Laurie Riley spent the last 15 years of her working life as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. It was her dream job. She loved the kids and the freedom she had to create her own curriculum in the small open classroom school in Marin County, California.
“I was so committed to this style of teaching.” Laurie says. “I got to choose the curriculum that seemed right and exciting. I was able to teach history through theater, and we put on a play about the Revolutionary War. The kids understood it and they will never forget it. Because they wore it, they were immersed in it.”
But after a decade and a half of teaching, good things came to an end. The number of kids she taught went up to 27-28, and the school added fourth-graders to her classroom, so Laurie was now teaching three grades together. “The parents were concerned that the kids might not be getting the proper curriculum for their age. And rightfully so—that’s a big spread to teach,” she explains. And Laurie also struggled with a bullying colleague.
So while the decision was a painful one, Laurie decided to move on. She retired in 2015, at age 64.
“They gave me all the proper adieus, and I knew it was time to go,” she says, “but it was hard to leave what had been my identity. That’s the hardest part, losing your identity. I think most people don’t realize how scary it is to face yourself and ask what you want to do in the last chapter of your life. It’s a major soul search.”
Always active and athletic—a runner, biker and swimmer—Laurie’s plans for retirement were far from visions of sitting still and taking it easy. She dreamed of competing in triathlons, cycling France or Vietnam, playing tennis and pickleball, immersing herself in her gardening and her yoga practice.
She immediately dove into multiple volunteer activities and now admits that she went overboard. “When I retired, I threw everything at the wall,” Laurie reflects. “I wanted to do everything. I can admit this now—I was terrified. I was terrified of what my identity would be.”
Soon after leaving teaching, Laurie had a bike accident. She healed from that fall, only to have her hip seize up. She couldn’t walk. Six months of painful rehab and physical therapy were ahead of her—not the retirement life she had planned.
Early on in her enforced downtime, a friend of Laurie’s gave her the book Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory, which encourages aspiring artists to make time every day to draw. “This little book was pivotal, my doorway into art,” explains Laurie. “It was so inviting. I looked at my friend and said, ‘I’ve got to do this’. I absolutely knew right on the spot that this was what I wanted to do.”
Laurie started drawing. She then found Danny Gregory’s Sketchbook Skool online and began studying drawing and watercolor, mostly from her bed. Soon she was taking art classes around the Bay Area. And as time passed, her body healed.
Drawing captivated Laurie. She had always been interested in art, had done some drawing in the past and was surrounded by artists in her family. “I was more of a dancer—that was my form of art. My sister had already occupied that whole graphic arts thing. I did calligraphy, writing and dancing. Drawing was a shift in focus for sure.”
And she began to think of herself differently. “To have a new identity—it’s a big shift!” Laurie exclaims. “I didn’t want to dabble. I didn’t want to take the Adult Ed classes once a week with other people who just want to talk and not do art. I decided that I really wanted to go deep into this.”
For one of her watercolor classes, Laurie did a series of large paintings of her beloved dog Scout, an Australian shepherd. When she had to put Scout down this past May, she posted one of her paintings of him (pictured above) on her Nextdoor community website, as a tribute.
She couldn’t believe that her post received 200 responses. “They all were commiserating and saying, ‘I’m so sorry’,” Laurie says. “They also said, ‘By the way, that’s an amazing watercolor!’ And I got two commissions from it! So in the last month, my painting career just took off!
“I spend a lot of my time alone in my house, painting,” Laurie continues. “It’s really nice to get validated.”
Even with this validation, Laurie says she struggles with her identity as an artist. She tells a story about a friend who offered to design some business cards. “I sent her images of artwork,” Laurie explains. “She put it all together beautifully, but then asked, ‘What shall we call you? What goes under your name?’ She typed in artist/writer and I flinched. It seemed so pompous. I said, ‘Can we say nature journaling/drawing/painting instead?’
“It’s kind of hard to step into it. I’m really going to call myself an artist?” Laurie muses. “I do it for love. I don’t need to have a chest-pounding identity. I don’t need to go big with this. I just want to make people happy—to bring joy to people. If my paintings can do that, that’s great.”
One of Laurie’s greatest delights now is helping some of her friends—who are facing retirement—learn to draw. “They call me and say, ‘I want to start sketching. I want to do what you’re doing.’ And I love that. I’ll give them anything and everything they need.
“When I see people getting better,” Laurie continues, “it’s the same thing as when I was teaching and I would see the kids’ eyes light up. And I’d think, ‘Oh my god, they just got a new skill. They can do this!’ It’s electrifying and gives me goose bumps. That’s why I’m here.”
From teacher to artist to now teaching art to friends. What many of us wish for in retirement is to integrate all the parts of ourselves into a new identity. To grow, to thrive, to be our full self. Laurie, whose joy and enthusiasm are palpable, seems to be mastering this.
What do you think? Can you relate to Laurie’s struggle with finding a post-work Identity? How do you envision your identity after you leave the working world? Please share!
PHOTO CAPTION: Laurie Riley with the watercolor painting of her dog Scout that she posted on Nextdoor.