Go Home Again

In the past few months, I’ve been traveling a lot. I’m not going that far geographically, only about three hours drive, but it most definitely is a world away.

The day before Christmas, I sold my business of the last ten years. This was, as you can imagine, a difficult choice to make and one that took a lot of introspection before the final, irrevocable decision was made. The trick, as with any business sale, was finding the buyer. As I put the word out that my company was for sale, I started to really discover what was going to be needed of me to make this happen. I was a manufacturer of a specialty home item and though it wasn’t rocket science, any prospective buyer who didn’t have a direct background in this process was going to need a lot of hand holding. This meant that I was going to be doing a lot of direct instruction and thus, away from home for an appreciable period of time. There was no escaping that reality.

The first individuals whom really looked interested were a very nice couple out in California. I spent several hours teleconferencing with them as they tried to make their decision to buy or not and though I was excited at the idea of selling, I also thought about how hard this was going to be. I would naturally have to go out there and show them the ins and outs of the business and that would take my time and their money. Then, I got a call from another company with some serious interest. They wanted to talk and… they were just one state away. Better than that, they were in my childhood hometown. As the California folks waffled and the economy got bleaker, I heard from them less and less and from the new folks “back home”, more and more. In the end, the new folks bought it.

In one day, most of the shop was packed up on a truck and moved lock, stock and barrel to its new home and plans were made for me to put on my instructor’s hat and follow along until they had everything in hand. Finding a place to stay three or so days at a time was no problem at all since my folks still live there and don’t mind seeing my face turn up on their door step or hogging up the bathroom first thing in the morning. I don’t get back to my parent’s home much and it’s rather a novelty to be there again.

One of the complications of this is my other loved ones. My dear Wife would be left in the house with two small children running on 100% pure high octane crazy, and though we both love them immeasurably, being “on duty” solo for days at a time can grind you down faster than an eraser in the hands of a third grader. In an effort to keep things as easy as they could be for Action Girl, I took Short Stack with me on several of these trips. Sitting in the passenger side back seat, Short Stack would watch the world go by one truck at a time with a “director’s cut” commentary going for the duration. In an effort to improve his view, I’d remove the headrest from the front passenger seat, thus giving him a much appreciated and unobstructed view of the road. He’s a great traveling companion and never complains about anything. He will point out every single piece of heavy equipment that you come across and ask you roughly a gazillion unanswerable questions though. You just have to deal with that. His favorite is to point to a random street as you drive along and say, “Why are we not on that road?”

Once I got to our destination, my parent’s would watch Short Stack and I’d get to work. I really didn’t get much of a chance to look around town since I was there to instruct, not reminisce, but I was taken with how much things had changed. The changes, in fact, were almost all I could see. The new plazas, the missing fields, the giant bypasses and the new roundabouts. Where had my little hometown gone? My view of my past home, colored in fading Kodachrome, matched up badly against what I was looking at now and it made me a little sad, even if I knew very well that things inevitably change. My days were full of instruction and work but it was good to see the torch being passed as well. I was happy with my decision and the buyers were the right ones to carry it forward. When I’d get home it was to my old house, my parents and my son. Talk about things changing with time.

My last trip back to instruct was solo. Action Girl decided that though she loved her one on one time with Lulu Belle, she needed some verbal company while I was gone. It did take some of the pressure off for me, being on my own. Even if I didn’t get out to poke around town much, I did get to work late and finish up the lessons, thus insuring that I was done traveling for extended periods of time. I promised my self that I’d be back in the springtime, just to enjoy being there and perhaps go hiking with the family. Running out for lunch on the last day, I decided to take a back route I remembered from my childhood. The small roads wound through residential neighborhoods I hadn’t passed in a lifetime and as I crossed a small bridge, I had a flash of a face race through my mind.

