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Mona Lisa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Doing what you love is freedom. Loving what you do is happiness.” – a recent (and timely) fortune cookie

I am blessed to have engaged middle school students in artmaking for the past 16 years and facilitated third and fourth grade students in regular education for 7 years before that. I just retired from full time teaching on February 12, 2021. Although it seems longer, I had just 23 years in. Teaching was something I came to later in life following a 20 year career in the offset printing industry. I say “came to” as if it was easy, and it wasn’t. I’ll write about that another time. Today I want to write about my retirement journey and acknowledge the many kindnesses extended to me on my retirement.

I could measure my career in pencil stubs…

Retiring in the middle of the school year is a little weird. Going into 2020/2021 I was fully caught up in teaching remotely and without much planning, expected to retire at the end of the year. I hadn’t given it much thought, really. I thought about retiring last spring when my district offered a small incentive, but having spent the previous three months completely caught up in teaching during a pandemic, I didn’t trust myself to make a good decision at the time, especially under pressure of a deadline. Instead I dug in, spending the summer working on the Mendon-Upton school reentry plan, the MA Arts Coalition COVID-19 Reopening Guidelines for Massachusetts PreK-12 Arts Programs, and the Massachusetts Art Education Association Guidelines for Visual Art Education In Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, as well as preparing instructional material for the school year.

For the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with teacher candidates at Massachusetts College of Art and Design as a portfolio reviewer and as a Teaching Practicum Program Supervisor. I was proud to engage in this minimally part time work with aspiring art educators for my BFA alma mater, Mass Art. In early-November, my director there asked if I’d be able to take on more than one teacher candidate for Spring 2021, because with so many students having deferred for the fall semester, there were a lot for the spring. This is the moment when I gave serious thought to retiring from my full time job.

The opportunity presented itself at a time when I had been teaching remotely for 6-7 months to lower middle school students who had been learning remotely from March to June and again from September to October. In October my students returned to school in a hybrid mode, with two sets of cohorts attending school two days a week and all attending synchronously from home on Wednesdays. Due to health concerns, I continued to teach remotely. Highly invested in my students’ success, I worked day and night to maintain communication with them and develop materials for both remote and hybrid learning models. I’ve written about teaching during the pandemic in many posts, especially in this one: Project Planning During A Pandemic.

The Four Part Project Plan

In my personal life, I was helping my husband, Dick, get back on his feet after sudden open heart/bypass surgery in mid-September. I wrote about this event and the impact on our little farm and me in the post Thanksgiving: On The Farm With A Little Help From Our Friends And Family. He was under weight-lifting and other restrictions through mid-December. Meanwhile, we’d been looking out for my mother, who is 93 and lives in an independent senior residence, since the start of the pandemic. We’d been watching an uptick in COVID numbers in the area all fall. While the residence management group’s response to the pandemic is commendable, during the nationwide early winter surge in mid-November, they suddenly had a small surge of their own. We brought my mother home to live with us on November 21, thinking she’d be with us for the holidays, and we ended up not bringing her back until January 15, 2021. As veteran empty nesters, this had a big impact on our lives.

My remote learning classroom became a guest room, and I moved my teaching space upstairs to my studio. I am thankful to have been able to teach remotely throughout the twist, turns, and pivots in education during the pandemic. One’s workspace becomes increasingly more important as the numbers of hours in front of a screen add up.

Peacock room remote classroom
Remote Classroom

Moving upstairs was fine, really. I would go up at 8:00 and come down at 10:07 to make tea during the 7 minute break between classes. I’d go back upstairs until 12:00 when I’d come downstairs for lunch. Back upstairs at 12:50 and would stay until the work was done – usually 4:00. It was very quiet there and Dick and my mom could go about their business downstairs without needing to be quiet. It was odd being in my studio space, which is where I normally I go to lose track of time with creativity, to work and follow a strict schedule of classes and breaks instead.

