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Ode on retirement: A valediction allowing mourning*

I have done that which I thought I would never do — I have retired. Not from The Senior Times or from my pursuit of changing the world one child at a time, at least in Ecuador, but rather from teaching literature at Dawson College, which has been my career and calling for the past 25 years.

I was hired first as a business-writing teacher (then The Senior Times was my main job and journalism wasn’t yet a Profile at Dawson) perhaps because my Aunt Beryl Moser was a librarian there and the Chairperson of the English Department knew her.

As I was walking down the steps on Sherbrooke St. after we had met to discuss the course I would be teaching, Elaine Bander, then the English Chairperson — called out, “Can you teach poetry?”

“Yes” I responded, elated but worried. I had never taught poetry before. My thesis was on a Canadian novelist, Henry Kreisel, and a central theme was the juxtaposition of the Holocaust and the wasteland that was Alberta, during the 40s.

Poetry, no. Nevertheless I had taken a couple of courses in Israel when I began my Masters Degree, at least Yeats and Eliot.

Overjoyed, I would finally be teaching literature, reflecting my years of study and training.

I chose a poetry anthology recommended by a friend who had been my professor during the beginning of my MA in Haifa, Israel.

I began to engage with the likes of William Wordsworth, John Keats, John Donne, Sylvia Plath, Marge Piercy, Anne Sexton, Andrew Marvel, Robert Frost, and to learn and love the complexity of their art.

For 20 years, first as a Cont. Ed. Teacher in the evenings (far too many years) and then finally as a full fledged “day” teacher, I would walk into classrooms full of eager and not-so-eager students (I loved the first-term students best, fresh out of high school) ready to transfer my love of these poets to these young, developing minds and hearts, to show them how relevant John Donne’s Valediction Forebidding Mourning or John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn could be, how to dive into the pool of azure waters that was the poem and swim around in it. Oh, yes, too often we would have the tired argument of “Miss, why can’t I interpret the poem the way I want” with me, the “dictator” answering that poems are not meant to be interpreted but felt, and once you feel them, you
understand their meaning.

So it is with Hope, by Ariel Dorfman, which I recommend you read. It almost breaks my heart every time I read it to a class of students. At the end, I always asked “How does the poem make you feel?” What is universal about this experience?

And yes, poetry was not what I was known for at Dawson. I excelled at a course no one knew how to teach, at least in the beginning, a course in writing and reading “practical” English in the programs, mainly I suppose because I was used to that kind of writing in my other life outside Academia. And I did teach a lot of short stories and even some novels. But poetry always was my favourite.

I love the ballad, the oldest and perhaps less-appreciated of all the forms and I loved teaching them, both anonymous and modern, especially The Ballad of Rudoph Reed and The Ballad of Birmingham, ballads of the Civil Rights Movements. Look up Ballad of Birmingham and the University of Tennessee and you will find the ballad put to music by students at this school,
unbearably sad and moving.

My students, whether they were in first or second year, would write their own ballads, some of them, on personal experiences or “ordinary” ancestors who achieved extraordinary feats in difficult times.

In my class on Holocaust poetry, I subjected the students, sitting on the floor, crowded together, to hundreds of images of the Holocaust on a video screen and passed out poems and texts, asking them to read them aloud and then write their own Holocaust poem or make a visual representation of one they had read that day. Not all the students reacted well to that class, but enough did.

This is what I will miss most about retirement. This is why I am conflicted. I am not retiring from a 9 to 5 desk job, not that they are unstimulating, but this job was the most rewarding, most challenging of my life so far.

People keep congratulating me on retiring but I don’t feel like celebrating. Yes, it was the right time because it was getting hard to hear the girls in the middle range who spoke with their heads down, and harder to hear about the plights of students who couldn’t afford to go to school, even though it was ostensibly free, whose fathers or mothers were very ill or unable to care for their families, the non-English speakers who had taken the poetry class because they wouldn’t have to read that much, the students who cut themselves, or wrote ballads about a suicide they had tried to commit.

The conversation with the boy who, in his ballad, wrote about how his mother walked in and saved him — the best ballad a student wrote for my class. He read it to the class. Both versions. The one where he is saved and the one where he is not. And the students were silent and then applauded.

Yes, there were moments like this at Dawson College, moments of understanding and bonding, like the ones after the Dawson shooting.

Nobody likes it when we call it a shooting but nobody likes it when we call it a tragedy either. But it was our tragedy and we will always remember that day and Anastasia DeSousa, the student who was gunned down and never had the chance to engage and learn and laugh and cry with us.

So all these things I will miss and this is why, when my friends and colleagues smile and say, “Congratulations” and it was time for you, I can’t quite smile back, not because I haven’t got a rich and full life to live from here on but because I will never again experience teaching Donne or Keats and that look of understanding on the face of a student who was just turned on to poetry.

So I will not deny myself the “tearfloods and sigh tempests” that Donne denied his wife on his departure, but try to keep those many lines in my mind and my heart, as I continue to struggle with my decision to retire.

*Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats and A Valediction Forbidding Mourning by John Donne are two of the poems I most enjoyed teaching at Dawson.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Barbara. I really appreciate your reflections.

  2. Avrum Rosner says:

    Wonderful article! Wishing you success in your many ventures.

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