Jill Vickers: Diving into Retirement—Writing, Adults, and Computers
This commentary is from Jill Vickers of Bridport, a retired literacy teacher, Peace Corps volunteer returning to Afghanistan, and mentor for Afghan female students.
As a child, I watched how different guests entered the lake over the summers growing up on spring-fed Lake George. Scoopers, dunkers and divers were part of the mix. Moving at a snail’s pace seemed like a prolonged misery.
Years later, observing how different teachers handled the retreat, I noticed the same kind of thing. Some, after leaving the comfort of their own department and grade level, with pay at or near the top of the pay scale, have signed up to supply teaching. They took a day here, half a day there, for a daily allowance, which started with a phone call before dawn.
As “substitutes”, they were often handed blueprints for busy work and a room full of students practiced creating havoc. Before getting a job as a teacher, I took supply jobs. On my very first attempt, I found myself standing in the doorway of a school with no doors to keep the first graders from escaping down the hall. I had given up trying to put them back in their little chairs where they were when their real teacher left.
Another time at a college, as I was getting up to leave, I noticed a clump of yellow and white crayons hanging from the ceiling tiles. What was I doing when those projectiles took flight?
Retired teachers could keep in touch with their colleagues by replacing and keeping up with management and program changes to some extent and were undoubtedly better prepared than I was to maintain order in the classroom. However, the replacement was relatively thankless. No, I would not retire carefully, one step at a time doing this. I would dive in head first and see if I could adapt.
Not that I wasn’t worried. A teacher was who I was, and had been since I was 26. I had no other work experience beyond summer jobs and Peace Corps service. I spent summers taking classes and workshops. I collaborated after hours with other teachers and refueled at conferences. The teaching has colored every aspect of my life.
What could I dive into? I made a mental list of what it should consist of.
The writing was top notch. I wanted to put the students to write – or something else – behind.
Second, work with adults. Teaching can be isolating; I found it that way. Besides being limited to only seeing staff with the same breaks, I was an outsider. I did not attend public schools and used Mrs. and my original name, not my husband’s. They called me “Woodstock” behind my back. With only a few others as friends, I had forgotten how to work with peers. I would look for a role working with adults.
Third, I needed to make computers my friend.
A month before I retired, I read an ad placed by the Trail Around Middlebury for a volunteer to film and edit nature walks. The ad promised that this volunteer would learn to film and edit. I did not hesitate. The job involved working with adults and using computers. I was drawn to the outdoors and learning about nature. I would work on the writing on my own.
Middlebury Community Television would train me. A team of three people, including two part-timers, shared the work. A staff member always wanted to work in television, collected TV Guide as a child and went to film school in New York. She was back home in Middlebury to help her family after working for years, first in public television and then in commercial films, in New York.
Her role at Middlebury Community Television was to mentor anyone wanting to make a video. The only requirement to receive this support was that the images be available on the Community Access channel. I took my staff assignments from Trail Around Middlebury and worked in the studio, elbow to elbow, on the edit with this mentor. Many adults came in and out of the studio. It was exactly what I was looking for.
I had no idea, however, how difficult it would be. My first challenge was at the trailhead. After introducing myself, I would have the speaker clip the remote mic to clothing and run the cable inside his shirt to the battery. My mentor said that a visible cable was a sure sign of an amateur. You had to undo a shirt and maneuver the thin cable along the chest to the waist. I was tempted to help when it was a struggle, but I could only offer words of encouragement.
When the conversation about trees, rocks, or birds started, I listened intently. Too intensely. I would forget when to turn the camera on and off. I was bothered in the studio by the resulting “butt kicks”, footage of the speaker taken from the waist up when I thought the camera was off.
And, it was not easy to follow the speaker. There were rocks and roots to trip over and people to bump into when I looked through the camera viewfinder. That wasn’t the biggest challenge though.
A lot of talk was about birds. The speaker would stop, listen for the sound of a tree or bush, and wait for the group to quiet down. Then a hand was raised, a finger pointing to a bird, a warbler perhaps. I swung the camera to frame the hand, then where I thought I was catching the bird. Never happened. I kept shooting, however, believing that if the job was advertised, it was possible to do so.
In the studio, my mentor set me up with iMovie, the most basic editing program. Computers have brought out the worst in me. At home, I could swear on mine with impunity. I don’t know anything about what’s under their metal casings and I don’t want to. At the television studio, I had to politely ask for help again and again.
And, I was terrible at editing. Sure, I had some messed up footage to begin with, but that wasn’t all. iMovie says “you create Hollywood-style trailers and beautiful movies like never before.” Children use this program. From an editing session, or let’s face it, during a session, I would forget how to move or delete clips, how to align audio and video tracks, import clips and even open and close the program .
My mentor said patiently, “It’s because you’re not 14. Or, “That’s not intuitive.” Her gentle touch and constant encouragement keeps me going.
Session after session in the studio, I searched in my images for the bird indicated on the path. One day my mentor showed me how to grab images from the internet. I felt like my life had been given back to me. With continued help, I managed to incorporate the nature talks into films for local release. The Trail Around Middlebury was delighted that those unable to attend had the chance to see them.
The videos never did justice to the professional speakers and the experience of being there. For me, however, it was a great introduction to filmmaking. When I told my mentor that I would be away for a few months teaching in China, she told me clearly that I had to get some footage. It turned out to be an excuse to explore the city on my own, camera in hand.
I once filmed an older Chinese couple as they spent a lot of time walking around a cart full of orchids, picking one up, inspecting it and discussing it, then put back on the cart. At one point, the wife pulled on her husband’s sleeve to get him off the street as a car passed. Another day, at the fish market, the camera captures the exchanges between housewives and shopkeepers. At Middlebury in January, my mentor had fun helping me turn the footage into a short film.
In the spring, I again told my mentor that I would be away, just for a week this time, for a meeting with the women of our Peace Corps group. She pounced on it.
“Young American women traveled to Afghanistan for a few years to get vaccinated? The headlines here tell the public that Afghanistan is one big terrorist training camp. She convinced me that this story needed to be told.
We began a three-year collaboration to document accounts of their experiences from 1968 to 1971 as part of the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication campaign.
The group donated the funds to hire a cameraman and fund the rest of the modest budget, and the film, “Once in Afghanistan,” premiered in 2008 at Castleton University. We have donated all funds raised, over five years, through screenings and sales of the film on DVD, to non-governmental organizations working in Afghanistan. Peace Corps friends were working together again, like we had in Afghanistan, to get the project flying and, as a result, grew even closer.
My mentor and I then made several documentaries for commercial purposes. My husband and I made one for my extended family. During this premiere, the house was filled with cousins who had not seen each other in decades, some since they were children.
The lively voices, hugs and laughter before, during and after the screening gave me chills. The camera and the computer had become my friends in a dive into this form of narration.