Take Time to Smell the Flowers

Because I have just retired in May of this year, this Friday will be the first time in 42 years that I will not attend the annual university fall faculty meetings. While I am not dismayed at having to spend the better part of two days attending workshops and having to listen to administrators update the faculty and staff on myriad university matters, including budget (always a major concern), enrollment and student retention/recruitment, assessment, curricular changes, new policies, and committee reports (occasionally long-winded ones), I will no doubt miss all the excitement a new academic year affords. New beginnings signify a fresh start, and the college teaching profession, like no other, provides teachers in the late summer/fall of every year the opportunity to work with entering freshmen eager to break ties with home to chart a new course for their lives; seasoned sophomores and juniors are by now swimming well with the currents; and seniors, in their last year of college, are just a few months away from being ejected from a comfy, embryonic environment. Little do the latter know what to anticipate in the real world, and little are they aware that their senior year will be the last of four of the best years of their lives.

I entertained the following childish notion. Would it not be fun to email a photograph I took last year, one in which I look like a redneck – (straw hat, jeans, boots, brassy belt, a braggart smirk on my face, and a stringer weighed down with three 10-12 lb. catfish caught at my pond) – to my close colleagues, on Friday morning, right about the time they are getting ready to convene? And wouldn’t it be fun for the message to read: “While you were studiously and attentively engaging in university matters, I am earnestly spending my time snagging these monsters.”

As much fun as it would have been to fiberopt the photograph (not a selfie), compliments of one of my very best friends and fishing buddy, Ron Harrison, I refrained. On the advice of La Belle Femme, I chose not to follow through. “Not appropriate! Silly! I wouldn’t do it,” she advised. She’s right, most of the times.

Since May of this year I’d been rummaging through 42 years of belongings in my university office and have leisurely and methodically discarded, saved, packed, and stored materials. Since I plied my avocation in three disciplines (English, Art History, and Sculpture), the task has been an arduous one. The more challenging assignment, however, has been the mind-numbing task of going through some 3,000 emails, an undertaking that consumed much of my time. Taking refuge from the 100 to 107 degree temps (with a heat index as high as 119 degrees), I have spent numerous intermezzi punctuating the hours with the all too familiar Delete, Save, Reply, File, and Print keys, a most monotonous and exasperating undertaking.

On Tuesday of this week I sent the last of the boxes to the university archives, hauled off the last of the heavy steel and bronze sculptures, and had my computer and printer transported to the university library where Ray Granade, Director of Library Services and a trusted colleague of 42 years, has provided a space for me to set up shop for Wednesday mornings. On Wednesdays an average of 40 faculty members meet at noon for the lunch hour book discussions and colloquia, a format during which faculty from across all disciplines meet for alternating book discussion sessions and dialogues in the form of intellectually stimulating papers/lectures by peers professing their area of specialty. So, spending future Wednesday mornings at the library will merely serve as a preface for an intellectually engaging lunch time; for just as a body must have sustenance, the mind needs to be continually energized lest it atrophy.

I love the library and its staff; I keep telling every librarian that the library is the heart of the university, and that what they do is an integral part of our university community. I began to plan my exit two years ago by donating to the library an aluminum cast portrait bust I made in 2004. Athena: Goddess of Wisdom sits on a sculpture stand with the following caption I composed and had inscribed on the plaque: “Faith and Books are the fount of wisdom, and wisdom is the path to an abundant life.” Seven other sculptures are displayed on a-for-loan-basis throughout the library. And who knows, I might one day will them to the library.

On May 8, 2015, the day before my last commencement, I sent the following email to the university president and copied a dear friend, the dean of a college of education at a sister institution:

I know how very busy you are, but I wanted to steal two or three minutes of your time to share the following: I am in my office, cleaning out filing cabinets, drawers, and etc. spanning 42 years of fun. Ray Granade has asked that I donate all my professional papers (publications, galley proofs, memorabilia, mementos acquired on some 20 trips abroad, correspondence with editors, copies of hundreds of speeches, workshops, scholarly presentations at national and international conferences and symposia, grant proposals, consulting materials, state and national boards on which I have served, and art works of all sizes and mediums) to the OBU archives and, over the years, close to 3,000 books.

For sentimental reasons I have held on to four boxes of literally hundreds of letters, cards, and emails from former students and their parents – from all over the world – and have spent the better part of the day reading some of them prior to delivering them to the library.

From May 1997 I just read the following: “… I know I do not get serious very often – but with All sincerity of heart, mind, and strength – I love you! ‘Life is touching people.’ You are full of life because you touch so many lives! I will never forget your passion, sensitivity, enthusiasm, integrity, knowledge, your love for students and life. You changed my life forever. Keep on touching lives! I have many precious memories. Few teachers have been as eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm as you do every day. I am lucky to have formed such a positive teacher-student relationship with you. I will always love art and appreciate art! Art makes us what we are. …”

I must tell you that during the past few months I have had reservations about leaving a place I love dearly. Tomorrow is going to be a very emotional day for me! All this to say the following: While I might not soon be officially connected to this university, I will always be connected in myriad ways.

