A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching Jack Nicholson in his great performance in “About Schmidt.” This movie centers on a man who retires, immediately loses his spouse and struggles to find his bearings in a world transformed by his life’s changes.
The film opens with Nicholson’s character quietly waiting for the clock to strike 5 on his last day, and he walks past boxes of his packed files, which are his gift to the person who replaces him in his job.
In one of the most painful moments of the film, Schmidt walks past the trash bins for this company and sees his many carefully packed boxes of files stacked there, awaiting the sanitation workers to dispose of them. Nicholson poignantly and painfully conveys the emptiness of Schmidt’s life as realization washes over him.
I recently announced my plans to retire Aug. 15, and as this time grows ever closer, I reflect on what it is I leave behind.
Thankfully, I approach my retirement with an entirely different view than our fictional Schmidt. I gradually have begun to organize my own files in preparation for the dean who will follow me.
Contrary to Nicholson’s character, I am happily supporting our county recycling efforts by clearing out the vast majority of materials I’ve accumulated over the years and only leaving those things I think are either guides to new projects or background for potential problems.
The rest of it? Hell, I don’t even refer to the 10,000 memos. I’m certain my successor won’t have time for them. So, if the material artifacts of my work here aren’t valuable, then what is?
The answer to that question is the answer to why people are drawn to education in the first place and why I started down this particular career path 28 years ago: to make a difference in the lives of others.
Actually, I lied a moment ago. There are a couple of material things at the Summit Campus that are worth mentioning, and these are the two Colorado Mountain College buildings in Summit County. Thanks to the hard work of many, we have done a great job of preserving the beautiful historic building in Breckenridge and of renovating a building for a new Dillon campus. These will be important centers of learning for our community for many years to come.
What really matters to educators is that our work has a positive effect on others, and from them to even more people. This invisible good, many times difficult to quantify, is what motivates educators to work extremely hard, many times for marginal pay.
I have such a deep sense of satisfaction as I look back on my years at CMC. I reflect on the students who come to us to learn the most basic skills of language, math and reading; and I reflect on those who come to us to tackle subjects I myself (with a Ph.D.!) shy away from, such as calculus and advanced computer technology.
I reflect on the many students who have transferred from CMC to universities and colleges throughout the country. I reflect on the many Summit High School students who have acquired college credits prior to high school graduation. I also reflect on the many “noncourse” offerings at CMC, intended to draw our community together for important dialogue: water discussions with Rich Levengood and Joe Sands, diversity forums with Kathy Reed, and current affairs forums with the Keystone Center, Shawn Woodford and others.
As far as waiting for the clock to tick down the time: Not a problem! We are initiating a wide variety of new programs in the county, including a new degree program (in association with the Summit School District), a new arts initiative, a remodel project and a potential major project (yet to be named, also in conjunction with the school district). I pity the new dean – there will be too much to do on day one.
So what I leave behind (aside, I suppose, from the buildings) is not measurable in terms of files or written reports, but rather what is written in the hearts and in the minds of the thousands of students who have come to CMC in the past 18 years. I leave CMC knowing that I have made a difference for many individuals and for our community as a whole. What more can one ask for from life and from work?
Unlike Nicholson’s Schmidt, I won’t be leaving much in the way of neatly wrapped files. What I will leave is the invisible good that we have been able to provide to so many in our community. I’ll carry my own files to the recycling bin, thank you. You carry what CMC has given you, and I hope that you’ll pass it on.
Tim Hoopingarner is dean of the CMC Summit Campus – at least until Aug. 15.
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