Monday, September 7, 2009

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray . . .

I was cruising down the bike path along the lake last week, headed toward the Loop with the ear buds inserted, just tooling along with the breeze at my back, pretending to be a kid again. And somewhere around where Potter Palmer used to hang his hat, about halfway between North Avenue and the Oak Street curve, Wouldn’t It Be Nice went into rotation.

If you’re much under fifty, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. But if you grew up with the song, and it’s summer, and you’re trying like heck to feel youthful again, it’s a great tune.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong

Funny . . . in 1966 when the song was released, I couldn’t wait to grow up and get started on the life thing – get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house in the suburbs. Now, almost 45 years later, I’m listening to the song and wondering what all the hurry was about.

But on a sky blue day in a hot town summer city, remembering those days was enough to make me feel thankful for the days I have now.

Labor Day, and a holiday mood is in the air, laughter on the breeze and every third family in Chicago at the zoo. A well-deserved day off.

I’m lucky, I suppose. I don’t need to work anymore. I spent the better part of four decades trying to figure out the teaching gig, and this is the third school year that has begun without my coming down with a back-to-school cold.

I was looking back at some stuff I wrote a number of years ago, words that talked about how I wanted to approach the job of teaching as I neared the end of my career. I was fortunate . . . I loved teaching or whatever it was that I did. I recognize that not everyone is as lucky.

I also know that it’s offensively over-simplistic to say that if you’re in a job you don’t like, you should quit and find another one. These days, more than at any other time in my life, people have to pay the bills in any way they can.

Still, when I wrote these thoughts seven years ago, I wrote them as an employee, someone who griped about the bosses, grumbled about not getting enough respect, and left the building exhausted at the end of the day. Maybe what I said back then has some meaning to someone other than my older self.

I said that I wanted to live happily and well and spend my time demonstrating a concern for other folks. One thing I have found over the years – on the job and outside of it – is that if you work at compassion and understanding, the paycheck is a handsome one. We all struggle with something – even the prettiest gal and the guy with the BMW Z4.

Okay, maybe not the guy with the Z4. He creates problems for the rest of us.

The point is, though, that if we find a way to break away from our own problems and help others deal with theirs, life becomes a tad better.

I said that I didn’t want to talk in a loud voice in order to attract attention. I followed through on that one . . . after living most of my life with a hearing deficit, I finally got a deaf aid and realized how loud I had always been.

What I meant, of course, was that the people we admire the most are the people who crow about what they do the least. When I was working the people who attracted the largest number of snickers were the people who never heard “the curses, not loud, but deep” because they were too busy talking about themselves.

Along with that, I said that I wanted to let my actions speak louder than my words. Maybe I never thought my life was particularly interesting . . . maybe I just like listening to people tell their stories. Whatever – do what you do. If it’s good, the chances are a lot of people won’t recognize its goodness. But you will. And a few people who matter will. And they are the ones you want to take care of.

And I said that I wanted people to hear my name and smile. I always felt that my job had two parts. There were all those kids, hundreds and hundreds of them. I hear from one or two of them at a time, almost every day. I like to think I met them at an important time in their lives and helped them to think about some things that made the coming years a little more meaningful for them.

There was another part to the job, though, and that was the responsibility I felt toward the people with whom I worked. I felt that I owed them something, too. I helped those that I could, I listened to those who needed to talk, and I always tried to lead the group in laughter. It’s tough to sell huge chunks of your life for money if the work and the money is choking you so hard that you can’t laugh.

There’s more to working than just the job that you do. There are all those other folks around you, all of them trying to make it through the day. If it was one thing that disturbed me toward the end, it was the way all of the new folks focused on their classes, on their grades, on their schedules, arriving in the morning and slipping into a chair in front of a computer monitor without saying a word to anyone.

All of it comes down to the three most important subjects that I taught. Not the essay or interpreting literature. Not even All the King’s Men or Macbeth or anyone lived in a pretty how town.

Kindness, patience and faith. The latter gives a person strength to practice the first two. You can’t work without them. Moreover, you can’t live without them. Once again, we don’t earn anything extra by bringing them with us to the workplace, at least not if we’re measuring the importance of things in dollars and cents.

The kindness and patience that comes from a deep faith guarantees a life that there will be of greater worth.

I’m a long, long way from 1966 and Wouldn’t It Be Nice. I worked my job, and then one day, unbelievably, I was done. The other day on the bike path, though, it all came zipping back.

In 1909 Jane Addams wrote these words right here in Chicago, “We may either smother the divine fire of youth or we may feed it. We may either stand stupidly staring as it sinks into a murky fire of crime and flares into the intermittent blaze of folly or we may tend it into a lambent flame with power to make clean and bright our dingy city streets.”

A century later, on this Labor Day of 2009, that’s our job . . . all of you are still working and all of us who are out there volunteering . . . to make clean and bright the dingy streets that we find.

Wouldn’t that be nice?


Kristen said...

Dad that was an awesome piece. I may forward it to some of my teacher folks. I can picture you zipping along on your bike, yet slowing down near the curve in that dreaded little spot but turning spunky once that song starts to spin on the ol' ipod. Cute.

Thanks for the positive words. I'm gonna go rest up so I can kick off week #3 in pleasant spirits.

Jill said...

Enjoyed your nice message. Thanks for sharing the ride.

Pat F said...


Never fear... we all smile when we hear your name.