She was a tall and thin with soft features and a warm smile. She was wearing a long skirt, simple blouse and a headscarf as was common in the nineteen-seventies. With her were two boys enjoying the remains of their ice cream cones and talking happily as they walked over this very bridge. I was one of those boys and the other was my friend Charlie. The kind woman was his Mom and I can just recall stopping to drop the soggy ends of our cones over the rail and then racing to the other side to see whose was first as the current swept them away. She had taken us out that day for a walk and other than that brief piece; I can’t recall any of the other day’s happenings. I was probably seven at the time and didn’t know that she wore the scarf for a reason other than fashion though I’m sure Charlie knew.

I remember him being absent from my life for a while not long after that sunny day. The cancer had moved quickly and as friends and classmates, we all tried to fathom what it would be like to loose your mom. The idea alone scared the hell out of us. We couldn’t imagine what he and his twin sister were going through. The only frame of reference I had was the TV show, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” starring a young Bill Bixby. In the show, Bill’s wife had died and left him and their six year old son alone. I remember it being a good watch, not funny, not sad, but poignant and a bit melancholy at times. It wasn’t hard to imagine the boy being played by my friend.

Charlie and I remained close for years and years and I don’t think even once brought up his mother to him. I don’t know what I would have said at any rate. Bringing up topics like that are hard enough as an adult. When you’re a kid, well… they seem better to leave alone, like a scary dream or dangerous looking animal. The odd thing that struck me as I drove along, away from the bridge and past Charlie’s old house, was the realization that I had remembered that moment with his Mom and the ice creams before. It occurred to me that it popped into my mind whenever I crossed that spot. It had just been so long since the last time I had been by here. I hardly remember her, but I knew her son very well, and I think she would be proud of him today indeed

I lost track of Charlie after high school and haven’t been able to find him since, though I confess, I haven’t looked terribly hard either. We were very good friends once and spent a lot of time playing in each other’s yards. His Father I recall being a little domineering and over protective, but with children of my own now and trying to imagine keeping a family safe and strong through the loss of your spouse, I can’t blame him at all. In retrospect, he was doing an amazing job.

As I drove back to work after picking up my lunch, I took a different route back. I still know all the back roads and remember riding my bike down the shaded, cracked and uneven cement sidewalks, so long ago. It feels strange now to be here again but nostalgic, all the same. It stirs memories that have long lain dormant. I hope I can get back this spring with the family so we can do some good poking around. If time permits, we might go for ice cream. If I can remember, I’ll smile to my self and silently thank Charlie’s Mom for her kindness so long ago. Wouldn’t it be good for all of us to be remembered like that some day?

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Checking Out, Checking In.

Ten years ago, I started a business. It never became large. It never made me rich, or even that well off, frankly. What it did was suck up mountains of my time, force me to work weekends, holidays and late nights. It took a toll on my body, on my sleep and my psyche. I worked long, hard hours and on more than a few occasions, I had to call in backup to help get an order out by the date I promised. If I had put in anything close to this amount of work anywhere else, I would probably be a VP of some division by now.

Over my working life, I’ve held quite a few jobs in many different industries. I like to think that I’ve done a good job at all of those places and if I decided that it wasn’t the place for me to stay, I’ve always reminded myself that I had learned a valuable lesson in the interim. I had learned what I didn’t want to do and whom I did or didn’t want to work with. Essentially, I got to know myself better through the trial and error of employment.

Putting in overtime always bugged me, especially when I was a salary man. I don’t think I’m a slacker as much as I believe that I have my priorities set correctly. I recall with horror the moment many years ago when I was confronted with this information and I had to keep it from showing. I had just started a new job managing a retail store and my new and enthusiastic boss, in an effort to make me feel… empowered, I guess, clapped a hand on my shoulder and said, “Are you ready to make XYZ store you top priority?”

I’m sure that he was trying to instill a feeling of responsibility and pride in me but what shot through my brain was, “My Mom, my Dad, my girlfriend, my friends, my health, my mental well being, hiking, biking, fishing, painting…. Buddy, this store doesn’t even make my top ten list.” I’m a hard worker though and I tried to make improvements and boost sales. That’s what he SAID he wanted. That wasn’t so true in practice.

badboss

He turned out to be a very difficult person to work for and after I had been there for about a year and a half, I left under a cloud after he caught me idly doodling on a piece of scrap paper when I should have been helping nonexistent customers. I had worked for a number of individuals after this particular individual, but always chafed a bit at being told what to do and when to do it. I confess, I’ve never “played ball” well and when I saw an opportunity to start my own shop and do things my way, I took the leap.

