The Forgotten Briefcase

Leah Blatt Glasser thought she had retired but found herself returning to teach again—gaining new insights and encountering some surprises.

June 30, 2022
An illustration of a hand holding a briefcase.
(pe-art/istock/getty images plus)

When I retired on Zoom last June, I watched my screen go dark and soon felt the sting of regret. Unlike some colleagues, I did not feel liberated, although knew I wouldn’t miss Zoom teaching. But already I missed feeling needed, having an impact on young minds. Further, I missed my colleagues and my identity as a professor.

I happily agreed to return to teach a course for the spring semester after one aimless semester at home. And so, on a chilly day in early February, I marched into a seminar room with 13 weeks mapped out on my syllabus and all of the old sensations: the butterflies in my stomach as well as the fun of anticipation. The college was back to in-person teaching, and I was excited to enter the classroom again.

I sat at the head of the seminar table, in an overheated room, masked and ready. The mask felt heavy and pinched my ears. For the moment, I questioned my decision. Reincarnated from emerita to visitor, sweating behind my mask, I would have to communicate my eagerness to begin our three-hour creative writing seminar to 15 pairs of eyes staring back at me. Why had I returned? Would I regret the decision? I could not read their facial expressions, nor could they read mine, much as I tried to raise my eyebrows expressively and widen my eyes with curiosity about their interest in the course. Yet here we were, face-to-face (or mask to mask), with the daunting reality of a three-hour weekly seminar on top of scheduled individual and group conferences during office hours each week.

Having always relied on facial expressions to gauge how I was doing as a teacher, this was new. I could not tell boredom from anger, nor could I see any inkling of enthusiasm after my opening remarks. But something else was new, too.

I felt a new freedom from the pressure of consequences. Would I inspire them? Would they appreciate the well-crafted syllabus? Would they progress as writers? Would they laugh at my anecdotes? Would they write positive evaluations that could capture all my hard work? None of it mattered at this stage of my career. My ego was irrelevant. Finally, teaching was more about self-nurturance than the nurturance of others. I was determined to have fun in this classroom—I was teaching purely for pleasure with no concerns attached. I needed this more than they did—to see a group of students once again seated around a seminar table instead of trapped inside those little boxes on the screen.

We began with a writing exercise, one that asked them to consider “being there” inside a childhood memory and to write from that place. In no time, we became a writing community. Before long, the masks felt less cumbersome and the students were animated and communicative. They shared their work with each other and with me, and by the end of the semester, I felt the old joy of seeing their progress as writers and readers.

I found myself experimenting more. For decades, I only focused on prose. Now I added poetry to the mix and had them write haikus in class, even sharing my own with them. We had a more interactive experience with the art museum liaison, where the students wrote narratives of imagined events or character portraits after close study of selected scenes in paintings and photographs. If an exercise flopped or one of my jokes evoked no reaction, I moved on freely, without self-recrimination. This was guilt-free, carefree teaching at its best.

Moving Forward

As the semester progressed, however, I did begin to feel the burden of grading, office hours, responsibility to others. When retired friends spoke about their planned travels, their newfound freedom and the luxury of time to write something new and unexpected, I was envious. I missed more time for leisurely walks and exercise, time with my grandchildren, time for old friends and extended family. Finally, I realized that I was ready. Returning to teach had its value. It showed me that I no longer felt this need to be needed by students. My own needs loomed, left unattended, and theirs became secondary.

When the end of the semester approached, we planned a last class on the green just outside the academic buildings. Our goodbyes were awkward, as always. Now without masks, we noticed each other’s faces, weary from a semester of collective hard work. They told me they were grateful that I came back to teach this class, and I said the same.

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Then off I went, past the lovely garden surrounding the art museum, past the building that housed the English department office where I’d picked up my mail and dipped into a bowl of Hershey Kisses on my way to class, past my office with the ceiling-to-floor shelves of books, past the path to my car that I had traveled for almost 42 years. One by one, those landmarks were fading away. Nothing was pulling me back. I was moving forward, I thought. My heart was not sinking. I was not grieving in the way that I did at the end of that last Zoom class, or so it seemed.

Suddenly, I heard the voices of students calling after me, “Professor Glasser! Professor Glasser!” Oh, to hear that title, to feel that identity one more time. I turned and saw three students running after me; one was carrying my briefcase. I had left it leaning against a tree.

How could I have left that beloved briefcase behind? Did this mean I was not quite done—that I would be back? Or did it mean I was forever finished, or that I left my ancient briefcase leaning against that tree as if to plant seeds or cultivate roots for future minds? Or was it simply that I wanted to leave behind the biggest burden of all: a stack of ungraded papers that lurked inside, awaiting my attention? Was this, in fact, the thing that finally paved the way for my retirement, for real this time? We’ll know next spring … maybe.

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Leah Blatt Glasser is professor emerita of English at Mount Holyoke College and the author of the literary biography In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

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