O, sir, you are old

I first read about Olivia Neaubauer two weeks ago, but other, more urgent dramaturgical tidbits kept getting me distracted from actually blogging about it. Strangely enough though, the delay worked out somewhat beautifully, because another Lear-related news story cropped up while I was still waist-deep in start-of-the-semester craziness. And the two stories, while radically different on the surface, are both useful commentaries on modern conceptions of old age and retirement.

Ms. Neaubauer didn’t make the news because she was a centenarian, although that is pretty cool. She made the news because, at age 100, she was still teaching kindergarten. She started teaching in 1935 then helped found a school in 1964, where she taught 4-year-olds how to read until she died in November, 2012. That’s 77 years in the classroom.

Olivia Neubauer, a Chicago teacher who helped kids learn to read for 77 years.

Olivia Neubauer, a Chicago teacher who helped kids learn to read for 77 years.

Naturally, reporters covering her incredible story wondered: Why not retire? The news articles I found were all disappointingly brief, and none of them (none I found anyway) explained how Ms. Neaubaur’s health played in to her final years of teaching. She must have been astoundingly healthy, mentally and physically, to spend her weekdays surrounded by hyperactive elementary schoolers, but I can’t imagine that she wasn’t in some capacity or another hindered by her age. According to the articles, she didn’t stop teaching until she was hospitalized for fluid in her lungs only a few days before she died. Earlier that year, she said she had no intentions of retiring: “The Lord will tell me when to stop.”

Her story completely contradicts modern notions of old age. Most adults look forward to retirement, planning for years in advance, celebrating when they finally leave work, spending their winters in sunny, Floridian paradise. Which brings me to my second article.

The Dutch Queen Beatrix is abdicating from the throne after 33 years as Netherland’s respected, albeit mostly powerless, leader. A constitutional monarchy, the Royal House is  almost entirely symbolic, like most monarchical governments today, in fact. Gone are Lear’s glory days, when kings killed for their right to wear the crown and had the power to ignore whatever conventions of justice or politics they wanted.

Queen Beatrix, who announced her plans to abdicate three days before her 75th birthday.

Queen Beatrix, who announced her plans to abdicate three days before her 75th birthday.

Even though Beatrix’s role has been more ceremonial than political, her decision to abdicate is a pretty gigantic deal. The Guardian has a fascinating article about how she is ignoring the “job for life trend” among European monarchs, preferring to give the title to her 45-year-old son, Willem-Alexander. The columnist makes a solid point: How often have you heard of a king or queen retiring, acknowledging that the title would be better off in younger hands? A few examples of monarchs still clinging to the throne:  King Carl-Gustaf of Sweden, 66; Margrethe II of Denmark, 73; Juan Carlos of Spain, 75; Albert II of Belgium, 78; and of course, Elizabeth II of England, topping off the list at 86 years.

The Netherlands are something of an anomaly. Beatrix’s mother and grandmother, Queens Juliana and Wilhelmin, both handed off the crown to their daughter. (In fact, Juliana abdicated because of signs of dementia, and when she died at the age of 94, she was the longest-living former ruling monarch  in the world. And she has an asteroid named after her, which is kind of awesome) The columnist includes a great quote by Reinildis van Ditzhuyzen, chronicler of the house of Orange and an author of books on European royalty:

“The thing about monarchies is that they flourish as long as they are doing their jobs well. If they behave badly, the support crumbles. Monarchies have enormous elasticity and can often recover. But there comes a breaking point. And in the old days the kings or queens would die at 40 or 50 or 60. Nowadays they can go until they are 90.”

Juxtaposed, the stories of Ms. Neaubauer and Queen Beatrix (who will officially renounce her title later this year) pose some important questions about age and power: Who’s to say someone is too old to continue his or her job, whether it’s in a classroom or in a throne room? If that person decides to relinquish her title, what does that say about her? Is it a responsible decision? Or is it just lazy? King Lear chooses to “shake all cares and business from our age” for selfish reasons; he isn’t doing it for the improvement of his kingdom, to put the title in younger, more capable hands. He wants to “unburdened crawl toward death,” enjoy the frivolities of retirement without the responsibility of kingship (although as he demonstrates later, he didn’t intend to relinquish his power along with his title).

I’m going to examine retirement trends in America in more detail later (average age of retirees, reasons for retiring, how they spend their newfound free time) but for now, it’s worth considering modern concepts of age and responsibility. How do they compare to those in King Lear? And, most importantly, how is Lear’s outwardly antiquated story still relevant?

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One Response to O, sir, you are old

  1. Lew says:

    Yes, that is why I left my job — to have the unburdened crawl toward death. I didn’t even know that until I read your esteemed posting. You pulled together these 2 seemingly dissimilar stories so well AND then tied it to King Lear. Love it! And your unburdened crawl is apparently many many years off. Thank God.

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