A few days ago, I was sitting with old friend on my dock catching up on each others’ lives. He told of a common friend who was suffering from the stress of overwork. He looked at me and said, “I don’t get it. It’s just a job. They can get along without me, you, anybody. Even the most important work is not more important than your life. You only get one.” Maybe because I am grieving the loss of my sister, maybe because that little mite has been already nibbling at my brain and my heart, those words struck hard on me as if TO me, and I remembered what I said back in June when my sister passed. It came to me strong and clear. “ Never waste a day.”
As July grinds out its last hours into August, we are all reminded that when it comes to the short Alaskan summer, we must truly never waste a day during this warm and bountiful time. August for me, feels like September in the lower latitudes. Here on the southern coast we can expect only a couple of warm days and the rest are apt to be wet. In the old days, this wet could continue through September into the dark and bleak October - - but let’s not go there. August feels like September because schools are starting, state fairs are opening, and the lush green of our Alaska summer has begun to wilt. The fireweed has gone to seed or soon will, the pushki will bloom and die, and cottonwoods are shedding their leaves — a phenomenon I have already witnessed this week.
For as many years as I can remember, the first of August has heralded the coming of the school year. For the twenty years I spent as student, August was a warning that the school doors would soon open and the entire focus of my days would change. Usually, I looked forward to that, always eager for something new. The novelty of summer was gone and now school was ahead like an unopened box from the mail order house.
When I started teaching, August meant the beginning of a mental shift from dad, farmer, boatsman, fisher, and builder to Teacher. My body was still in summer life but my mind was on school. I loved that. I loved that I loved teaching and enjoyed the planning and scheming that teaching required. Madelyn would always recognize when I made the shift, often before I did. She would watch me grow quiet and distracted while working through the casual routine of summer life, whether child and house tending or B&B minding, Dan was going through the change to becoming Mr. Walker.
When I retired from the public school, I took a college teaching job, and again in August my mind began the transition, not only to teaching but new and different teaching in a place very different. When I made the switch from the classroom to mentoring and the school improvement coaching, I wasn’t teaching but I was still in that ‘school’s coming gear-up mode’ and come the end of July, my obligations and mindset once more switched to schools and teaching. But this year is different.
August is mine. Only once that I can remember, since I was six years old, have I been free of the August mind shift. In 1991, we took a year off when the kids were young and romped around the southwest. That is the only time until now that I wasn’t looking forward to school starting. This year, pivotal for so many reasons, I looked up and August was before me. The shift began, the calendar appeared, education emails began to land in the in-box. For the first time, I didn’t answer the call. The appeal was not in me, the endorphins that create excitement and anticipation didn’t flow. I was not drawn as I was year after year. Sometimes I needed a change but I was always filled with anticipation for the new year, new students, new projects, new challenges. Not this year, this year the anticipation came in the form of a gut-ball of dread that burdened me like I was wearing a weight belt.
I had to say, no. I had to tell myself over and over, “It’s just a job. Never waste a day! You can’t give anything when you don’t have it to give anymore.” So I move on into August without school, August without planning for school, meeting for school, getting ready for school, crazy, wearing-no-pants school dreams disrupting my sleep. I am filled with a new excitement, a fresh anticipation, a different kind of August.