When a public school teacher retires from a life of service

I cannot remember if it was 21 or 22 years ago, but the timing was right around this time of year, as classes were ending for public schools. What I do remember well is that my mom officially retired from her career as a public school teacher with the University City Public Schools system.

Woman and her adult son
My mother poses with me shortly after her retirement from lifelong service as a public school teacher.

I joined her the day she turned in her paperwork at the district office. I happened to be traveling from my home in Seattle to the St. Louis area. I wanted to be there to congratulate her for her years of service to kids, many from families with many difficulties. She was mostly happy, and the staff were pleasant, but there was no big celebration for her many years with the University City Public Schools. I wish I had been more thoughtful and treated my mom that day. I let her down.

Today, as I think about the stresses facing kids and teachers over the last two years in particular, I recall the way my mom’s career of service ended. I now wish I had pictures of her in the classroom. Unfortunately, this was before the social media era. What I have is a photo is from that era, maybe two years after she left the classroom.

My mom’s post-retirement life went well for a while, until she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, and then her life was hell for seven years, until her death in February 2020, just before the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic.

At her funeral, the minister who led the sermon, and who I helped with some stories about my mom’s life, said these words: “She was one who devoted her life to teaching and encouraging little children. She was also ahead of the disciples, and on the same page with Jesus, as much of her career was teaching and nurturing those of differing communities. As the little bio notes, much, if not most, of her career was engaged in teaching young African American children. Jesus’ own teaching and ministry was inclusive. In fact that was a major point of his teaching — to teach and demonstrate that the community of faith, the community of God did not discriminate. This is a justice issue, but it is also a deeply spiritual issue, and faithful to the one who calls us to follow … . What the children recognized was a relationship, someone who cared for them, wanted them to learn, as she would want her own children to learn, to be cared for.”

It still saddens me that the school district, which I contacted repeatedly, never acknowledged my mom’s passing in their official communications. It was COVID-19 time, but this willful shunning of a public teacher still left me upset how even school districts remembered their own.

With June around the corner, millions of kids and families are getting ready to head into summer. It is an uncertain time too, with school safety foremost on the minds of many, along with so many other economic issues facing the kinds of families my mom served. So, if you can, please remember to thank a teacher before the school year ends, in person, if you know one. They will always remember that kindness.