Back to My Future

When we look back over our careers through the eyes of our students, what will we see?
By Silvio Laccetti

Many of us approach retirement with at least some measure of anxiety and trepidation. What will replace the classroom, with its daily joys of teaching and learning? Where will we find inspiration? Will the disconnection between a working career and a satisfying retirement be too great to bridge? What activities will be paramount in this new phase of life? For me, these questions were answered as I undertook a retirement odyssey that brought my future face to face with my past.

Toward the end of my career, I found myself attending a retirement party for a colleague at my university, Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Among the other attendees were several alumni who coincidentally had been students of mine during my four decades as a professor of social sciences. The high-ceilinged atrium of the library was packed with several hundred people, including many now-successful former students, wine glasses and hors d’oeuvres balanced in hand, furiously networking within and across generational lines. One stalwart alumnus asked me if I could look forward to a comparable gala when my working days were done.

Without hesitation or premeditation, I conjured a scenario tailored to my temperament.

“I can’t draw quite such large numbers of alumni for a retirement dinner,” I said. “Perhaps about a hundred might attend.”

“But,” I continued, now feeling inspired, “Why should I have one dinner with a hundred people, when I could enjoy a hundred individual dinners on different nights, hosted by one alumnus at a time?”

That sparked a four-year journey of targeted reunions with former students, now accomplished adults, who joined me in an adventure that transcended the boundaries of time and experience. This odyssey provided me with the answers to my questions about retirement.

Odysseys in Teaching and Learning

My first task was to select the hundred. I had retained dozens of exams, term papers, and program reports left behind by standout students. From these documents, I could make a list of individuals to contact by consulting my handy alumni directory. The alumni I spoke with were enthusiastic, each offering to host a private reunion dinner. It was as if they realized that these encounters would constitute small odysseys into their own sunlit pasts—a brief opportunity to enjoy a drink at the fountain of youth.

In the tradition of the Greek symposium, each reunion dinner included great food and drink—all in moderation—accompanied by a surfeit of discussion, philosophizing, reminiscences, and prognostications.

The first reunion set the tone and pattern for all subsequent affairs. “Have what you want,” said my erstwhile pupil, now my host. “All the food is great— and we’re celebrating your career as an educator and mentor.” As in all the dinners that followed, animated narrative swirled as my accomplished ex-student excitedly illustrated the tale of his life, covering years or decades of details about jobs, growth experiences, signal successes, families, and children. As an undergraduate, this “first student” showed great promise and today is a world-class career coach and corporate consultant.

Following the bountiful meals, dessert was of my own provision, drawn from a rare storage and select aging—the student papers. I would return longforgotten papers or exams and present my ex-charges with a copy of one of my books and some of my published op-eds. They were delighted with these dolci. I made a point to read all the old papers the night before each symposium, the better to stir memories as we reviewed them.

Most students could still answer a good part of their exam questions. Still others regurgitated the same BS rhetoric they had proffered in their halcyon days!

Each dinner was unique, but one was notable for producing an irrationally exuberant idea.

At Tutta Pasta Ristorante in Hoboken, New Jersey, I mentioned to Scott, my alumnus host, that we might catch a glimpse of actor Danny Aiello, who frequently enjoys the restaurant’s Southern Italian cuisine. When Aiello actually did appear, I told Scott I wanted to discuss a project with Danny.

“What are you planning,” the student pressed snidely, “to make a movie of your life?”

“No!” I said, pointing at him. “I want to make a movie of your life!” He stared at me.

Specifically, I had an idea for a film based on all these many dinners with my special alumni, featuring flashbacks, flashes forward, and fantasy projections of what might have happened to some of the students.

We three then discussed my “great idea” for a script. Mr. Aiello said it wouldn’t work as I intended. The movie would have to revolve around my character— the professor—and not the flashbacks from students’ lives. Regrettably, there would be no instant deal for a movie featuring Scott or any of the others; I had no interest in a movie focused on me.

Another dinner was noteworthy because it involved reviewing two classic “teachable moments.” The student involved was Mr. Everything in his junior year; an application for the Rhodes Scholarship seemed in order. As student council president and president of other major campus organizations, John operated at the highest level of student leadership. When, in 1985, Stevens granted Hoboken’s most illustrious native, Frank Sinatra, an honorary doctorate in mechanical engineering, John and two other students were assigned to accompany Old Blue Eyes through all the preceremony activities.

