He couldn’t describe how he felt exactly, but he knew that, right now, the whole thing was strange. He had parked his car and he started walking toward the school, and then he paused to look up at it. He breathed deeply, held it.
“Fifty years,” he said, as he entered the building.
He was seventy-two. He started teaching English back in 1963, when he was twenty-two and just out of college. He remembered his first day vividly. He walked in and he was nervous and the kids could tell, but they didn’t seem to mind. They didn’t give him a hard time, at least. He was lucky. He’d heard some horror stories.
But that was in the past—as was he, in a way. All the new teachers looked at him as if he were helpless. They’d smile, say hello. And that was it. They never paid him any mind. And he knew why. They wanted him to leave so someone else could get his job. He heard them talking at lunch. They’d mutter things like: “All these old guys stick around and they take up space.”
He was just about to enter his classroom when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He spun around. It was Mike, one the younger history teachers. Something else: he was a former student.
“Mr. Rosen, I, uh, just wanted to say—”
“Stop. We’re colleagues now. You can call me Frank.”
He laughed and Mike smiled.
“Right. Well, I wanted to say good luck. And thanks, too. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.” He stuck out his hand and Frank shook it and as he did so he felt his heart drop.
“No problem. You were one of the good ones. But hey, I need to prepare for class. Let’s talk later, huh?”
His promise was an empty one. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to him. He did. He wasn’t sure he could deal with the realization that he might never see him again.
He went over to his desk and sat down, leaving the door ajar. Outside the sky was a pale and dull gray and there was mist in the air. You could see the droplets dancing among the trees. All things were cool and refreshing but soon the temperatures would rise.
He pulled out some papers and began to grade. But he stopped after a few minutes. He stood up. He walked around the classroom. At the beginning of his career he was down the hall, but he had spent most of it here. He’d taught town officials and business owners and their sons and daughters, who had their own kids, and he taught them, too.
He turned around. The chalkboard was gone, replaced by a dry erase board. His library had been pared down. The books were old and cracked and they had to be donated to a library or given to a charity—or so he was told. The school replaced them with laptops and e-readers. In the back of the room was a television, but he barely used it.
Some students filtered in, sat down. They took supplies out of their backpacks and they looked at their phones. And then more came, and more still. He smiled at them.
Eventually the room filled. The time was 7:40, and the day was about to begin. Today they were to discuss A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
The bell rang. The students looked half-asleep. He clapped his hands together and they jolted awake.
“We’re almost done with the book, guys. You must stay alert! Things are coming to an end.”
He paused, not realizing the weight of what he said. He had to take a moment to recover. He cleared his throat.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Rosen?” said Janelle, one of his favorites.
“Oh, nothing, nothing. Now, let’s consider this chapter.”
The rest of the day went on like this. He would say something, or a student would remind him of something long past, and he would pause, overwhelmed by it all. His memories had come to life. He wasn’t sure if his classes—he taught four—knew of his impending retirement. He was sure they did. But he didn’t want to say anything, because discussing it with them would have been too painful. So he acted as if he would see them next year, as if time didn’t keep going forward, as if it remained frozen, and people didn’t have to worry about things like nostalgia and aging and loneliness.
The bell rang at 2:30.
“Guys, I just want to say—good luck. And thank you.”
Some, as they exited, thanked him, too. Others nodded. And some didn’t thank him at all. They focused only on the coming summertime, where they air was warm and filled with swirling dandelion seeds and everyone had no cares, for everything was joy, and all things seemed permanent. If only, he thought. If only.
Once they left, he started to get some boxes together in order to pack up his things. He sorted through his draws, his closet—this can stay, but this needs to come with me, he thought.
They had a party for him a week ago. They had cake at lunch, and they gave him cards. It was a nice time.
A few of his colleagues stopped in to say hello and to wish him well, but most of them, like the students, just wanted to get home.
He finished packing up his boxes and he stacked them on top of one another—there were only three, and he could carry them—and he walked out to his car. On the way he ran into Mike.
“You’re going to be missed around here,” he said.
He coughed. He didn’t know what to say. The two of them traveled the rest of the way in silence. Mike took one of the boxes. They arrived at his car, loaded the boxes, shook hands, and parted ways.
He lived alone at the other side of town. It was near the huge town park, the one with gardens and a stream and tall, swaying trees.
The drive lasted about fifteen minutes. He pulled into his driveway and he decided to leave the boxes in the car. He’d get them in the morning.
He walked up to his front door and opened it and he stepped inside.
“Well, I did it,” he said. “I did it. It’s over. I just wish you were here so we could celebrate.” His wife had died a year ago. She contracted cancer of the kidney. The tumor was small, so they expected a recovery, but then it spread, and she ultimately succumbed to the disease.
“I just wish you were here.”
He sighed and then went to the porch. He looked out his large windows and into his backyard. The day was blistering and the sun had removed itself from the lazy gray clouds and sat proudly in the bright sky.
Now, ironically, he had all the time in the world. He had to get used to this.
“What to do?” He rubbed his hands.
He paused. And then:
“I guess I’ll tend to the garden.”