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My best teacher friend at school is retiring this year, and she has asked me to speak on her behalf at the upcoming retirement celebration for our district. I need to take some time to get my words and thoughts together. My husband said to “keep it short.” He knows that will be hard for me. After all, my teacher friend and I have been friends and colleagues for 17 years. Retirement is a big deal. It’s a career. It’s a family. It’s a beautiful friendship that started in the teachers’ lounge.

In 2007, my district had undergone some reorganization in its schools. What had been the junior high building that had housed 8th and 9th grade, had undergone a major renovation, and with that completed, it was going to become the new 6th, 7th, and 8th grade middle school. Prior to that, 6th grade had been in the elementary buildings, 7th grade had been in its own separate building, and before 2007, there had only been one high school in our town, and it housed 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. With the completion of a second high school in 2007, the 9th grade would be moving over to the two high schools.

In 2006, I had just moved back to Montana from Oregon, and my first year of teaching in my home state had been a 6th grade class at one of the elementary schools. In 2007, I would be moving over to the new middle school to teach English Language Arts, and I knew almost no one, aside from the other teacher from my building who would be moving to the middle school too. I also knew the principal of the new middle school because he had been the athletic director in my high school when I was a student there.

On the first day of the school year in 2007, I made my way to the teachers’ lounge at lunchtime. I had resolved to eat in the lounge every day because I believed it was important to get out of my classroom during that time of day, and I thought it would be a good way to meet people.

I was not wrong. On that first day, I met Jen. It was her first day at the middle school too, and her first day of her teaching career in special education. We hit it off right away. We found we had a lot in common. We both had only children that were close to the same age. Her son was starting first grade that year, and my daughter was starting kindergarten. Over time we discovered that our pasts were similar too. We both had grown up in families that had been through divorces, and because of that, we both had experience with stepfamilies. We were also surprised to discover that we both had been affected by family members who had mental illnesses which caused them to be absent for some or most of each of our lives. Also, her name was Jen, the same name as my sister who I had lost when she was only 22 years old.

On that first day in the teacher’s lounge, I sat in the chair facing the door, and she sat across from me. From that day on, those would be our spots in the teachers’ lounge. Occasionally, someone else would end up sitting in one of our spots, and we’d always laugh because, while we knew it was silly to be such creatures of habit, we always had a moment of panic when we had to sit in a different place for a lunch period.

Laughter was a common sound coming from the teachers’ lounge. My friend Jen has a laugh that carries through the long halls of the building. It’s one of the things I love the most about her. She is a truly authentic person, and if something strikes her as funny, she laughs out loud, really loud.

There have been others who have come to the teachers’ lounge over the years. Our school psychologist friend had a habit of coming to the lounge for all three lunch periods. He would sit at the head of the table next to Jen and me during our lunch period, and he was the best kind of person. He loved people, and he loved the conversations we would all have. Jen and I would try to get him to “diagnose us.” Since he was a psychologist, we thought he could have a heyday assessing us because we were both convinced that we each had some undiagnosed psychiatric conditions. Most middle school teachers do. It’s a requirement. He never would agree to diagnosing us, though. He would just shake his head and roll his eyes at us every time we’d ask. Our psychologist friend became more than a friend and almost like a father figure to us. He would give advice on topics like raising children when either of us were having a tough time on that front. He retired quite a few years ago, and recently he passed away.

At one point in 2010, the band teacher suddenly started eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge. Jen welcomed the new addition, just like she did with everyone who showed up for lunch, and when he wasn’t in the room, she would say things like, “He must enjoy our company since he keeps coming back.” Well, what she didn’t know was that he and I were in the beginning of a budding new relationship, and we had not told anyone about it because we weren’t sure where it would lead. Thirteen years of marriage later, I’m happy to say it worked out well. He still eats lunch in the lounge with us every day, and of course, Jen is now aware of why he suddenly started showing up for lunch all those years ago. She still can’t believe we pulled one over on her. She usually has excellent investigative skills.