My sincerest, Warmest, and Best to you as you carry on in the noble mission of leading this fine institution.

While the president’s response was a short thank-you-for-your-service and you’ll-get-over-it missive, the dean (who fully comprehends what teaching is all about because she had a most successful teaching career prior to moving into administration) responded thusly: “Priceless. We will be thinking of you, knowing it will be an emotional time for you. When your life makes a difference and you love what you do, it doesn’t get any better than that. But, readin’, writin’ andfishin’ come close.”

In thanking her, I confided the following: “What I didn’t tell [R] is that alone, and in the privacy of my office, I choked up and shed a few tears.” I know, I know, men are not ‘spozed to cry. Instead, they have heart attacks.

And two weeks later the president, after a ten-year tenure, announced his “surprise” resignation. And to this day I wonder whether my message struck a chord and whether he was projecting his own feelings about his impending severance from an institution for which he advocated in countless ways.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015, merely three days past: The very last thing I did prior to vacating my office for good was to take down a miscellany of quotations I’d printed in a variety of fonts and affixed them, over the years, on my office door and adjacent bulletin board. “When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself [Plato];” “So vast is art, so narrow human wit [Alexander Pope];” “Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the bush;” “Imagination is more important than knowledge [Einstein, a quote La Belle Femme drilled into her Gifted and Talented young minds];” “Painting is poetry, poetry is painting [Lawrence Ferlinghetti];” “The scientist tries to fit heaven into his head. The artist tries to fit his head into heaven [given to me by a student];” “Love all, serve all; help ever, hurt never [Sathya Sai Baba, Indian guru];” “The unexamined life is not worth living [Socrates];” and “Twilight is the time when the logic of the day meets the magic and mystery of night [from a miniscule memento, a dusk scene, on a painted background given to me by a student].” My favorite quote, one that I have for years typed at the top of my syllabi, speaks directly to the students: “Some drink at the fountain of knowledge. Others just gargle,” after which I interject the following: “Which type of student are you?”

I have been fortunate to have had over ten thousand students who drank with me from the fountain of knowledge, and hundreds who drank deeply and longingly to quench their thirst by prodding their minds to talk to/with each other, yet more significantly and in the Platonic sense of the word, to let their minds talk to themselves. And on numerous occasions, far too many to recall, I have been fortunate to have been served by my students from the fountain of knowledge as they discovered and shared truths I’d never seen before. For after all, teaching and learning are a two-way path, and we teachers are but students in search of truth in the archives of knowledge that chronicle the best and the worst from antiquity to modernity. To be an excellent teacher, one has to – NO!!! One must be an excellent student, first, and foremost.

Ah the intellectual sustenance found in the Pyrenean wells! And shouldn’t the academy be a place where diverse ideas, viewpoints, philosophies, concrete and abstract concepts are thrashed and carefully examined, even if these same truths run counter to one’s views and beliefs?

The last three items to be taken down, visual in nature, included an original student-designed name placard that drew on my former beekeeping hobby. On a 5×10 piece of poster paper Ryan Armstrong (aka the Rev) glued an amply patterned cubist mosaic background at the center of which he pasted magazine cutout letters that read “HA La,” leaving out the labial b and the allophonic vowel-sounding y. Instead of the b and the y, a rendering of a honeybee completed my name. I have often considered using this collage memento, executed in December, 2008, as a personal logo. The second item was a made in Taiwan bauble on which the image of a flower, flanked laterally by smiley-face butterflies and given to me as a gift by my younger son, Ryan, many moons and monsoons ago, stated the following, in Italic font: “Take time to smell the flowers.”

The last item was a painter’s palette-shaped battery operated objet d’art with the hour, minute, and second hands protruding from the back to center front. When I moved from English to art some 21 years back, I glued my name decal on it and used it for an office sign. The palette represented the dual teaching appointments with which I was entrusted; the name tag was one I used for 21 years as a Professor of English, and the palette represented my new affiliation with art. Unbeknownst to me, at some point during the summer the clock had stopped at 11:30. After taking it down, I stepped into my much younger/former student/now former colleague’s office and asked: “Do you see any symbolism or irony in this contraption?” Thinking it to be a trick question, Donnie mulled the query, and, after a longer than usual pause, he responded thusly: “It is the 11th hour.” And I hadn’t thought of that; instead, I’d read the stoppage of the clock as a metaphor for the end of my long career. We laughed at our different interpretations, I loaded and carried the stuff, bade him farewell, and walked out of the building.

Our friends the Harrisons and Greens have gifted me a spanking new, fancy fishing pole as a retirement gift. I half-kiddingly commented to them that, because it was a show piece, it was too pretty to suffer the abuse of a fishing expedition, that it belonged above a fireplace mantle, as though La Belle Femme would let me.

And the child in me still yearns to send the photo.

So, now that my school days readin’ and writin’ times are over, I plan to take time smellin’ the flowers, doin’ more readin’, writin’ my memoirs, fishin’, and lookin’ for the disappearin’ pheasants wherever they may be.

So short is life, one must keep the mind talking to itself – indefinitely.

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Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com