Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Last Hurrah

Last week I taught my final class before retirement. In the very early 70’s, when I completed my first overseas tour of duty, the military sent me to Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas, and, after I arrived, told me I was going to be an instructor. I panicked. No way! I was extremely shy in groups. I was fine one-on-one, but gather several people together whom I didn’t know, or know well, and I didn’t say a word. When the military says you will do something, that’s it, you will do it.

They sent me to a six-week instructor school where I eventually became fairly comfortable presenting in front of my nine fellow students. In addition to numerous short talks, we had to give a 50 minute presentation every Friday. I remember walking up and down the driveway of our rented home practicing my presentations. I graduated from the school on a Friday and taught my first real class the next Monday at 6 a.m. Because we didn’t get our final diploma until we were evaluated by the instructor from our instructor school, he came to my first class. My supervisor and his supervisor also showed up. Not only that, the Standardization and Evaluation Team, consisting of four people, happened to randomly pick my classroom that day to visit and evaluate. There I was, scared to death with 36 students whom I had never met, and an entire back row of people who were there to evaluate me. Back then we wore white smocks to protect our uniform from chalk dust. I was shaking so badly that I had to have someone else button the smock for me. The lesson was a 50 minute lecture on Soviet aircraft fighter tactics. My mouth was like paste. I felt like I was shaking as if I had epilepsy. I don’t remember seeing anything but a blur in front of me. Every evaluator said I had excellent eye contact with the students. Huh? I really didn’t want to continue doing that. It was going to be a long three or four years.

However, gradually over a fairly short period of time a strange thing began to happen. I started to enjoy it. I really liked it when I saw the light of understanding coming on in the eyes of my students. I was helping them learn and I was making a difference. Wow! Our school at Goodfellow AFB had classes going 24 hours a day and we rotated our shifts so everyone had to work days, evenings and the midnight shift at some point. Now, to keep student’s attention at two or three o’clock in the morning takes some work and you learn quickly how to be upbeat and creative.

When I first joined the Air Force, it was because the draft was breathing down my neck and I really didn’t want to be in the Army sloshing around the jungles of Viet Nam. My idea was to go in, do my four years and try to get out in one piece. But now, here I was enjoying my job -- not only overseas working as a Russian linguist, but now teaching others how to do the job. I also realized it was an important mission and I really was serving my country as I knew the Soviet Union at that time was a much larger threat to our security than was Viet Nam. Because of that and some other things going on within the family, I ended up reenlisting and spent a total of 24 years in the service. I was stationed at Goodfellow a total of four times and I retired as a Chief Master Sergeant (E9) and my last assignment was at Goodfellow AFB as the Superintendent of the East European Linguist Training Division. I had trainers from all four branches of the service under me with over 300 students in class at any given time.

From the early 70’s on I was involved in training in some capacity for all but a one year period and even then, I still taught Sunday School classes to adults (but that is quite a different style from any of the other training I have done). I trained in the military; as a probation officer I was the local department’s training officer (as an additional duty); I trained probation officers within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; and now am finishing up as a trainer with the Texas Department of State Health Services training risk reduction specialists and other staff within community-based organizations and county health departments who work in the area of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, and STDs.

And so, 36 years of being a paid trainer came to an end this past week with my last class. I was really hoping it would be a good class to finish with. I have only had two “classes from Hell” – one when I taught probation officers and one when I was teaching with the Health Department. Both were supervisor courses. But each class has its own personality and some are better than others. My next to last class in June was pretty flat. It was a counseling course and they were just a very quiet group and the energy level was low. The folks were fine individually, but they just didn’t want to participate in discussion during class. It seemed like a long week. I figured it was God just telling me it was OK to leave and I wouldn’t miss it very much.

I literally prayed that this last class would be a good, positive experience to finish my career. It didn’t start well. The hotel was one of the poorer ones I have stayed in for business. Very small, old and not kept up well. The automated telephone wake-up call came over an hour early so I relied on the clock-radio alarm. Somehow the radio station from the night before disappeared and it wasn’t on a station so I overslept. I wasn’t late, but it was still a very rushed morning trying to prepare. I said, “OK Lord, I get the message that it is time to retire, but please help the class to be a good one.”

I put a lot of effort into that first day to keep the energy level high and they responded fantastically. The class was wonderful!!! I could not have asked for a better group of people. The participants were engaged, talkative, funny, and supportive. They put full effort into the learning experience. At the end of the course they each give a ten minute presentation and they did a wonderful job. Sadly, one fellow was not able to complete the class as his father was taken to the hospital the last morning and he left to be with him. My back was hurting quite a bit during class and I tried sitting down some (the back doctor has told me not to be on my feet for more than ten minutes at a time), but I just couldn’t stay seated. First, that always seems unnatural to me and second I could feel the energy level start to slip and I didn’t want that to happen. I figured I would pay for it this weekend. But I have been fine! I am usually running on adrenaline in the classroom and then when I get back to my room in the evening, I collapse. This time was no exception. However, that sure beats collapsing in the classroom. It is never good when the instructor starts snoring in class.

The course I was training was Presentation and Facilitation Skills. One of our other instructors, Mary McIntosh, went with me to learn the course. It is one I had written several years ago, but only I have ever trained it. How appropriate to finish my career helping others to better talk to groups and present material to classes. I know I will miss it but I also know I am OK with my decision and it is the right one. I am just so grateful to God and to each member of the class that this last time was a positive experience.

Now, I have to go into the office this next week and start sorting papers and cleaning off my desk and cubicle shelves. Anyone have a shovel I can borrow?


Grateful said...

Congratulations on your retirement. And thank you for serving our country.

David E said...

Congratulations John! Thank you for the insight as well, I feel I know you just a little better now. Enjoy retirement, it is quite an accomplishment!!!

Anonymous said...

John, I am going to have to make a habit of reading your blog now that I will no longer have the pleasure of reading your coffee club newsletters. Thank you for being so wonderful. I will miss you dearly. Much love, The Sweetner Thief