Jeff Hammer: Back at work…sort of

Some things are meant to be forever. For example, a father’s love is a forever thing. However, some aspects of our lives were never meant to last forever, and one of those never forever parts of our lives is our careers, at least in my opinion.

The final nine years of my teaching career were spent at the Lander Middle School. For the first six of those years, I enjoyed teaching math to 6th grade students, and for the final three years, I taught struggling math students in the Title I program, students in grades six through eight. That experience was all very gratifying, but as several retired teachers had previously informed me, “You will know when you are ready to retire.”

And they were correct.

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My wife and I retired from our Fremont County School District Number One teaching positions on May 22, 2020, but of course, those respective decisions were made many months before that date. We made traveling plans for the summer after we were to retire that included a ship and a foreign continent. In fact, I believe we made plans for multiple trips.

I could never have guessed how those plans would change.

When the Covid pandemic raised it ugly head, staff and students were sent home in the middle of March of that year, and we finished our teaching contracts online. The situation was not a pleasant one for neither parents, teachers, nor students, and it was definitely not how I wanted to end my teaching career.

For someone in their seventh decade of life, I’ve experienced disappointment before, so it was not all that hard for me to understand and accept that we don’t always get what we want. Without getting off on too much of a tangent, and as this column is labeled opinion, I am frequently dismayed when I see a certain segment of our society which feels it is entitled to receive exactly what they want every single time they voice a demand for it. Expecting debt forgiveness and defunding our police departments immediately come to mind.

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But enough of that.

After thirty-one years of teaching for me and thirty-seven years for my wife, our formal teaching careers ended without any closure. The situation did not allow us to say goodbye to our students nor to other staff members with whom we had worked for many years, a bitter disappointment that I found a little more difficult to shrug off than I expected.

I had begun writing these columns for a different publication not long before that time, so continuing to do that took some of the sting out of how my teaching years ended, but I always knew that, at some point, I would enter the workforce again in a part time capacity. However, given the state of the Covid pandemic, I felt that being around multitudes of other folks might not be in the best interest of my somewhat immune deficient body. Consequently, I could not determine just how that employment would look. 

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Working inside a closed space, one in which I would be in close proximity to other people, did not seem like a good option, even after the vaccine became available. I wanted to be around other adults, and one of the options I was considering before Covid struck was to clerk at a liquor store where I felt I would meet people of all walks of life. Well, so much for that idea.

On June 29th of this year, in this space, I mentioned my decision to apply for part time substitute work as a custodian for Fremont County School District One. After a little technology mix-up on my part, which should surprise no one, I was able to access the website that one needs to find substitute openings a few weeks ago.

Over the past three weeks, I have worked five days total, with my first job being a stretch of four consecutive evenings in the middle of October subbing for the head custodial honcho at Lander Middle School, my old stomping grounds.

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My responsibilities were to clean and sanitize the 6th grade pod and a few other rooms close by, with my shift beginning at 1:00 p.m. I was scheduled to walk out the door each night at 9:30, but only on one evening did I leave on time. Because the students didn’t leave until 3:20, cleaning the 6th grade pod was not possible until that time, so two other full time custodians and I cleaned the floors of the cafeteria/commons area and the kitchen in the meantime.

Some of the staff members from when I was teaching there happened to walk by as we were cleaning and did a double take when they saw me. Finding their voices, some were surprised to see me, but all smiled and spoke welcoming words. It almost felt like “old home week.”

A few raised the possibility of the “b” word with comments such as: “Are you so bored that you felt you had to come back to work?” or “Wow…you must be really bored!”

To which I responded, “No, I’m not bored at all, but the time was right to work part time, and I can always use a few bucks.”

But I didn’t return just for a small paycheck. I wanted a little socialization, as well; and there is no one on Earth more social than middle schoolers. 

Having finished cleaning the commons area and the kitchen, I ventured into the 6th grade pod each day a few minutes before those students were dismissed for the day in order to monitor them when the final bell of the day rang, just like I used to back in the day. I was joined by a few other staff members as hordes of eleven and twelve year olds collected their backpacks before leaving small groups. 

I’m not embellishing when I say that it seemed they were all talking loudly…at the same time, and it was all incredibly wonderful.

If students made eye contact with me, I smiled and said hello, and more often than not, I received a return smile and a tentative “Hello” or “What’s up?” They didn’t know me, but with a lanyard around my neck, they knew why I was there. To be honest, the few minutes I was around those kids, was more gratifying than I can adequately describe. The situation was the first time I’ve had that experience since that Friday in mid March of 2020 when we sent the kids home, thinking we were all returning the following Monday, but…well, everyone knows what happened over the weekend.

That small amount of time, over a few days, with these kids, whom I didn’t know, provided a small amount of closure that I needed to erase the discontent of how my career ended; and for that, I am extremely grateful to them, even though I will likely never know their names.

After the students and staff left, the real work began. For years, I watched Bert Simpson clean our work area each evening, always moving, but never seeming to be in a hurry. Each afternoon, I would leave the building while he was still working, and each morning when I unlocked my classroom door, the room was clean and orderly and ready for another day of teaching and learning. The effort necessary to accomplish that feat always impressed me.

But one can’t truly appreciate the work that is done, until they have to do it themselves. If I were to gauge my level of tiredness, at the end of that first evening of calling myself a substitute custodian, it would rank up there with my first day of working for Brazel and Sims Construction Company on Ed Markowski’s fencing crew back in the summer of 1977, after my first year of college. I was eighteen, and that long-ago day was my first experience with barbed wire. My first day of pushing a broom, among other tasks, was not as bloody, but just as tiring. I find it difficult to admit that the ensuing forty-five plus years had anything to do with that.

Each afternoon after that first painful evening, I would come into the middle school building with a strategy of how I was going to be more efficient than the day before, optimistically thinking I would complete all my responsibilities, and I could leave on time or maybe even a little early. 

Didn’t happen…at least not until the final even ing. There always seemed to be one more task that had to be done before making sure all the doors were locked and I could check out. By the time that happened, I was feeling every one of my gray hairs. I then would drive home, drag my tired behind into the house, shower and go to bed. 

Let’s just say I have a new and more thorough appreciation for Bert Simpson.

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