A longtime principal ‘is grateful for the chance I was given to teach those many years ago’
By George Valadie
It was eight years ago to the day. I walked into the principal’s office I had heretofore only visited to sit in the chair that had become my turn to occupy.
But now it would be another’s.
The eight-year stint and the three assignments before it with four more spent as a student made 25 years at one school seem like a good time to step away.
Toss in 25 years serving at other schools and it seemed like an even better time to retire altogether.
So I packed it all up, left the keys on the desk, took one last stroll through the hallways, and made a final stop in the chapel to pray for whatever awaits in the future—our school’s and mine.
It’s funny what one can accumulate when you spend a lot of time in a place. Down came the pictures on the walls and the keepsakes on the shelves. One box became two became five.
Now needing a home in my bedroom office that’s not quite yet a bedroom office are gifts received through the years from parents, students, and staff members who had been so very kind.
Mementos as varied as a rosary from one family’s trip to Rome to a miniature shovel marking another family’s trip to Opening Day at the Mets’ new stadium.
There were desk decorations that recalled the insanity of some of those days. One identified me as a “Chaos Coordinator,” and another spoke to interviewees: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, we’ll train you!”
There was a drawer-ful of notes, letters, and cards that needed to go home. Some were brutal reminders of the anger and frustration of a mom or a dad who may well have had the right; others had expressed thanks and gratefulness; and one or two others that still cause me to scratch my head these many years later.
In these last months leading up to the transition, several have remarked how sad it is that my last year has been marked by the stresses of COVID.
I get what they mean, but I told our students and staff I’ve come to believe it’s been the perfect way to finish a career. Because I’ve been given the opportunity to watch the miraculous unfold. A miracle in which each and every one played an integral role.
We sanitized people, the desks they sat in, and anything they touched, we spread people out further than they wanted to be, and we taught people in the classroom at the same time we taught those who needed to be home.
We took temperatures each morning. If you came on campus, you wore a mask until you left. And we put limits on things we don’t usually limit: vacation days, attendance at games, and how many friends could join you at lunch.
In late May, an old friend from Maryland had come to town and asked me about our year. He was absolutely stunned to learn we had been in school since Day 1. Schools in his locale had returned only the month before.
We changed how we worshiped, how we celebrated, and how we graduated.
But we did it! In person! All year!
Lord knows there were stresses and anxieties galore—we shared those, too, but it was a blessing to watch our school family watch out for one another.
Others have asked about our retirement plans. We have none.
Not too many evenings ago, Nancy and I were enjoying a dinner out before the monthly paychecks quit coming our way.
She had ordered, and it was my turn.
“Yes ma’am, may I have the grilled salmon with a side of broccoli? And may I have a side salad with blue cheese?”
When the waitress had stepped away, Nancy weighed in on my order.
“A side salad? You got a side salad? Are you kidding me? You know when we retire, there won’t be any more side salads. That can’t happen. We can’t be ordering side salads all willy-nilly like we have been. Just wanted you to know things are gonna have to change.”
So there’s that to look forward to.
It made me think back to what seems like a million years ago when I attended a conference for young and aspiring principals. And for some reason the breakfast conversation turned to our retirement years and the jobs we would all likely have to hold to make ends meet.
Nancy’s our financial planner and tells me we’re gonna be just fine as long as I understand there will be a side-salad shortage. If that proves to be true, I’m ready. I’ve had an eye on my retirement job for decades.
I want to mow the grass in the interstate medians.
I swear I’d do it well. I’d carry a weedeater along. My stretch of the road would be impeccably trimmed and garbage free.
It’s unlikely anyone would call to complain. And best of all—I’ll be able to see the immediate results of my efforts. Unlike education, where we plant seeds that often do not blossom for years upon years, my freeway landscaping would provide me with instant gratification.
Wave if you see me.
Since I’m picturing (hoping for) a job that’s only part-time, I have no doubt I’ll also find countless opportunities to volunteer. Lots of people have needs. Huge needs. Unserved needs.
Or there’s a good chance they might find me. My college alumni club has already reached out. As has my Serra Club and the folks who make up our HOA.
Apparently, I’ll be hungry, but I won’t be bored.
I don’t know what’s out there. But I’m grateful that I get to see it. I’m grateful we get to see it together. I’m grateful for the people who helped us get here.
And I’m especially grateful for the chance I was given to teach those many years ago. I believe there’s a reason God puts us in certain places at certain times with certain people.
I wonder what doors the next set of keys will open?
Dear God—Please bless the elderly who have less than they need. And help us be a part of how you bless them. Amen.
George Valadie resides in Chattanooga and is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church.