Being a small business owner means a lot of things, but what it means the most is time. You get none. The business gets it all. The funny thing was, all the unpaid overtime that I had put in before and resented like hell, didn’t bug me when it was for my own shop. It was all for me, and I enjoyed the work, which is good because there was a hell of a lot of it. More than I had ever seen before. But, hey, I was young, had a wife who also worked crazy hours and though this lifestyle almost ensured that we’d be toiling away through nearly every single holiday that came along, we had no kneebiters of our own, so why not? Then, about three years ago, that last part changed.

With the birth of my son, and then my daughter two years later, the slowing of the economy and my general weariness at having bent my shoulder to this particular grindstone for the last decade, I decided some months ago that I was done, cooked, burned out. I needed a change. The work isn’t fun anymore and what’s most important in my life are the two little munchkins who light up when they see me come through the door. I want more of that. A lot more.

Once the initial decision to sell my business a week or so of flopping around and coming up with strange and unusual ideas as to my next career came and went. I set aside the applications for hamster wrangler and licorice gunrunning and decided to take another look at my fading college diploma. I blew off the dust and just made out the faint cuneiform scratching on the crumbling clay tablet. It read, “Bachelor’s of Art Education, K-12”

Hmmm.

I had given up on teaching a long time ago, mostly because it’s fiendishly difficult to find jobs teaching art. Most school shave one, perhaps two art teachers and in times of economic trouble, Art is almost always the first on the chopping block. I had done a lot of substitute teaching during my years of begging for work and I had taken two very important lessons away from that. The first was that I was going to grow old and die before a position opened up. The second was that I loved working with the little kids. K-3 is where I felt the happiest. The students are interested and interesting. The curriculum never leaves you confused and best of all; almost everything you show them is new and exciting.

I thought it was time to reexamine my college major with just a tweak or two for today’s reality. What I’ve found out is that I’m about six college classes and two tests away from being a K-3 teacher. I have a new goal.

Today, I will be signing the papers with the new owner. He will be handing me a check for, if not everything I was hoping for, an adequate amount to set my new life in motion. I’m going through a lot of emotions about this. Relieved that soon, I will be free of the burden that is small business ownership. Sad, to see a decade of my efforts leave my sphere of influence. Regretful for not having gotten to do a few things that I wanted in the business. Empty, realizing that I won’t come here and toil away like I have for so long. Pissed, that I ordered so many now useless business cards a few months ago.

Still, this is a good thing. Better than that, it’s the RIGHT thing. I’m tired of this work while the new owner is excited. He can’t wait to dive in and I have no question that he will do very well with it. He’s even invited me to come back any time and get my hands dirty, if I need a fix, for old time’s sake. That’s very nice of him, but I don’t see it happening.

He’s due to show up in the next hour and I’ll sign the business away. It’s just me, so there are no employees who have to be considered. I’ll put my John Hancock on the line, collect my check and stop at the back on the way home. When I walk through the door, my family will be waiting for me. It’s Christmas Eve today and the house will be warm and cheery. I’ll hug them all, Short Stack, Lulu Belle and Action Girl and get down to business. Being home for my family is my new endeavor. Teaching will help give me that ability.

Finally, I’ll be home for Christmas, and that’s the only gift I really need.

christmas-tree

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!

Back to School Shopping

The air is cool and heralds the end of summer. Trees are still green, but it’s the deep, dark color of overly mature leaves. Soon they will be sucked dry of life and thrill leaf-peeping visitors in lethargic motor homes as they back up traffic for miles on the winding New England roads.

I’m waiting for my first meeting that could possibly bring me back to a decision I made a long, long time ago. To teach. I had made up my mind that I wanted to teach back when I was in high school. Other than the fact that my mother was a teacher, I’m not sure why I thought it would be the right place for me to make my career. I had never been a stellar student and to be honest, always viewed school more like prisons with desks rather than a place of learning. I would rather have been doing my own thing than listening to someone else’s.

