Advancing age brings with it a host of new challenges, from hearing loss to fading short-term memory. These hardships may be accompanied by the emergence of some disease or chronic condition that adds yet another dimension to the daily academic struggle. But we are fortunate to be in a profession that may allow us to continue to be productive in the classroom well beyond the age at which others have seen their careers end. I saw this with my mother and father, both teachers who loved their disciplines and their students.
My own personal challenge has come from a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease six years ago. The slow progression of this illness has allowed me to continue my work and to gradually move toward retirement. In doing so, I have had time to reflect on the experience, and this reflection, as expressed in the following poem, has helped me deal with the concluding chapter of my journey.
It’s hard, when life has brought acclaim,
When heights were mine to climb,
To feel I’m lifted from the game
While I’m still in my prime.
I dream of building once again
A world where students thrive.
Relationships, careers begin,
And futures come alive.
I long once more to throw a pass
Or turn a double play,
Instead of hearing others ask,
“How do you feel today?”
As other doors are slowly closed,
Putting dreams beyond my reach,
I walk the path my parents chose.
I pass the torch, I teach.
“Courage is grace under pressure.” This famous quote from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has taken on a life far beyond its original context to capture the nobility, not only of an individual withstanding the onslaught a turbulent ocean, but the ability to remain steadfast when confronted by sudden threats. The esteemed teacher, administrator, and scholar, James Vick, extends the meaning by asking, what if the onslaught is not sudden and from without, but gradual and from within?
Confronted with a serious and slowly developing illness, many professors would abandon the profession. Instead, Professor Vick celebrates a profession that can accommodate continuing excellence despite physical weaknesses. He even demonstrates his celebration by turning what many would call a disability into art: his poem.
I’m sure he is aware of another benefit to his courage. One of the stereotypes of an old professor is the sad example of a burned-out, absent-minded teacher hanging on long after his or her prime. Professor Vick offers a counter example: despite his physical failings, his compassionate dedication to students, his continuing curiosity, and his desire to learn demonstrate to students that professors experiencing declining health can provide a living example that can inspire students to embrace the possibility of a life of learning. Wouldn’t it be fine if more of us who are “older” and experiencing some physical decline could demonstrate this type of “grace under pressure?””