Jill Vickers: Diving into retirement — writing, adults and computers

This commentary is by Jill Vickers of Bridport, a retired literacy teacher, Returned Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, and mentor for female Afghan students.

As a child, I watched how different guests got into the lake over summers growing up on spring-fed Lake George. Scoopers, dunkers and divers were part of the mix. Advancing at a snail’s pace seemed like a protracted misery.

Years later, in observing how different teachers handled retirement, I noticed the same sort of thing. Some, after leaving the comfort of their own department and grade-level, with compensation at or near the top of the pay scale, signed up to substitute teach. They’d take a day here, a half-day there, for per-diem pay, that would begin with a phone call before daybreak.

As “Subs,” they were often handed plans for busy work and a roomful of students practiced at creating havoc. Before I got a teaching job, I took substitute jobs. In my very first go, I wound up standing spread-eagle in the doorway in a school without doors to keep the first-graders from escaping into the hall. I had given up on getting them back into their tiny chairs where they had been when their real teacher walked out.

Another time in a middle school, as I stood up to leave, I noticed a grove of yellow and white pencils dangling from the ceiling tiles. What was I doing when those projectiles took flight?

Retired teachers could stay in touch with colleagues by substituting and keep up with changes in management and curriculum to some degree and were, no doubt, better prepared than I was to keep order in the classroom. However, subbing was relatively thankless. No, I would not take on retirement gingerly, one step at a time doing that. I’d plunge in head-first and see if I could adjust.

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 courses and workshops. I collaborated after hours with other teachers and refueled at conferences. Teaching colored every aspect of my life.

What would I find to plunge into? I made a mental list of what that should consist of.

Writing was at the top. I longed to put getting students to write — or else — behind.

Second, work with adults. Teaching can be isolation; I found it so. Besides being limited to seeing only staff with the same breaks, I was an outsider. I didn’t attend state schools and used Ms. and my original name, not my husband’s. I was called “Woodstock” behind my back. With just a few others as friends, I’d forgotten how to work with peers. I would look for a role working with adults.

Thirdly, I needed to make computers my friend.

A month before retiring, I read an ad placed by the Trail Around Middlebury for a volunteer to videotape and edit nature walks. The ad promised this volunteer would be taught to shoot and edit. I didn’t hesitate. The position meant working with adults and using computers. I was drawn to the outdoors and learning about nature. I’d work on writing on my own.

Middlebury Community Television would provide my training. A staff of three, two part-time, shared the work. One staff member had always wanted to work in television, collected TV Guide in her youth and went on to film school in New York. She was back home in Middlebury helping 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 who wanted to make a video. The only stipulation for receiving this support was that the footage be available on the Community Access channel. I took my assignments from the Trail Around Middlebury staff and worked in the studio, “elbow to elbow,” on editing with this mentor. Many adults were in and out of the studio. This was just what I was looking for.

I had no idea, however, how hard it would be. My first challenge was at the trailhead. After introducing myself, I would ask the speaker to attach the remote mic to clothing and get the cable inside his or her shirt to the battery pack. My mentor said a visible cable was the sure sign of an amateur. One had to untuck a shirt and maneuver the thin cable down one’s chest to the waist. I was tempted to help when this was a struggle, but could only give words of encouragement.

When the talk of trees, rocks or birds began, I listened intently. Too intentionally. I’d forget when to turn the camera on and off. I was embarrassed back in the studio by the resulting “butt shots,” footage of the speaker from the waist down taken when I thought the camera was off.

And, it wasn’t easy keeping up with the speaker. There were stones and roots to trip over and people to bump into when I was looking into the cameras viewfinder. This wasn’t the biggest challenge though.

Many of the talks were about birds. The speaker would stop, cock an ear to a sound from a treetop or bush and wait for the group to fall silent. Then a hand would be raised, a finger pointing out a bird, a warbler perhaps. I’d swing the camera to frame the hand and then to where I thought I’d catch the bird. Never happened. I kept shooting, though, believing that if the job was advertised, it was possible to do.

In the studio, my mentor set me up with iMovie, the most basic editing program. Computers brought out the worst in me. At home, I could swear at mine with impunity. I don’t know anything about what’s under their metal cases and don’t want to. At the television studio, I had to politely ask for help over and over.

And, I was terrible at editing. Sure, I had messed-up footage to begin with, but that wasn’t all. iMovie states “you create Hollywood-style trailers and beautiful movies like never before.” Kids use this program. From one editing session, or, let’s face it, within one session, I would forget how to move or to delete footage, how to keep the audio and video tracks aligned, to import footage, and even to open and close the program.

My mentor would patiently say, “It’s because you aren’t 14.” Or, “It’s not intuitive.” Her gentle touch and consistent encouragement keep me going.

Session after session at the studio, I’d search my footage for the bird pointed out on the trail. One day my mentor showed me how to grab images off the Internet. I felt as though my life had been handed back to me. With continuous help, I managed to get the nature talks into movies for local broadcast. The Trail Around Middlebury was pleased that those who couldn’t attend had a chance to view 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 making movies. When I told my mentor I would be away for a few months to teach in China, she made it clear I must get footage. This turned out to be an excuse to explore the city on my own, camera in hand.

One day, I taped an older Chinese couple as they spent a very long time circling a street cart full of orchids, picking up one, inspecting and discussing it and then placing it back on the cart. At one point, the woman pulled on her husband’s sleeve to get him out of the street as a car brushed by. Another day, at the fish market, the camera captured the bargaining back and forth between housewives and shopkeepers. In Middlebury in January, my mentor enjoyed helping me make the footage into a short movie.

In the spring, I again told my mentor I’d be away, just for a week this time, for a reunion with the women in our Peace Corps group. She pounced on this.

“Young American women traveled around Afghanistan for a couple of years giving vaccinations? Headlines here tell the public that Afghanistan is one big terrorist training camp.” She convinced me this story needed to be told.

We began a three-year collaboration to document the stories 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 camera person and fund the rest of the modest budget, and the film, “Once in Afghanistan,” premiered in 2008 at Castleton University. We donated all money raised, over five years, from screenings and sales of the movie on DVD to nongovernmental agencies working in Afghanistan. The Peace Corps friends were working together again, as we had in Afghanistan, to make the project fly and as a result grew even closer.

My mentor and I went on to make several documentaries commercially. My husband and I made one for my extended family. At that premiere, the house filled with cousins ​​who had not seen each other in decades, some not since they were children.

The animated voices, hugs and laughter before, during and after the screening gave me chills. The camera and computer had become my friends in a dive into this form of storytelling.

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