I left my conversation with Brad Oates believing that I had learned the secret to happiness, and if not happiness, contentment.
When I asked him what he wanted out of life when he was young, he said, “I don’t really think that way. I wanted to be healthy and happy, to have a family and kids. I never thought about wanting more than that. I look back and have no regrets. There was never a moment when I thought, ‘I wish we had …’”
He got all those things he wanted – health, happiness, a family. He chose a life as an educator, but wasn’t ambitious. When doors opened for him, he walked through them and didn’t look back and didn’t distract himself from the present by looking forward toward the next opportunity.
Oates isn’t quite sure what made him this way – avoiding the pitfalls of discontent that plague so many.
He was born and raised in Moline. Oates’ parents ended up in Moline when his dad got a job as a train engineer on the Rock Island line. And when it was Oates’ turn to choose a place to live as an adult, he stayed in the Quad-Cities.
“I never really thought about it – whether I should stay nor was it I have to go,” he said. “Life was happening and it was here.” He student taught in Davenport and met his wife. She became a French teacher and he got a job in Davenport schools teaching health and physical education. By the time he retired two years ago, Oates had worked for the Davenport schools for 37 years and was the program director of athletics for the entire district.
Side note: Since I started this column experiment in late January to spend a months talking to people about their beliefs, I’ve noticed that most of the people who volunteered are retired. And those who aren’t retired own their own businesses. It took me a while to realize this is because it’s risky to reveal your political beliefs when you are still employed, especially in this current climate. So, retirement offers a few things – the time to reflect on life and the freedom to talk about it.
Back to Brad Oates, who is retired at 59. He watched his profession change over the decades, especially in the way it is perceived by the public.
“The teaching profession has become really easy to bash any time there’s a new kind of school reform,” he said. “The truth is that teachers work hard and what has been expected of them has really changed over the years. When I first started, you could go the lounge during prep time and other teachers would be there, doing crossword puzzles. Now, I don’t know a single teacher that works an 8 hour day. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t take work home with them.”
Oates said the reason everyone feel comfortable weighing in on teacher performance is because everybody went to school. “Everyone’s an expert. They think they have insight.”
The key to being a good teacher, he said, is to establish a positive report with students, to make them feel like you really care about them. “If you do that, you can do anything and they will learn, because they want to.”
Oates retired because he was ready to travel, golf and do all those around-the-house projects he never got around to doing. “I haven’t been bored one day,” he said. He didn’t struggle to redefine himself after retirement, because he never made his life about work. He compartmentalized, he said. “I learned how not to bring stuff home. I made a conscious choice not to check work email over the weekend. When I finally got a smart phone, I made a conscious choice not to put email on it.”
Oates describes himself politically as “down the middle.” A true moderate. He is a life-long Democrat, raised by Democrats. “My father was a Democrat. He hated Richard Nixon so much he voted for George McGovern, who was way out there.” Oates voted in his first election when he was a college student in 1976 – an absentee ballot sent home from Macomb, Illinois, for Jimmy Carter.
When his son announced he identified as a Republican, Oates wasn’t bothered and didn’t take it personally. He was proud that he had raised an independent thinker. (That’s another key to happiness, I thought. Not getting too attached to your own point of view.)
“I get where he’s coming from, the role of the government and regulations,” Oates said, “but he wasn’t a Trump supporter.”
Oates caucused for Bill Richardson in 2008 and later voted for Obama. He didn’t caucus for anyone this election, because he wasn’t inspired by any of the candidates.
“I wanted somebody fresh. I wanted someone who would work to get things done,” he said. “The thing I don’t like about now is that it’s all about winning, anything we can do to make the other side lose. I was looking for somebody who could bring us together.”