I have seen him around the neighborhood lately, that signature flattop (now gray), those same horn-rimmed glasses he has worn long enough for Mad Men to make almost fashionable again. Not always clean-shaven. And just enough added weight to make me question if it was him. But this morning, when I walked into Peet's at 6:30 and saw him sitting there, alone, reading a novel, looking at bit like someone out of a Hopper painting, I was sure it was him: Thomas, the man with whom I went through my student teaching year when we were novices passing through the School of Education at San Francisco State in the late 1980s.
A quick, slightly awkward exchange revealed that he had left teaching some time ago and was now "in the legal profession," which he described as "a job." He went on to say, "a job is a job." The week we began our student teaching, Salmun Rushdie went into hiding. Every day for weeks we would discuss this, speculating on how long it would last, this fatwa, this exile.
Seeing Thomas brought all this back to mind this morning. And when I came back with my coffee, perhaps a minute having passed, he was gone, as if he had never been there. I have taught for twenty-one years, and I realize, as I think about it, that we have lost so many (statistics suggest 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years) along the way.
Riding into the storm of the new year, casting a glance over my shoulder at those in my past, and a look at Beth, the student teacher who is heading into the new year beside me, I am reminded how important but how demanding our work is and will always be. Walking home from Peet's, I remembered Thomas's passion for literature, for ideas, his interest in getting it right. He has, I hope, found his happiness elsewhere, putting to use those same skills that drew him to teaching, to words.
We had a teacher in our district years ago whom everyone admired. His teaching was brilliant, but unsustainable. One must have a life outside the classroom. You would hear people marvel at these things he did. And then, in about his fourth year, he came unraveled and, by year's end, broke down and left the profession.
It's easy to be the best teacher ever for the first five years; but this work is a marathon not a sprint. So be brilliant but balanced, diligent but not destructive, creative and REcreative (as in making time to recreate, to engage in recreation) this year so you will be a great teacher this year and for many years to come.