Upstairs studio remote classroom

Back to November and hearing about the need for Program Supervisors at Mass Art – I began to think more about the viability of retiring from my full time position and working part time for the college. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that retiring is a big deal! I spent a lot of time going over budgets and pension calculators, meeting with my accountant and talking to Social Security about that prior career and the money paid into the system. I met with my superintendent to discuss my exit plan, which was to retire on the Friday before February vacation and the day after my 63rd birthday. I planned to mentor my replacement for the first two weeks of the second semester, with all new students starting on February 1. I would have closure with my first semester students before they moved on to new electives. I would have plenty of time to mentor my replacement

My superintendent assured me that it was a clean break, so I put the plan in motion. It was exhilarating yet nerve wracking. Pushing the send button on the email to the principal and personnel office brought to mind the MailChimp “sweaty monkey finger”, which I knew well from my webmaster work for the teachers union.

MailChimp’s “sweaty monkey finger”

Once submitted, the exit plan began to take shape. It was during this time we brought my mother home to live with us. We celebrated Thanksgiving, my mother’s birthday – pandemic style. There were lots of twists and turns in remote teaching, with schedules changing constantly to accommodate holidays and weather. On December 11, I put together the packet of forms for retirement and sent them via registered mail to Springfield. It took them six days to get there! I could have driven there in 1.5 hours! But that was how the mail was working during the holidays in 2020. On December 17, I released the following note and photo on my social media.

December 11, 2020 – an auspicious day

I was deeply appreciative of the the many messages, comments, and emails from SO many colleagues, friends, and family. My students were working well at this point in the school year. We had our familiarity and they were eager and enthusiastic. The last of the art supplies I had ordered for art kits finally came in and we were able to put together the supplemental kits with watercolors, delivering them to all the remote students and distributing them to hybrid students in school. You can read about that process and the watercolor projects that followed in Color Me Impressed. Because I wanted to keep the flow going and keep my exit aligned with the regular, planned end of our time together, I was waiting to tell my students until just a week before the end of the semester, so it wouldn’t feel like yet another disruption in my their lives.

Supplemental art kit pickup for those who didn’t get them in school

While everything I had control of went according to my exit plan, the hiring of my replacement was out of my hands. The position wasn’t posted until January 6 with a deadline to apply one week later. I did what I could to share the posting with all of my statewide art education affiliates to help build the candidate pool. I deferred from being on the interview committee because I wanted my colleague to choose someone he was comfortable working with. I learned on January 15 that a replacement had been found! He had done his Field Study II Pre-Practicum with my colleague a couple of years earlier, so he know the school and they already had a friendship. Unfortunately, he couldn’t start until February 8, which would give us just one week together before I retired on the 12th.

My first semester students and I wrapped up with a student created art show using Adobe Spark Page and Padlet, which you can read about in Miscoe Hill 5&6 Artists Showcase/Semester One. I’m especially glad we did this because I won’t be there to showcase the artwork later in the year. I sent a formal announcement of my retirement through email to all my students’ families, thanking them for their support over the semester (and longer for 6th grade students) and talked to my classes about it. My kids were kind and encouraging, some were excited for me, and some were sad. Knowing they were moving on to another class anyway helped. I received so many grateful emails from families including well wishes to sustain me through the transition and beyond. Some even sent digital gift cards for coffee and shopping. Much appreciated! Thank you!

One of my students, Jake, sent a packet in the mail that just made my day! The back story is that for Christmas, Jake had asked for ducks and a pen to keep them in. We are in a suburban/rural area and many families have small farms like ours or at least chickens. As it turns out, Jake’s neighborhood isn’t zoned for ducks, so his parents met his wishes by giving him some rubber ducks in a basket for Christmas. God love him, Jake’s good humor prevailed. He accepted the substitute, proudly showing it off in class after the holiday. In his gift packet to me, he included the sweetest note ever, a graph of his farm stock, a photo of his latest acquisition, a logo he designed for me, a mini personalized watercolor kit, and a promise to keep in touch. See for yourself:

As I welcomed the new students for term 3, I submitted grades for term 2, as always. I had been hoping to go over the grading platform and process with the new teacher as I did it, so they could get an overview of how it works in actuality, rather than in theory. We couldn’t do that because he hadn’t started yet, but I was able to set up class lists, schedules, Artsonia profiles, and Google Classroom classes for him during the first week of the semester. I also I set aside my tutorials for the drawing app we were using so he could have some practice and catch up quickly.