Granting the degree to the sometimes-controversial Sinatra had become problematic when some students and faculty members protested, drawing local and national news media to campus. I asked John for his views on all the media fuss, but he was noncommittal. I kept at him, as teachers do. “But you are the student body president. Surely you can take a position from that perspective?” Finally, he replied confidently, “I’m a junior and this is an issue that concerns the seniors.” But I wouldn’t let him off the hook. “You should take a position; I encourage you to think about this matter.”

Almost a full year later, John went on the quarterfinal interviews for the Rhodes. The first question asked of him by the panelists concerned his opinion of the Frank Sinatra honorary degree controversy. John stammered out a noncommittal response. Very likely, that answer doomed his candidacy. He learned his lesson after all, and often referred to it as he navigated the billowy waters of life and career. Twenty-five years later, we laughed while enjoying a great dinner.

As I consider the entire series of teacher-student reunions, three observations stand out.

First, we all sensed immediately that the bonds forged through teaching, learning, understanding, and advising had, over time, made us peers. We rediscovered camaraderie suspended in what seemed like fleeting moments. We exchanged greetings in amazement. “Has it been twenty-five (or thirty-five) years?” “Seems like we just saw each other yesterday!” Alumni said that I “looked the same,” to which I replied, “I must have looked pretty old in my youth!”

Second, most of the students’ personalities had not changed greatly over the decades. They had become compounded versions of their younger selves, with enlarged, powerful personas, but not different. They had become high-level executives, industry leaders, inventors, researchers, professors, and managers of every stripe. But character-wise they are who they were—only more so.

There were a few late bloomers, like the irresponsible hippie who morphed into a corporate vice president in post-Stevens life. Back in his mistshrouded college days, he had left his disabled car at a city parking meter for an entire weekend, departing with a whiney, “I don’t care!” He had to attend a concert at the Jersey shore.

At our dinner, he explained that he had abandoned the car to keep a promise to a good friend, that he merely substituted rail travel for the jalopy. “I was being responsible!” he insisted. I guess I should have known.

My third observation is the one that matters most to me. I found out how much I had influenced them, both as students at Stevens and throughout their adult lives. Many had clearer memories of my classes than of any others they took. They were all engineering or science majors with no special love for the humanities, but over time they came to value the humanities experience as enriching.

Many assured me that they had talked about me with their children and sought to pass on to them the ethical, socially conscious outlook I had helped them to formulate as students. Most important, all remembered how I had stressed the value of entrepreneurial careers as a route to maximize personal potential and freedom. Remarkably, a majority of them had been able to follow my advice.

Renewed Connections

After the reunion dinners, about half of the participants remained in periodic contact with me. For these, there were to be lots of new involvements as we taught and learned from one another in a series of unexpected adventures. I counseled several alumni through personal difficulties. I helped plan a political campaign for another. Moreover, whenever I asked for advice on matters troubling me, these alumni freely offered their wisdom.

I had selected one student to attend an entrepreneurial summit some thirty years ago. In recent years he had opened the golden door to China for his prosperous manufacturing business. Now he was expanding his ventures in import-export. He sought my advice on shipping, since I had done some consulting work years ago on multimodal logistics. I volunteered to serve as a guinea pig for his Chinabased art reproduction business, giving him a photo of me to be reproduced on canvas. Unfortunately, when I saw the dismal result, I had to advise him to stick to the nuts and bolts of manufacturing.

A most fascinating derivative of my renewed connections has been in providing guidance to the children of my former students. More than one parent has confided that my influence was an important ingredient in the great success his children have enjoyed. In a more direct way, I have met and advised a number of alumni children on career preparations, one of whom was completing a bachelor’s thesis in history.

Happily, the process of new beginnings worked both ways. Alumni served as excellent guides and consultants to me as I picked my way through the obstacle course of computer operations. They replaced my classroom students as inspirational guides and resources for my work as an editorial journalist. Likewise, I have encouraged them to tap into dormant creative outlets by writing their own editorials and creating blogs. For several of them, I have acted as a publicist, acquainting newspapers and magazines with their charitable and humanitarian efforts.

Such things can happen when students and teachers continue mutual association in an unfinished quest for knowledge and understanding.

My four years in retirement have been among the most satisfying and stimulating of my life. When I first contemplated bringing to a close my long years in the classroom, my great fear was losing the flow of inspiration from my undergraduates. Now, after four years and almost a hundred symposia stops in a continuing odyssey, I find my future in my past, and I excitedly hope to keep that past before the mast, as my ship of life courses onward.

 

Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology and a nationally published columnist. He was a longtime active member of his AAUP chapter and, by the 1990s, was the only Stevens faculty member who had held continuous AAUP membership since before the time of the AAUP strike action at Stevens in 1977. His e-mail address is slaccett@stevens.edu.

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