A month has passed since the Methodist and Catholic pastors under which I've served for years have moved on from their long-held posts. So far, the gracious people sent to replace them have tread softly among their respective new congregation, and both have been a bit more conservative in their approach, probably out of necessity more than anything else.
It's been interesting listening to them preach. Pastor Lisa at Cornerstone has been a larger standout to me, of course, because she is the first woman in that role I have observed directly. But neither she nor Father Bill (pastor at Ascension) has yet to show themselves in any contrary way. As Martha Stewart might say, "that's a good thing."
A third person's influence returned and just as quickly passed from me in the last two weeks. And his story is as unusual as the transition with my pastors has been more-or-less smooth.
I first met Bill (the third person) when I left the parochial school environment for public junior high school in the seventh grade. I'm not sure now what we saw in each other. Perhaps it was that we were both something of social outcasts from quirky school cliques. Perhaps it was that we both lived in the same town. It may have simply been that our last names were virtually next to each other alphabetically. Whatever the reason, Bill was one person out of hundreds of unknown faces, one who didn't shove me in some useless hole. I would walk or ride a bike up and down the steep hills in our river-straddling village to see him. Later in high school we wound up traveling together - as he was a full year older than me (yet in the same grade), he got his driver's license and had access to a car long before me. We worked in our first two jobs together - at the McDonald's across the street from the high school we attended, and our first job utilizing computers - as we sorted out punch cards to run the school's daily absentee report. Bill and I somehow got into the mindset that our careers would be in the vast and rapidly expanding territory that would become dominated by computers. Only in 1970, this was before the personal computer (IBM or Mac), or Microsoft Windows, or the Internet. 'Blogging' had not been coined yet; journals were still the product of handwritten notebooks. 'Word processing' was still being done on a typewriter, and copies were the domain of the mimeograph machine, complete with its piquant aroma.
After graduation, Bill and I made the transition to junior college. Fate would take us in different ways; both of us somewhat delayed in finding the right career path. Bill wound up working as a security guard; I started working for a retail inventory service. Bill still studied programming numbers; I was crunching them. Both of us found girlfriends and were dating. He married in 1975; I married six years later.
And that's where all similarity ends.
When Bill got married, he moved in with his wife's family - the intent being, as is the case with so many young couples struggling in difficult financial waters, to start a life of their own as soon as it was practical. But it never got that way. Bill was looking for an opening in his chosen career path, and he eventually made his way through it; but never looked back to put that in place as an anchor around which to build a place for his growing family. Instead, it eventually got too crowded and too tense to handle. His wife divorced him, moving out on her own. He continued to live with his now former in-laws. As his parents had also divorced (before I had known him), this new arrangement seemed to be normal to Bill - but not to nearly anyone else whom we mutually knew. And the new addition to the environment was genuinely tough on his three children.
As we continued to move through our separate lives, we naturally drifted apart and didn't see each other for longer and longer periods of time. I confess that my previous face-to-face encounter with Bill was about eight years ago, when another of our intimate circle of high school friends passed away, a victim of Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS.
It was about a year ago that I was encouraged by yet one other of our intimate circle to open a Facebook account. Where MySpace is overrun with teens, and Twitter the online roost for celebrity gossip, Facebook appears to be more middle ground for the average, computer-literate Joe and Joanna. After a bit of trepidation (I wasn't sure as to what kind of Pandora's Box I could be opening), I opened the account. Within a few hours Bill caught up with me.
Seems that at some point over the last eight years, Bill went through a metamorphosis of his own. (As did I, and have chronicled here.) He explained to me that he got squeezed on his rise up the corporate ladder. A project he and some colleagues had sweated over was completed ahead of schedule and within budget, yet he received no credit or recognition of the effort. His last performance review was essentially copied from the previous year. He had risen to the highest he could go, and would have to stay there or jump off and start again. He took the leap.
I started reading through some of Bill's comments (brief, as deemed necessary by the restrictions of social networking etiquette). He had gone through a major career change. He had entered the 'ed biz' (as comic songwriter Tom Lehrer once put it). He had been to China! I presume the latter had at least something to do with the former. Out of all the career choices Bill could get into, teaching was one of the last of which I could picture him in my mind's eye. Still, though this seemed to make no sense, there was some logic to this choice. Teaching is a lucrative profession from the perspective of how much you can earn. Public school teachers' salaries in and around Chicago are all over the place, and some teachers command annual pay in the six-figure range. Then there's the perception that teaching work is a fairly easy job - a perception that by and large is patently false, as the best teachers (in both home and institutional education) will tell you. Then there's a third piece of logic; an old maxim: "Those who can, do...those who can't, teach"...
