Last Man Standing

I've been teaching in the same elementary school since 1999. This year I said goodbye to my 18th class of students. 

Spending almost two decades in the same workplace has become an anomaly in America. Americans work in an average of 12 jobs over the course of their lifetime, and changing jobs every five years is not unusual. My school has been no exception. I've watched teachers come and go over the course of the last two decades, and as a result, I feel like I've been competing in an enormous game of Last Man Standing, and I'm losing badly.

In 2006 - just a decade ago - Elysha and I were married. At the time, we taught in classrooms less than 20 feet apart from each other. We saw each other throughout the day. Sat together in meetings. Brought children on field trips side by side. 

Two years later, she would leave on maternity leave, and though she would return for a brief, part-time stint at our school, those glorious days of working alongside the woman I love were over.

The man who officiated our marriage ceremony - my former principal, Plato - retired four years ago. Though he remains one of my closest friends today, gone were the days when we saw each other daily, and oftentimes hourly. I performed in his musicals. Spent weeks every fall at camp with him and our students. Tackled problems and celebrated students together.   

I had seven groomsmen in my wedding. At the time, two of them - Jeff and Tom - worked at my school. Both are now gone. One has left teaching entirely to take over his father's business, and the other moved onto another school district. They both remain close friends, but gone are the days when we would see each other daily.

A third groomsman, Charles, was married to my friend and colleague, Justine, who was a bridesmaid in Elysha's bridal party. Justine and Charles moved to Arizona several years ago. 

Our school's instrumental music teacher, Andy, with whom I have written a rock opera and three musicals and who played music at our wedding, left to become the department supervisor. Gone are the days when I would see him playing his chapman stick and writing songs. 

Donna, a teacher and my mentor, who was my closest friend and confidant for the first 17 years of my teaching career. She became the star of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, a real life person cast within my work of fiction. Donna retired last year. I still walk into her old classroom from time to time to talk to her, only to realize that she is gone when I see the new occupant of her classroom standing where she did for so many years.   

Amy, a fellow teacher who many referred to as my work wife, and a person who might have understood me better than any colleague ever save Elysha, left two years ago for another school district after marrying a man who lived in Massachusetts.

There were many other. Jess, my friend in the adjoining classroom, and Kelly, my friend across the hall whose wedding I DJ'd, left for other districts. Office staff Deanie and Jo-Ann - people who brightened my day everyday - retired. John passed away. Dana left her desk to become a teacher. Lee became a librarian. Katie went off to middle school. Laura and Diane and Ellen and Jo retired. So many more. So many faces that I no longer see.   

And now Rob, our vocal music teacher, has retired after 39 years in the classroom. Rob was one of the first people who I met back in 1999. He and I share so many stories together. I performed in musicals that he wrote. He also played music in our wedding ceremony. 

This doesn't even count the multitude of parents who became my friends while their children passed through my school. And while some remain some of my closest friends today, others have moved on, migrating to other parts of the country as their children got older or simply drifting away to the realms of middle school and high school with their kids.

It's an awful game of Last Man Standing, and I'm losing badly. Most of my closest friends are now gone. With the exception of a small handful of teachers, I have been teaching at our school longer than anyone.

There was a time - a period of four or five years - when almost everyone mentioned above was teaching alongside me. Those were glorious days. Perfect days when the people who I loved most worked under the same roof as me, doing the same work, and loving every minute of it,

Those classrooms are now filled with new teachers. Some of them are my friends. A few are near and dear to my heart.

But there was a time when the people who I love most in life worked alongside me. Spent their days with me. Shared the job of teaching side by side. 

When Rob announced his retirement in the spring, he told me that I was now the bearer of our stories. The link to the past. The historian of our school.

My response was immediate: I don't want to be the bearer of our stories. I don't want to carry he burden of the past.

I recently referred to Rob as the bedrock of our school, but in many ways, he was part of my bedrock as well. They all were. And as each person says goodbye to the school I love, I feel that bedrock under my feet crumbling. 

I want the past returned to me. A time when I could pop into Elysha's class at any moment. When I could listen to Rob and Andy make music together. Days when Plato and Tom and Jeff and I could leave work at the end of the day and squeeze in nine holes of golf.  

Today I walk by classrooms and see ghosts of former teachers. People who touched the lives of children and touched my heart and mind. I love my job, and I adore my colleagues. But there was a time when I worked with the people who I love most.

I miss those days. Last Man Standing is a lousy game to win, and I fear that I may be champion before long.