At first glance, it would seem that the book I just finished, Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), doesn’t have much to do with my ongoing conundrum over whether to accede to the requests of various friends and work as a substitute teacher. Yet as I read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning “novel in stories”, I was struck by how much I was also thinking about my teaching career and the choices that stretch out before me now that I’ve retired. The book is, no doubt about it, great fiction, not least because every reader will take something different away from it. For me, that was a deep sense of the constant march of endings in our life, of the people we miss and the opportunities we missed.
The title character, Olive Kitteridge, is not always a particularly sympathetic one. Our first introduction to her is through the reflections of her kindly pharmacist husband, Henry, who is constantly “…watching to see that his wife, Olive, did not bear down too hard on Christopher (their son) over a homework assignment or a chore left undone.” When we first hear her speak, the negativity is pronounced:
“Mousy,” his wife said, when he hired the new girl. “Looks just like a mouse.”
“No one’s cute who can’t stand up straight.”
“Not keen on it, ” Olive said, when he suggested they have the young couple to dinner.
And when “the new girl” and her husband end up coming to dinner at Henry’s invitation, there’s this:
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Olive, when, in passing the ketchup to the young man, Henry Kitteridge knocked it over, and ketchup lurched out like thickened blood across the oak table.
Later we learn that Olive Kitteridge is a math teacher in her small New England town. Of course! I suspect many of us secretly harbor a not entirely justified dislike of a math teacher in our past. After all, math is for many people challenging, and it was my observation that challenging subjects often attracted challenging teachers. In fact, I suspect there are many students who came through my own classroom who still harbor a dislike of me, not necessarily because of anything I did (though with time to think and reflect I regret that I wasn’t always as patient or as kind as I would like to have been), but because the subject itself was difficult for many of them.
And so we have the title character, Olive Kitteridge, who through her own words and actions as well as the reader’s preconceptions, leads us to form an initially negative impression of her. The genius of the book, though, is that by the end we arrive at a grudging respect, possibly even liking, for this complex woman. Through a series of short stories about various members of her community, Olive makes sometimes fleeting and sometimes lengthy appearances and we discover that, yes, she is tough and blunt and on occasion even downright mean, but also scarred by events in her own life and deeply concerned for her family, friends, and students. Her estrangement from her only son might be understandable and justified from his perspective, but we see how much pain it causes her. And as she struggles to fill her days after her husband dies, I see a foreshadowing of the bleakness retirees are so often warned about.
Which leads me back to my subbing dilemma. I’m still relishing my retirement, make no mistake, and my days fill so much that I sometimes wonder where I ever found the time or energy good teaching demands. Every morning I wake up with a deep sense of relief that I won’t have to stand in front of 30+ teens and convince them that what I have to offer has any meaning for their lives. I’m relieved that I don’t have to deal with the big issues of politics and testing and “value-added” evaluations, as well as the seemingly small issues like daily record-keeping and lesson plans and cell phones in the classroom. In reflecting on my career, I can see so much that I could have / would have done differently. But I also see that I got a great deal of satisfaction out of helping students, and I miss that. Subbing, I think, might allow me to still make a positive contribution to the profession I pursued so passionately. I know that as a teacher having a good sub, one who would follow my plans and keep my student focussed on learning, was gold, and I do think I could be that person. But I also know that classroom management was never my strongest skill. I survived for so many years because I was pretty good at building relationships with students, something difficult to do as a sub. And as we’ve seen in the news this week, the small issues can blow up into big – even dangerous – ones with the blink of an eye. I increasingly think, and Olive Kitteridge maybe helped me see with further clarity, that there is a time to say good-bye, a time to move on. So for those friends reading this and thinking “maybe she’ll decide to sub”, the answer right now is “no.”