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Today I Filed for Disability Retirement

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Today I filed the paperwork to retire.  My last day of work will be my 45th birthday. I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking “lucky lady — must be nice not having to work any more! What on earth does she have to complain about?” But here’s the problem — I didn’t want to retire. I have to, or not to put too fine a point on it, my life depends on it.

I’ve been a public school music teacher for 23 years. To me, it’s always been more than a job, it’s truly my passion. Once in my classroom, you’re forever “my kid” and I’m proud of the work I have accomplished in two-plus decades working with countless students. I have worked hard to create a classroom climate where my students feel safe, welcome and nurtured, free to take risks without fear of ridicule.

For over two decades I have dried tears, tied shoelaces, been a tireless cheerleader, stern mother figure, handed out millions of tissues and band-aids and sung “Happy Birthday” thousands of times. I’ve celebrated championship wins, mourned guinea pigs and oohed and ahhed over artwork like it was that of Van Gogh and I meant every bit of it. I’ve held crying children at their parents’ funerals. I’ve been to my own students’ funerals. There have been many late nights I’ve stayed up crying over something that has happened to my students or worried about something I can’t fix for them.

In the days following 9/11 I’ve had to answer an angry kindergartner’s query of “Where are Batman and Superman and why didn’t they help us?” I’ve taught through Columbine, I’ve taught through Sandy Hook. My own mother has told me her biggest fear is that if there was a shooting at my school, I would be that teacher who would sacrifice myself for my students. She’s not wrong. But that’s not why I’m retiring.

My own body has waged cruel war against itself with an autoimmune disease known as lupus. Eight-and-a-half years ago when I was diagnosed and this was added to my already difficult diagnoses of fibromyalgia and asthma, plus Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, I assumed this was a rough patch and I would hit a remission. By January of that school year, I was in the ICU with a TIA, followed shortly by a pulmonary embolism.

This was the beginning of a series of hospitalizations that just hasn’t stopped — eight years of two steps forward, four steps back. I’d be doing better, then a simple cold would turn to bronchitis, then pneumonia and a month at home. More diagnoses would be accrued, because autoimmune diseases are bullies and travel in packs, requiring more medicines and more doctor’s appointments but no sick days to take them. A vicious cycle began of rushing back to work and pushing myself past my limits to prove I was still a viable, valuable employee even though I was sick. Even though I was disabled, I was just as good a teacher as I used to be. My attendance was “sub par,” but I was still as good a teacher as I ever was.

But as I fought I keep my place in the classroom, I was failing at home with the two children that mattered the most. When I would arrive home, exhausted and depleted from working all day, what was left for my own two children? An exhausted, sick shell of the mother they deserved — someone who had given her energies to 600 other people’s children. I lost count of how many of their Back to School nights, concerts and PTA meetings I missed. How many times Daddy videotaped the event and we watched it together later, because we always found a way to make grape juice out of lemons (forget lemonade — we like to keep the world guessing). They deserved better than a mom who needed at least one if not both days of the weekend to recover from the week.

I’ve known for years I needed to work part time, but to go to part time meant sacrificing my health benefits. As a public school teacher, my benefits are much better than my husband’s (who ironically works in healthcare). My medicines are thousands of dollars a month, not to mention all of the specialists and hospitalizations and expensive testing. I’m blessed in this way. I’ve paid a lot over the years for my benefits and our union has fought long and for them and I’m grateful for the coverage. So, I’ve hung in there as long as I could. Actually, many in my life would say past when I should.

Since I can’t sacrifice my benefits by going to part time, my only option is disability retirement. I’m 10 years too young to retire “properly” in the state of New Jersey. By retiring in this way, I can have my benefits, but I can no longer teach. There is no provision for part time. It’s all or nothing.

I’m not bitter, it’s how it needs to be. For the first time in a long time, I will be making myself and my health a priority. I will have the opportunity to rest when I need to, try that water exercise class (no impact) that is supposed to be so gentle on the joints. I can make doctor’s appointments when I need to, not around the school calendar. I will be able to pee when I need to — this is huge for teachers!

I will have the emotional, physical and spiritual reserves to be there for my children and husband. When they have evening events I can rest during the day to be fresh for them. I will be able to pursue “passion projects” I haven’t had the time, energy or been healthy enough to do. I’ve been presenting at conferences, mentoring other music teachers and guest lecturing at universities, things that don’t have to stop now that I’ve left the classroom.  If anything, I’ll be better able to help other teachers since I’m not in the midst of my own classroom challenges. Maybe I’ll write, who knows. The future is unwritten and I just know that as one door is closing, another will open.

This isn’t how I planned things, but as my grandmother used to say, “people plan, God laughs.” I truly expected to be the little old gray haired music teacher behind the piano well into my senior years. But I never planned on lupus, or fibromyalgia or my body turning on me. I certainly never planned on hobbling into the Pension and Retirement office at 44 with my cane to file for my retirement. But it’s going to be OK, because my future is unwritten and I have the pen.

Originally published: June 19, 2018
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