Life in retirement: checking in with former teachers

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Almost every year, Townsend Harris bids farewell to some of its finest teachers as they enter retirement.

This transition is usually associated with golfing, knitting, or other leisurely activities, but many of our school’s retirees haven’t relaxed just yet, giving retirement a new meaning.

Debra Michlewitz, who taught English at Harris from 1989 to 2010, recalls her numerous travels upon retirement, which involved visiting Rome, Venice, Florence, Budapest, Prague, Sicily, and Ireland.

Former English and Journalism teacher Ilsa Cowen found time to visit the Galapagos Islands, a dream that she and her husband shared.

“It was thrilling to experience the tranquil rhythm of this beautiful place and actually see some of the species, including endemic mockingbirds, that had contributed to Darwin’s thoughts on evolution,” she said. She added, “We wandered among throngs of sleepy marine iguanas, walked right up to seals sunning themselves near our lodge, and encountered a giant tortoise munching at the side of a road.”

With the way these teachers are doing it, retirement proves to be more than a time for 401Ks and bingo tournaments.

Susan Getting, former Assistant Principal of the Humanities, took on the creative challenge of taking a print-making class at St. John’s University. She described doing silkscreen monoprints and drypoint etching, among other things.

“I have found tapping my artistic creativity uplifting and rewarding,”  she said. “There are seven other women artists in my class and I have found this community of women to be stimulating and educational.”

While exploring different art forms, Ms. Getting has also become involved in the Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS), taking and teaching workshops in internet safety and cyber bullying prevention.

Ms. Cowen, former advisor of The Classic, initiated the First Amendment charter for the newspaper during her teaching years, and continues to stay “involved with scholastic journalism.”

She currently  serves on the Executive Board of the New York City Scholastic Press Association and the planning committee of the New York City High School Journalism Collaborative at Baruch College.

“I usually led a First Amendment workshop at their annual high school journalism conference,” she said.

Ms. Michlewitz is using her retirement time to accomplish plans she otherwise had no time for, which includes researching and writing a book about family history.

Also, she frequently works with the school’s fencing team.

Adding to this, she has recently started working with the Organization of American Historians (OAH), participating in the organization’s planning committee for its 2015 annual conference in St. Louis.

“One goal [of the event] is to include materials that target K-12 educators, and that’s the reason for my involvement.”

Ms. Michlewitz is still involved with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. She said that she
“will be going back to Boulder this summer to work with teachers studying issues related to the American environment. I work with a wonderful professor with a wonderful name, Patty Limerick.”

Alongside the hopes of traveling and fulfilling lifelong dreams, the cause for retirement varies among teachers.

Former Social Studies teacher Maureen Lonergan retired to take care of her 97 year old mother.

“She has very limited eyesight [due to macular degeneration] and is very hard of hearing, so she needs constant care. Having said that, her memory is sharper than mine and she still has her sense of humor, so I feel really blessed to have this time. My sister is also retired; we arrange things to make sure that when one of us is out of the house, the other one is always there.”

In addition to spending time with her mother, Ms. Lonergan enjoys cooking and attending lectures at the Historical society with her “history teacher friends.”

“Retirement is wonderful.  I have a chance to do the things I wanted to do but never had time.”

In agreement, Ms. Michelwitz added, “Although I miss seeing students on a daily basis, I love retirement. I’m an avid exercise enthusiast, working out every day, practicing yoga several times a week, and enjoying The New York Times afterwards.”

Ms. Cowen said, “While I certainly don’t miss all the paper grading, I do miss teaching and working with the wonderful kids who produced The Classic.”

Despite their absences from Townsend Harris’s halls, these teachers continue to think of their former students, and offer their advice.

Ms. Michelwitz said, “I encourage everyone—students, teachers, and myself—to try to learn as much as he or she can. Work hard to develop your special talents; work hard to improve your understanding and all your skills. Appreciate every bit of greater mastery that you achieve. We’re all reaching for the stars in our own ways.”

“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” added Ms. Lonergan. “Life is meant to be enjoyed, not endured. Remember that a loving family and good friends are more valuable than any material thing you could imagine.”

These women who once graced the Humanities Department are just a handful of the many teachers that continue to do great things beyond their work at Townsend Harris.

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