The funny thing is, my own thing often consisted of researching topics I was interested in, building projects that I thought were fun or drawing and painting. The idea of sitting on the other side of the big desk in the classroom and teaching the INTERESTING stuff appealed to me. When it was time to go off and get my bachelor’s degree, I had picked Art Education as my direction.

I had always been artistic and it was easily one of my favorite classes. The other possibility that tempted me had been history, however since my mother was a history teacher, going into that particular field felt… too obvious, some how. Also, I had watched the piles of homework she brought home and had to grind through on Sunday nights. Art’s workload looked better to me.

Four years later and degree in hand, I got to see the cold hard fact that my advisors had been warning me about for the last four years. The job market was hideous. Unless, that is, you were an art teacher. Then it was HORRIBLY hideous! Although I was able to teach grades Kindergarten through high school seniors, the jobs just didn’t exist in any real numbers. If you think about it, most schools have one, maybe two art teachers. They were hired twenty years ago and now that they had the job down cold and tenure, there was no way that they were leaving any time soon. Schools too, were rather caustic when it came to art programs. Though it is very difficult to actually let an art teacher go once they have established them selves, there was nothing to stop them from closing the position once they retired or moved on. Bottom line, art as a subject wasn’t being expanded then and isn’t now. It wasn’t looking good.

So, I did what all hopeful and unemployed teachers do. I subbed. When I say, “subbed”, what I mean is that I awoke to the phone at six in the morning with a call from the school secretary, telling me that there was a school that needed a punching bag in a half an hour. I would fish out a shirt and tie and bring them with me to hang up in the bathroom in the hope that the the steam from my shower would smooth out some of the wrinkles. In the blur of the early morning, I would arrive at an unfamiliar school, look for an unfamiliar class room and then try as hard as I could to both decipher the missing teacher’s lesson plan for the day and not get taken advantage of by the students. What ever happened, you can’t show fear. Forth graders can smell fear and if they do, well… I’d just prey for a swift and painless death.

To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. Close!… but not that bad. What I did learn was that I loved the little kids! I had always envisioned myself teaching art in a high school somewhere and had done my student teaching at that level. What I discovered was that I should have been a kindergarten teacher. To pass on dealing with sullen teenagers who know it all and are utterly unimpressed, if not out right dismissive of what you are trying to teach them, for the wide eyed enthusiasm of a five year old learning a new song was something I found out after I had assumed I was done with college. Unfortunately, I didn’t peruse the change to being a Kindergarten teacher. It would have meant going back to school again to get another degree and I was still twitching from my last round of finals a few years before. After years of mornings like this, I was getting crispy from the subbing and loosing interest and any hope of being an art teacher. Rather than going back for the second teaching degree, I looked away from education and moved into the world of business. It’s been ten years of that now… and I’m getting crispy again.

A few weeks ago, Action Girl and I took the kids to the local school playground for some fun. The new school year was due to start in just one week and as Short Stack played on the garishly colored plastic jungle gyms; I peeked through a window of the building. Hands cupped on the sides of my head and nose against the glass, I looked in on a first grade classroom ready for action. Desks neatly lined up, black board cleaned, bulletin boards decorated and everything needed for learning, neatly tucked into cubbies an baskets just waiting for little hands to fish them out. In the middle of my chest, I felt the pull again. I wanted to be behind the big desk. I wanted that to be my room!

So, I’ve made a decision. I’ve put my business up for sale and will be stepping away form that. It’s time for a change. As I wait for my appointment with the director of the education department, I’m watching the other young students walk down tiny paths on their way to another class. I remember being them and hope they are enjoying what they study. Life can be a long and strange road and you never know where it will take you. It might be away to unforeseen places. It may be leading you where you never expected to go and wouldn’t pick now if you did. Or, like the path might be for me, circular. Having shown me some amazing vistas and overlooks along the way, it could lead back to the place I started at so long ago. I’ll have to wait and see.

The thing is, to enjoy the walk.

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