A couple of years ago, I turned 55.
I imagine when some people hit an age like 55, they begin to think about retirement and the end of their careers, but since I had already been in a long season where I thought my career was over and had recently returned to my profession, I was still energized about teaching, still excited about being in the classroom, and still looking forward to many more years.
That didn’t stop the reality of my age though — the fact that the number 55 is just ten years away from 65, the age when Americans qualify for Medicare.
Ten years sounds like a long time until you glance backward and realize that ten years ago was when I first visited a rheumatologist, when we first considered moving back to Michigan, and when we were starting to say goodbye to St. Louis, to our teenagers, and to the life we had come to know.
It wasn’t that long ago, and ten more years will surely pass quickly.
I think it was out of the recognition of that reality that I jokingly declared 55 to be my halfway point — I was going to live to be 110!
I was finally enjoying life again having learned to manage my chronic illness and having navigated a long season of grief. I was learning so much about myself — what makes me tick, what I like, what I don’t like, how I think, how I believe, what makes me wonder, and what I want to impact. Surely I needed another half a lifetime to further explore what I was learning and to put that learning to good use.
Now, who knows whether I will actually live to be 110 or 85, or 58, but regardless, I am certainly in the second half of life, what Carl Jung and Richard Rohr describe as the phase of “undoing much of what has been accomplished in the first half in order to get at a deeper heart of human life.”
Rohr (and Jung) say that the first half of life is “focussed on the development and enhancement of our Ego and its mind-set: ambitions, plans, competitiveness, judgments about others, looking after oneself, one’s career, one’s family” and mine certainly was! Didn’t you, like me, run from high school to college to marriage to children to parenting and career, making snap decisions to take care of yourself and those that you loved only to come to the screeching realization around 45 or so that many of those decisions, though well-intentioned and possibly even prayerful and consulted upon, were ill-founded, poorly motivated, and simply wrong?
Didn’t you, like me, stand in the wreckage, grieving, wondering how it passed so quickly and why we don’t get a chance at a do-over?
That, according to Rohr, is the kind of devastation that leads to the openness that allows for growth in the second half of life. He says, “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further.’
Sheesh. Does that make me feel any better? I don’t know.
What it does help me lean into though, is my current reality.
I am, at now 57, learning more and changing more than I believe I have at any other time in my life. I have not only a therapist but also not one, but two, instructional coaches, and a small group that my husband and I meet with weekly. My therapist is helping me unlearn behaviors that are deeply rooted in my childhood — ways of coping that once allowed me to navigate my realities that became patterns that are no longer useful. My instructional coaches help me see how strategies that were effective in the classrooms I served in the 1990s and early 2000s can be modified to meet the needs of the students I have now. Our small group provides a judgment-free space in which to interrogate long-held beliefs, to sit in unanswered complexity, to admit our failures vulnerably, and to be loved unconditionally.
Thirty year old me wouldn’t have received so much input from others. She was busy kicking butts and taking names — doing what she needed to do to look after herself and her family. She “knew” she was right and she didn’t have time for the input of others.
But after all those “right” moves and the “supposed achievements” of that era have fallen apart, I’m in a new position.
I am, as they say, “coachable”.
I was getting ready for an uncomfortable encounter recently, and the anxiety was building as the date grew closer, so I kept bringing up the pending situation with my therapist. Because of my history in similar situations — of feeling unheard, undervalued, and “tolerated”, I had some real emotions, so I couldn’t see clearly. I could no longer define the purpose for the encounter — why was I going to meet with this person if the potential for hurt was so great? My therapist prompted me to think about what I needed from the interaction and reminded me to set my “past baggage at the door” so that it wouldn’t clutter the reality of the current situation. She helped me practice language to express my needs, and even though I had some anxiety throughout the interaction, I was able to manage my expectations and come away feeling content, even though the outcome might not have been exactly what I had pictured.
That’s something, isn’t it?
