor of this occasion, I’ll try a thought or two tonight. (Are you ready for this? I’m not sure that I am.)

I just think that we’re all here, coincidentally together, for such a short time. It seems to me, and it’s what I’ve tried in my grumpy way to practice in my career, that we should be kind to each other. After all, there’s no one else to share this brief journey of life with us. The generations we’re born into are the only people we’ll ever possibly know. Doesn’t it seem a waste to bear grudges or fight with the only other humans you’re ever going to meet? (And, by the way, I stole this notion from Charles Dickens, who observed we’re all just fellow passengers to the grave.) Rather than being annoyed at someone’s antics or issues, let’s simply remember that there isn’t going to be anyone other than the rest of humanity alive right now with whom to share our time.

So my time as a teacher is wrapping up. What should I say about that? …I bet I’ll miss things I can’t even imagine now. I know I’ll miss coming into the office in the morning and being greeted by Mary Ann and Linda. I’ll miss Jim Till doing his job. I’ll miss giving Mrs. Baugh her newspaper in the morning. I’ll miss sitting down at my computer and whipping out a quiz or slapping out an Andrew Comment script in ten minutes before the hosts arrive to record. I may even miss the long hours of play rehearsals and speech practice. I’m going to miss all the exciting and unexpected changes ahead of us in the days and years to come. I’m going to miss everything about every day…

I’d say I’m going to miss the kids (because that’s true), but that loss happens every year with every group of seniors that graduates into the mists of the future. I miss them, but then the next year starts, and I meet some new sophomores and there’s a new fall play, and suddenly the whole year gets racing nonstop hectically to another commencement ceremony. The graduates are gone to change and become the adults you intend to be. I’m such a small part of their youths. —Your youths, whenever recent or long ago. Let’s hope we all made the very best of that time we spent together in this good old school.

Thanks for the opportunity to be here tonight.

©2009 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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