During this week before retirement, a big box was delivered to my doorstep. I knew I hadn’t ordered anything so was completely surprised to find it there! My art teacher colleagues in the district had coordinated a wonderful assortment of goodies and treats and super interesting items from Box Fox. I had so much fun opening everything! Thank you MURSD Visual Art educators!

Thank you MURSD art teachers!
Look at these cool things!

On Monday night, February 8, I suddenly received several texts asking if I was watching the school committee meeting. While I often do watch the meetings on YouTube the next morning, this meeting wasn’t even on my radar as there was so much going on. I quickly tuned in just in time to hear my former student, now School Committee Student Representative, Owen, finishing this commentary:

Owen during the 2/8/21 School Committee meeting

I was so surprised and touched by Owen’s words and even more so by the acknowledgement and inclusion. Thank you, Owen!

Mr. Williams had started earlier that day. I carved out opportunities for us to meet frequently over Zoom during the week to try to make up for lost time. I was working remotely and he was at school. I introduced him to the classes on Monday and Tuesday as students settled into class. On Wednesday, all classes were synchronous, and Mr. Williams took the opportunity to introduce himself and tell his story with examples of his artwork. On Thursday and Friday, he took over the classes and I mentored via Zoom and helped with the concurrent classes.

Thursday, February 11, was also my birthday. For for first time in almost a year, Dick and I went to Boston. The Museum of Fine Arts had reopened and was hosting a big Basquiat show. We had the museum to ourselves, it was so quiet!

It was so good to see the old friends at the museum:

I arrived home just in time for a delivery of flowers from my son and his partner – to wish me a happy birthday, happy retirement, and happy Valentine’s Day. They were beautiful and included my favorite Star Gazer lilies.

Beautiful flowers from “the cherubs”

I also remember celebrating my birthday over a take out Cheesecake Factory dinner and thinking “tomorrow is the big day”. Kind of a funny thought on your birthday!

The final day dawned and with Mr. Williams at school to teach in person and with no concurrent classes on Friday, there was no need for Zoom classes. I spent the day being available to him and we did text back and forth and met over Zoom during his prep. I had already starting saving files from my school Google Drive. I continued to work on this for over two weeks. For future reference, if you ever leave your job, know that the process is super time consuming. The only way to do it in bulk is with Google Takeout, and even that is cumbersome. In fact, I am still organizing my personal Drive, trying to create appropriate hierarchies of files. Thank God I didn’t REALLY start using the district Drive until about 3 years ago. I always used my personal Drive prior to that.

Dick made a special early morning trip over to Rocco’s Donuts to pick up a special treat for retirement day:

Early in the day on my last day, I sent my final email to my colleagues at Miscoe Hill School. I adapted the video I had made for our school community shortly after we went remote in 2020, which included greetings from all of our staff, by combining it with a “Miscoe Farewell” video that I recorded in front of a green screen. I sent the video via email to thank everyone for making me a better person for having worked alongside them. They replied with SO many well wishes and notes about our time together! I will miss the many fine people at Miscoe Hill!

Miscoe Farewell

My principal had reached out earlier to inquire about having my colleagues do a drive-by parade to recognize my retirement. I declined for one big reason – it was the Friday before February vacation – I knew how much our teachers needed a break after working in hybrid, synchronous, and concurrent modes for months. I expected the last thing they wanted to do after work on the Friday before vacation was to participate in a drive-by parade, which seem quick and effortless, but take way more time than they appear to, especially if you make signs and stuff – and it was too cold! She acquiesced and instead asked me to send her a photo of myself for a project she was working on. So, stepping away from all that and wishing to feel some of the freedom that retirement promised to bring, at the end of my last scheduled class time on retirement day, Dick and I took off for Point Judith, RI, to enjoy the expanse of open water and fly kites in the open sky:

Lobster Kite in open sky
And I got to wear this wonderful ear warmer – a retirement gift made by art teacher colleague and friend, Chelsea!

