For quite a few years now I’ve been noticing that after a prolonged vacation (which means anything more than a week) I begin to itch quietly to go back home and get back into the regular round of daily tuitions by which I have been earning my bread for ages. I think it really has gotten into my blood now. It’s true that I often get tired and frustrated and temporarily bored with the routine, and sometimes very angry or unhappy indeed with my pupils for being dull, inattentive, forgetful, lazy and what have you, and sometimes even curse fate for having tied me to this grind lifelong, but who knows, Providence might really know better what is good for us than we ourselves do. We’ve noticed again and again too that when I am slightly ill, nothing makes me bounce back to full potential as a session in the classroom: no pill or pep talk from my family works half as well!
In any case, one cannot, after three decades, help becoming a creature of habit. When I used to tell some parents some time back that I was looking forward to retirement, and that I’d give it another ten or fifteen years at the most, some of them smiled and said, ‘You’d never be able to stop completely. People won’t let you. Besides, everyone needs some work to live by, even if it is no longer essential to make a living.’ Who knows but these people were prescient! Looking at many people who are very old and have been living utterly idle lives for decades and slowly growing ever more senile, I can only shudder. I don’t know how they have coped with being totally unoccupied and useless for so long, but I know this much for sure – just one year of it would drive me up the wall. I must keep working, just to stay sane and enjoy living as long as I am around: much better to die in harness relatively young (in one’s sixties, I mean) than to hang on to be a doddering old fool in his late eighties.
I also used to say I’ll work but I’ll change my vocation and try to do something I like much more, but these days even that makes me wonder. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. What else am I good at, what else would I rather do? Write, yes, if I do find a large and eager enough audience – which is unlikely – or teach, perhaps younger people, needier people, if that brings greater satisfaction, a greater sense of giving back. But these days I can’t think of much else that I’d rather do, besides raising grandchildren, that is.
Life has been good to me, on the whole. It comes home to me with greater force with every passing year, watching people my age, younger and older so hassled and so frustrated all the time – even if they hold high office and earn large incomes and can boast of great honours. To have such a combination of decent earning and good health and peaceful family and leisure and freedom is not given to many of us, especially in this day and age. I am writing this down because I want to come back to it again and again when I am feeling blue: I do have much to be thankful for, things could have been much, much worse, and few other lifestyles could have given me so much overall satisfaction, even if I had been earning ten times more, and seen myself mentioned regularly in the papers. It is from an infinitely deep well of wisdom that the Lord’s prayer says ‘Thy will be done’ rather than mine – how little we know until we are very old what we really want, what would really make us happy. I started teaching almost by accident when I was barely out of boyhood, and I have taught so long and so many people and so many different things, and though I’d have gladly done a lot of things differently if circumstances had permitted me (trying to make teaching more interesting both for me and my pupils) I cannot now imagine that I could have ever wanted to do anything else. And to think that I had once fantasized about becoming a neurosurgeon, or a pilot, or a business tycoon or even a statesman…
It’s been a truly bemusing transition, from a very young teacher to an ageing one. Kids may come and kids may go, but I go on forever! At least, what I mean is that my ex-students grow old, but those I constantly deal with are perpetually fresh and lively 14 to 18 – while so many of my ex-es have become dowdy, frustrated, dull and common enough to embarrass me. My one grouch is that when I refer to myself (as I often do these days) in class as the boring old man, many of the kids, both boys and girls, loudly protest that I am neither so old nor boring, which is, I admit, a mild salve to the ego, but they do precious little beyond that, either the girls or the boys, to prove that they really are interested in me as a human being as they used to do twenty years ago (as distinct from a note-churner whom they pay a fee just to pass examinations). One could imagine, in this era of cheap telephones and email, that some few would try to build relationships privately, even if they were too shy to take the plunge in the classroom. It’s hardly very sensible to think that I’d seduce every girl who tried that, and turn every boy into a terrorist or a drug addict – as some silly mothers in my town used to fear once upon a time!
How little we as parents and teachers know what makes a good life when we so pedantically and enthusiastically lecture the children in our charge how they should order their lives to achieve ‘success’! I hope my daughter (and maybe her children) may learn from this, rather than other so-called teachers and friends’ parents, that we elders know too little and sermonize too much – most probably to cover up our own shameful shortcomings and failures! – and that beyond a certain age they are really on their own, and they must follow their hearts, and then accept and gradually grow used to and even start loving what life has given them… if there is any happiness to be found in this world, that’s the only way you can find it.