Friday, October 24, 2014

Finding Your Do-er: What a First Grader and His Teacher Taught Me About Retirement

Mrs. Moss, age 40, became a brand-new first-grade teacher in the elementary school where I had grown up.  In fact, she taught in the same classroom where I had attended first-grade, so I know that classroom, Room 4, well. 

The west end of Room 4 shared a boys' restroom with Room 5; the east end of Room 4 shared a girls' restroom with Room 3.  The classrooms and restrooms were like links in a chain.  By going from restroom to classroom to restroom, you could travel the entire wing without ever setting foot into the hall.

I've never seen another school with toilet facilities like this one, but having been a first grade teacher, I can attest to the handiness of the architecture.  A teacher could closely supervise the children using the toilet while still supervising the children who were at their desks.  She never had to leave the classroom to check up on someone who was ill or  lingering in the restroom.

One day, Mrs. Moss allowed six-year-old James to go to the toilet during class.  A minute later, an agonizing wail erupted from behind the boys' restroom door.  Good Lord, thought Mrs. Moss.  He's caught himself in his zipper!  She flew to the door, threw it open, and cast herself down beside the sobbing child to try to help extricate his tender flesh.

But nothing was stuck in the zipper.  Instead, James was grabbing desperately inside of his open zipper and wailing.

"What's wrong?" Mrs. Moss asked, and James threw himself into her arms.

"My do-er!"  he cried.  "I can't find my do-er!"

"What?" she asked, gently removing his arms from around her neck to try to assess the problem.

"I can't find my do-er!" he sobbed again, pointing to his zipper.  Then Mrs. Moss understood.  She unbuttoned James's pants and lowered them to his ankles.

"Sweetheart," she soothed, "You've got your underpants on backward."

Since I retired, I've thought a lot about James and Mrs. Moss.  About how terrified you feel when you think you've lost your do-er. About how important finding it is when you retire.

The president of my concert band told me recently that he had taken up playing percussion after he retired.  "I'd had a busy life as a Lutheran pastor," he said, "And suddenly I had nothing to do.  I didn't know how to fill my days, so I decided that I'd better find something to do.  I found band, and it made all the difference." 

A lovely retired nurse in the adult beginners band where I teach woodwinds told me the same thing.  She didn't know what to do with herself when she retired from years in neonatal intensive care.  Then she found New Horizons Band.  An experienced pianist, she decided she wanted to learn to play clarinet.  Her do-er went into high gear, and she's thriving.

People at the humane society thrift shop where I volunteer have told me their stories: after retirement, they didn't know what to do with themselves.  They felt lost. Worse, they felt Unmotivated. Unmotivated to learn anything new, like how to play pickleball or the tuba. Unmotivated to improve talents they'd always dabbled with, like writing or singing. Unmotivated to make the world a better place, like volunteering at the food bank with their church group, or raising money for shelter dogs with a bunch of like-minded strangers who might become friends. They couldn't find their do-ers

Then they'd met someone who did work at the thrift shop and suggested they try it, say one four-hour shift a month.  Or maybe two.  They'd tried it, liked it, and had found something to do.  Once they found something to do, they got motivated.  They found their do-ers.

So this is what James-the-First-Grader and Mrs. Moss taught me.  Sometimes when you think you've lost your do-er, it's still there. You just have to know where to look for it. 

That might mean having to tell someone else that you're afraid you've lost your do-er. That might mean asking them how they found their do-ers, and asking them to help you find yours.  And that might mean following their advice, even if they tell you to drop your trousers, step out of your underpants, and turn them around the right way.

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