Yes, Jen and I have been through a lot together over the last 17 years. We both survived the teenage years of our children. Not without tears sometimes. During particularly rough patches, one of us would just get to school, come to the other’s room, shut the door, and start sobbing. After we got through the toughest years, Jen found a coffee mug that read, “Teenage Daughter Survivor” and gave it to me. I got her one that read “Teenage Son Survivor” too. Now her son just graduated college and has just secured his first job as, what else, a third-grade teacher. My daughter will graduate college this month with a degree in English and a minor in creative writing. Next year, she will take a fifth year of college to get her teaching certificate. She wants to be a middle or high school English teacher. When both of our children were teenagers, they said they never wanted to be teachers because they “wanted to make money.” I guess they’ve both discovered that teaching isn’t such a bad gig, and that teaching just might be in their DNA.

We’ve been through so many good times and bad together through the years. We survived COVID and remote teaching and all the protocols that followed. When we first came back to school in the fall of 2020, we were still supposed to be social distancing, so no eating in the lounge. Eventually, those rules were relaxed, and we could finally go to the lounge again if we wanted to. We were all vaccinated, so we felt comfortable going back to how it had always been. Jen got COVID shortly after we all started eating together again. One of her first calls was to me so we could get our stories straight. There was a rule at that time that if you had been within six feet of someone for 15 minutes or more, and they got COVID, then you had to quarantine for two weeks. My husband and I had been eating with Jen in the lounge every day before she got COVID. We determined, though, that it had only been for 14 minutes, since she had come late to lunch, and we left early. Otherwise, my husband and I would have both had to quarantine for two weeks taking us out of our classrooms and affecting hundreds of students at a time when subs were hard to find. He and I never got COVID that time, or any other time that we know of. Poor Jen has gotten it every year.

A few years ago, Jen started making noise about retiring. She got really excited about it when she realized that her 10 years working as a juvenile detention officer in Montana counted toward her eligibility for full retirement. She was sitting across from me in the lounge doing the math. When she added her teaching years to her “Juvie years,” she had enough to retire at any time. She said, “Twenty-five years. That’s a career, isn’t it?” I mostly stayed quiet.

Whenever she’d bring it up again, I’d play the devil’s advocate.  What about insurance costs? Are you sure you won’t get bored? Your income will go down quite a bit. Are you sure you’re ready? I was being selfish. I was worried about how different my world would be without my daily lunches with Jen.

When Jen decided this year that she was really going to do it, everyone congratulated her. I did too, just a little more quietly. At one point, I said, “Congratulations, and I don’t really want to talk about it right now.”

One night when we were at Friday night happy hour, another 17-year tradition, I finally said, “I wonder if we’ll still be friends after you retire.”

She said, “Of course we will. We’ve been friends for so many years.” She’s right. I know we will still be friends, and I also know it will be a lot different without our daily lunches. But nothing ever stays the same, and I know this next step is an important one and the right time for her.

As for me, I don’t know if I’ll eat in the lounge next year. Jen has always been the one who made things so fun and easy in there when subs and new people would join in. I’m not as outgoing as she is, and it just gets awkward. Also, my husband might be on a different lunch schedule than me for the first time ever. I may have to resort to eating in the pod with the other teachers on my team, which will be fun, but not the same because I think getting away from my classroom for 30 minutes every day has been a good thing for me to do. Maybe I can convince the others to join me there instead of staying in the pod outside of our classrooms. Who knows.

What I do know is that one of the best decisions I’ve made in my teaching career was sitting in the teacher’s lounge for lunch on the first day of school 17 years ago. As you can see, I still have a lot more thinking to do about my words to say about my friend Jen at her retirement celebration, especially if I’m expected to “keep it short.” But how do you shorten 17 years? It’s a career. It’s a family. It’s a beautiful friendship. I’m sure I’ll come up with a way to give it justice in five minutes or less.