One of my instructional coaches and I are working on my ability to not let the way my students show up impact how I show up. You would think that after three decades in the classroom, I would have this down — that I would be steady Eddy in the face of student behavior, and for the most part I am. However, these past three years have put me to the test. The students I see today are in some ways very similar to the students I taught back in the fall of 1989. However, in some ways they are very different. They have been through a lot and they show up erratically — late, loud, hungry, irritable, disrespectful, and unconcerned about how their white middle-aged teacher might feel about it. Mostly, I greet them at the door smiling and hopeful and navigate through class with a no-nonsense approach, but guys, I am also a human being who gets tired, who loses her patience, and who falls back on muscle memory. I still have the default switch that flips over to kicking butts and taking names when the going gets tough, and while that might’ve worked in the past, today calls for a different strategy — a calm, sure response rather than a powerful reaction.
That was super easy to type, but much more complicated to execute.
Many of my students enter the classroom unable to leave their “past baggage at the door”.
(How could a teenager know how to do that, when I am still practicing at 57?)
They don’t leave it at the door, but they lug it right in, dripping debris in their path and dumping the entire mess all over my classroom. Picture all the shit of 20 or so teenagers heaped among the desks of my classroom. It’s a little crowded. And smelly. And uncomfortable.
One student shoves another student because she is crowding his space. Another puts her head down because she “just can’t deal” with the chaos. Others try to position themselves in such a way to ignore the heaping stench so that they can opt in to learning, complete their assignment, and move through their day.
My students don’t need me in those moments to shout or demand or ridicule. No, they need me to draw on the coaching that I am receiving and the years of experience I have gained from living my life dragging around a heaping pile of my own.
They need me to be unfazed by the stench. They need me to be prepared and engaging. They need me to have compassion when they “just can’t deal” and they need me to be nonjudgmental so that they can choose, at any moment, to join whatever it is we are doing.
I was having some difficulty with a particular student. We’ll call him Tyler. He comes to school almost every day, but he makes it to my class just once or twice a week. When he does come, he arrives late and loud, making comments that draw all the attention toward him, interrupting my class and disrupting any hope of learning.
I was complaining about this student to my coach and she said, “Make him feel like he is part of the classroom.”
I stared at her with jaw gaping,.
“Use what he has to say to direct him back to the class.”
As I sat staring at her, I realized that I had been falling back on old faithful — trying to get him in line by shaming him, telling him that the reason that he acts out is because he doesn’t know what we are doing, rather than doing everything I could to rope him in so that he would know what we are doing,
And because I’m not still 30, not still sure that I have all the answers to everything, not still consumed with the advancement of my self and my family, I gulped and said, “Wow. You’re right.”
I went on to tell her that this very student had surprised me with his written work and that perhaps I could use it for a model in class. She said, “Don’t do that! He thrives on negative attention, and he will sabotage that attempt! Instead, tell him quietly, privately, that you were impressed with his work. Let him know that you see him, but do it quietly.”
And you know what? I did. And he received my compliment and turned in his assignment on time and lowered his volume just a little bit that day. It was a very little bit of movement in the right direction, but I will take it, because I know that he is still in the first half of life — he is still developing his ego, still looking after himself and his ambitions, and in his context, that is much more challenging than I think I could ever comprehend.
It’s quite a juxtaposition — me in my second half of life spending so much of my day surrounded by the unfiltered, confident bravado of teenagers, but I have to believe we were made for each other — they with their uncensored commentary on my wardrobe choices and teaching strategies followed by their genuine questions about what my prom was like and how I spend my money and me as a spectator in the room watching them navigate love, friendship, and loss as they plan for their future.
I know what’s coming for them — a season of challenge and discovery as they plan for and navigate their way into adulthood and the inevitable realization (at some point) that they’ve gotten a lot of things wrong. Maybe the best thing I can provide for them right now is a normalization of the fact that we make a lot of mistakes but that we can try again. We can learn, we can grow, and more importantly, we can give one another grace along the way. I think that’s what I wish I would’ve liked to have known in the first half of life. It’s what I’m thankful to know now.
for from His fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”John 1:16