casting off my teacher crown…finally

by christie shumate mcelwee

When I was a little girl, I loved to play school. My friends and I would assemble makeshift classrooms with leftover school supplies from the previous year, and on rainy afternoons when we couldn’t congregate outside for games of kickball or foursquare, we would reimagine the old, dank basements into glorious spaces of learning. We’d practice our handwriting, read out loud from old primers, and sing together from songbooks. I always wanted the coveted role of teacher, but often was forced to sit in the pretend desks while one of my friends wrote the daily instructions on the old chalkboard. It was more fun to be in charge than to solve multiplication tables that looked like undecipherable hieroglyphics. I loved being the boss. I wanted to guide the lessons and, yes, send misbehaving students to the corner.

When I reached middle school, my teacher dream faded. I wanted to become a nurse. I soon realized it was all about the cute white starched uniforms, because after volunteering at the local hospital during my 8th grade year, I discovered something shocking. There are sick people there! Nope, not for me.

In high school I had aspirations of a journalism career. I wanted to write for a newspaper or work at a television station. Woodward. Bernstein. Barbara Walters. After one year of majoring in mass media, though, I rediscovered teaching. I heard the call, and then spent the next 30 plus years in various schools and classrooms. I taught both high school and middle school students the majesty of Shakespeare’s language, how to develop a clear and concise spoken argument, and the virtues of using correct grammar in both writing and speaking. I loved the students, even the ornery ones. I was queen of my classroom and wore that crown with pride.

I retired five years ago, knowing it was time to leave. Yet…I still put my name on sub lists, tutored reluctant students, and even spent some time as an ESL instructor. I couldn’t seem to let go of my teacher crown. Every time I tried to take it off, the sparkling combs got tangled up in my graying hair.

Until now…

After a bungled attempt to teach beginning English learners online last spring, I knew it was finally time to cast off my crown. I was done. I no longer needed to be in front of a classroom. I didn’t crave the attention, the glory, the label of ‘teacher.’ So after I pushed ‘send’ on my resignation email, I carefully removed my glittering tiara and placed it on a back shelf, only to be occasionally admired. I will allow it to gather dust because it is time to finally move on from that teacher persona I clutched to my chest for so long.

So where here do I go from here? That’s the beauty of letting go. The path is not backwards. It’s the unknown, the mysterious, the corner not yet turned. I will attend an Anne Lamott writing webinar in August, and signed up for an online continuing education writing course through NYU in the fall. I would love to go on a writer’s retreat, perhaps in the spring. I’ll read and dive into difficult topics, hoping to unlearn years of privilege and then write about what I’ve discovered. I want to resurrect my often dormant blog and perhaps even submit my writing for publication, which is a terrifying yet exhilarating prospect. There is also my novel, this story I’ve been working on and setting aside for almost five years. Perhaps it is time to finally complete this mother/daughter tale of grief and music and forgiveness.

Now that is something worth dusting off.

The crown I imagine I wore throughout my career. Classic. Vintage. Royal. Not too ostentatious, yet beautiful. I’ll still hold my head high, but I no longer need to wear the crown. (image from
SWEETV Jeweled Baroque Queen Crown)

10 Things I Miss and Don’t Miss About You

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A friend of mine asked the other day how I felt after my first semester of retired life. I paused, and then told him, “Good, but there are things I miss.” My life is so different these days. I no longer hold court where I am the queen of my classroom. I abdicated that throne. Now I am a peasant dolling out measly words, hoping a few will read what is in my soul.

So, what do I miss and not miss about my life as a teacher?

  1. I don’t think I will ever not think of the calendar year in terms of fall semester, winter break, spring semester, and summer break, no matter how old I am and how long I will have been retired. I lived according to this schedule for most of my life. Why should I change now?
  2. I love knowing I can go to the bathroom any time I want, instead of holding my bladder until the next bell and then running the gauntlet through the crowded hallways to the faculty break room praying there isn’t a line. It’s a simple joy, one you don’t appreciate unless you have been there.
  3. I so enjoy my mornings. I used to rise at 5:15 AM, get ready, grab a quick breakfast, and be on the road by 6:45 AM. Now I still usually get up before dawn, but I grab my old robe, brew a pot of coffee, and then sit down with my morning pages. This journal is my meditation, my quiet beginning.These notebooks contain clean, white pages that give me inspiration and goals for my day.
  4. In a weird way, I miss saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. I can’t explain it. I just do.
  5. I don’t have to eat lunch at 10:20 AM. I’m still hungry at that time, but I don’t have to eat. Yes, 10:20 AM. Crazy, I know.
  6. Since I don’t eat lunch early, I no longer am starving at 3:00 PM. I don’t consume entire sleeves of crackers or snarf down half boxes of cookies the moment I walk in the door. I’m good.
  7. I miss the noise. I miss the loud hallways, the constant chatter, the boisterous pushing, the inappropriate cussing (kids, not me…well, usually not me), the tangible sound of adolescent lust in the air. All I have is my snoring kittens, the clicking of the keyboard, and the buzz of our furnace. Everything is peaceful. Sigh…
  8. I am embracing each day. I have some commitments, but mostly the days are mine. I can write, read, bake, practice yoga, knit, nap, or just binge watch Netflix. I can tackle a big project or spend time just walking in the woods. 
  9. Every teacher has his or her favorite lesson to teach. Mine was Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. I never tired of it. I miss Romeo’s angst and Juliet’s strength. I miss the gorgeous language that always made me ache with joy. I miss the tragic young love. I miss the looks on kids’ faces when they realized Mercutio was really dead or how Juliet’s father treated her at the end of Act III. (I don’t miss hearing freshmen murder the Bard’s words when reading aloud. Oh. My. Goodness. Never. Never. Never.)
  10. I love being able to reinvent myself. I choke a bit when I call myself a writer, but it gets easier with each blog I post and each article that is published. I guess I will always be a teacher, only now I am using the written word instead of standing up in front of a classroom.

Every day is a quiet, little adventure. Each word is a brick on this new road. All of these present moments create both delight and wistfulness for the past and the future.

“Beware of missing chances; otherwise it may be altogether too late some day.” Franz Liszt