Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Starting over

Dec. 12 appeared like any other manic Monday. I drove my girls to LCHS, went to Starbucks, and continued my struggle with chapter 12 of the book I’m working on, searching for the right words that would give readers an “ah-ha” moment.

The weather was sunny. It was a beautiful, Indian summers’ day. If you’ve been to New England in October, you would understand. Alen made a café latte and I sat in the sun, mesmerized by the aromatic vapors oozing from my favorite ceramic cup. I wrote page after page, and didn’t care that I would eventually delete most of it.

When I was in the bowels of Vietnam I promised myself such moments if I were to return. Life did not get any better than this.

As I watched the remaining leaves cascading from the trees, I said to myself, “Today I’m going to retire!”

I went to school, signed papers and began the process of closing the door on 37 years of teaching, counseling, saving souls, mending hearts and patching self-esteems. Facebook, the new Paul Revere, spread the news through the veins of the social networks: “Dr. Joe is retiring.”

My last day was Dec. 19. My office was inundated with hundreds of books: history, literature, philosophy, biography, adventure, psychology and humanities. They were testaments of the transference of knowledge that happened there.

My four walls were covered from floor to ceiling with pictures of students from 1975 to 2012. The plan was to dismantle the office at 7 p.m. Students from the 1980s, ’90s and beyond began to arrive and, as planned, began the slow, methodical process of transforming a room that had seen so much life into four barren walls. It would take a lifetime to account for 37 years of stories depicting despair, exhilaration, hope, disdain, laughter and tears. If only these walls could talk! But they can’t and it doesn’t matter anyway. It was just time to move on and seek new adventures.

The quote that hung on my office door for many years was tattered and the ink had faded long ago. I had used its words many times, coaxing my students to take risks and jump over the precipices that are found on the journey. As my students cleared my office I read its words for the last time: “A ship in the harbor is safe but that’s not what ships are built for.” I realized that these thoughts are now meant for me.

When you leave safe ground and step off into a new place there are feelings of curiosity and excitement, and a little nagging of dread. It’s the ancient fear of the unknown and it is your first bond with the limitless possibilities that wait.

Sevada took the old sign that leaned against the bookcase: “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey,” my core philosophy. Glendale College gave me this remarkable journey and it was a great ride.

I thought of the words of Robert Frost, “The woods are lovely darks and deep and I‘ve got promises to keep and miles to before I sleep.”

I still have some juice left. Maybe I’ll teach high school, or help Mrs. Pruden’s second-grade class at La Cañada Elementary; maybe I’ll write another book or join the CIA. As Helen Keller once said, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

It's important to work for that pot of gold. But sometimes it's essential that your most important decision of the day is to watch the ebb and flow of the ocean at Corona del Mar.

It took my students three hours to dismantle the office. Nothing remained. At the end of the evening I walked back into it with Andre. “Dr. Joe,” he said, “There’s nothing left.”

“Only memories, Andre.”

We closed the door and left to smoke a hookah.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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