Talk about a breath of fresh air! Of course the cold beach was deserted and as I took my kite for a walk, I started to think about the future even as I appreciated the past. I remember realizing I was glad to have worked through the pandemic over the past year, to have experienced the twists, turns, and pivots through the different learning modes and sudden schedule changes. I also realized I would miss out on the eventual “return to normal” and it hit me then that I was actually glad not to be a part of it. I had a sinking feeling that the “normal” we returned to would be so much less than what it could be. After all we’ve experienced and learned, we’d return to “the way it always was” when it could be SO different. It was an epiphany (a month late by the Catholic calendar). On the way home, I posted a final goodbye on my social media, including my well wishes to Mr. Williams:

While we were at the beach, my friend, colleague, and former teachers union co-president messaged me to see if I was home because she wanted to drop something off. Of course I offered to swing by her house, but she insisted on coming over. Marie stopped by a little later on with a jar of beautiful flowers, a card with a block print made by her son (a favorite former student), and a container of her world famous chocolate chip cookies. Dick almost literally squirreled away the cookies before I could get a photo!

Marie’s flowers
I will take care of this special piece!

At this point I was amassing quite a floral display with birthday flowers from my Dick, multi-celebration flowers from my son and his partner, an amaryllis that had bloomed at Christmas and was blooming AGAIN, and now flowers from Marie, too! It was magnificent!

Flowers!

Much to my delight, one day during February vacation, there was a knock on the door. It was my colleague and friend, Brenda, who was my mentor during my first year of teaching in 1998. From 1998 – 2003 I taught third grade, and Brenda was a third grade teacher, too. She had moved to a different school shortly after that, but then moved back to Miscoe Hill to teach fifth grade a few years ago. There she was standing on my front porch with flowers in an upcycled bottle. The bottle was from the Miscoe Springs bottling plant in Mendon, and as such shared the name of our school. The Miscoe Springs bottling plant was established in 1899, was sold in the 1980s, closed and auctioned off in 2013. Definitely a local landmark and a very special bottle.

Flowers in a Miscoe bottle! Thank you, Brenda!

This arrangement of flowers was a wonderful addition to my flower display, which were so vibrant and colorful especially against the backdrop of cold snow outside the window:

On February 16, the Tuesday of February vacation, Dick and I went to school to return my now empty laptop and iPad:

iPad and laptop

And to take one more walk down the hallway and through the classroom:

The Last Walk

And one last selfie for the road:

One last selfie…

Knowing it would be my last time in the school as an employee was a pretty intense feeling. Over time, your workplace becomes a second home where you go for the majority of your waking hours. The routine of the work week is what you plan the rest of your life around. I’d become so ingrained in the daily schedule that I swear, if you locked me in a closet with a blindfold, I could tell you when 45 minutes (the equivalent of a class time) had passed. I always struggled with this as a creative person. Planning the focus on a project around these prescribed blocks of time not only for me, but 500 kids a year, robbed us of the freedom to fully immerse ourselves in the creative process. I am curious to see how this lack of a formal schedule plays out with my creativity in my semi-retired life.

A few recent schedules

At the end of the first week in March I found out why my principal had asked for a photo. She stopped by my house to drop off this PERFECT representation of my alter ego and me – on the socials, anyway! She had it made at Masterpiece My Face. They did a great job of blending the images together and deleting a couple of chins (hehe). I love it!

I’ve been plucking away at this post for a few weeks. My part time work for the college kept me busy early on as I got caught up, and is starting to give way to more free time this week. I’ve accomplished some big organizational projects already, and have many more to tackle. The weather is warming and Dick and I walk almost every day. We’ve seen some sights, having made a goal to get out and about one day a week. Going forward, I’m hoping to use this blog to post about those little getaways. Speaking of this blog, the host, WordPress, has eliminated the option to use the Classic editing tools, which I have used since 2012. This just happened a few weeks ago, so I’ve learned how to use the block editor with this post! So, I’m already learning new things!

My colleagues returned to in-person school yesterday after being hybrid since October. I’ve seen their posts on social media and they seem happy to be back. I bet the kids are very excited. I wish my former school community a safe, fulfilling return to physical school that’s filled with smiling eyes over masks, engaged learning, and renewed camaraderie. It sure is good to hear school buses on my street again!

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