I read these posts about the same as most I read, grateful that the world was still spinning on its axis and in the orbit God had ordered before our footprints touched the landscape. I was content that Bill was still alive and in relatively good health, and that his life was moving in a forward direction. These things become all the more fragile the older we get.
The latest bend in the road came just over two weeks ago, when I received a 'wall-to-wall' post from Bill. He had found a teaching job and would be moving away; and wanted to get together one last time before he left. Sure, why not? After all, we've known each other for over forty years and with many of our circle scattered across the country (not to mention life everlasting), it was important enough to offer him my best wishes over dinner.
Oh, I almost forgot. Bill's teaching job is in Kuwait.
Well, Bill told me that he's going to Kuwait to teach because the economic recession sharply reduced his chances of finding a job locally. He has a point, particularly in Illinois since the state is in financial straits and has delayed payment of tax subsidies to school districts here. (Here, a chunk of property taxes is the basis of the subsidy paid to public schools.) But why Kuwait? Wasn't there anyplace else in the USA looking for teachers?
Bill mentioned that the school where he'll be teaching is paying for his relocation, that is to say, his airfare. He's not taking much in the way of personal possessions; I recall him saying that he's got a grand total of three or four suitcases, and two of these are carry-on bags that include his laptop computer. He believes he'll earn enough to cover his basic expenses; and he has enough reserve cash saved in the event something goes wrong. His research indicates that health care coverage is better there than here; that the cost of living will be better there than here (since he will not have a car, that improves the bottom line). From what he told me, he spent several months researching and preparing for this, and he believes he has all the big bases covered. While there were still some issues pending as of Sunday, when he left here, there were temporary workarounds in place which would suffice until he got there and worked with whatever powers or agencies necessary to have everything in proper order.
After this, knowing he's going through with this no matter what my feelings or opinions are, and knowing he has family, I asked what I thought was the big question. Not why he was doing it or whether or not this was overreaching, but something more important to me.
What do Bill's children think of Dad leaving the country and not likely to return for nine months - or perhaps at all?
He fidgeted for a bit before answering. "I really didn't tell them," he said. Then he added that his daughters found out about it, but his son still doesn't know and he has no intention of telling him.
That said a lot to me; a lot that I was hoping I wouldn't discover about my longtime friend. Sure, his children are all of adult age now; so the relatively quiet departure is not an abandonment, not in the legal sense, anyway. Any real abandonment took place long before now.
I looked at Bill from a distance, removing for a moment all that we did together those many years ago. I first approached his decision to undertake this venture as something of a noble gesture; sure, it was something he found he could do, and to take it outside of the box (he also did a teaching stint at a Native American Reservation school for a year, working for a non-profit company). To receive the cooperation and respect of young, malleable, moldable children and put their futures in motion in a positive way is indeed a great and honorable way to live life. I have great respect for my many teachers, and not all of my teachers have been in the classroom. But institutional education, for all its prominence, is a forced society. Many of my classmates discovered this for the first time while treading the hallowed halls of high school, only to sell out the minute they graduated; and then reawakened when they got married, had kids, and had to start sending them to schools now having to prove their ability in the wake of standardized test scores and the "No Child Left Behind" laws.
While I wish Bill success in his new venture, I can't help but wonder if this is an attempt to succeed on one level where he did not at another; a gesture that, cast against the larger picture of his life, would look to be some sort of self-serving 'repentance' that barely scratches the surface where true repentance is concerned. Even here, I have cast judgment that is really not mine to make.
I reflected when I arrived home after our parting dinner that 'education' and 'learning' are two separate and distinct things. In America, 'education' is mandated. 'Education' is the process by which static knowledge is passed on with the hope of retention, sort of like playing Trivial Pursuit. 'Learning' happens when you discover something important about yourself, or the way something impacts you and those you love, and that is stored in your memory in such a way that you can recall it without having to go to a computer, database, or encyclopedia and look it up. 'Learning' is the more important of the two, and it shouldn't be hard to see that; yet, for each and every one of us, the mandated 'education' ends at age 18, but the opportunity for 'learning' lasts until the mind fails due to trauma, or even worse, lack of use.
I took the opportunity to send Bill an e-mail thanking him for the opportunity to get together and chat; after all, it is the right and proper thing to do. While saying thanks and offering best wishes, I wrote that he has a wonderful opportunity for learning in this process. Such learning has the potential to change lives. In looking back over my years of direct contact with Bill, and with Pastor Paul and Father Damien, not to mention the 30+ years I've been happily married to my loving wife, I've learned and re-learned a lot that defines who I am and where I stand; what I do and why I do it the way I do. That will remain with me forever.
Indeed, all true 'learning' changes your life. If it doesn't, it's just chalked up as getting an education.