Today, I look around the lovely campus where I work and wonder how I got here. Of course, in the most literal sense, I got on the highway, drove 12 miles north of my house, parked in the distant faculty lot and made the quick walk to my office before classes. That part of the journey is easy, especially compared to the multi-campus, multi-freeway commutes many people in my position have to make every day. In the early hours of mornings like this one, walking past the manicured quads, watching the students stroll to class or to the coffee shop, I feel intense gratitude for this destination. I can forget my second-class status, the dark cloud of failure over my head, the lack of time I spend on my own writing, the essays to grade.
But how did I really get here? Clearly, I have always felt inclined (or compelled?) to write and to teach, not necessarily in that order. I made good grades in English classes all through school, and spent hours with my nose in a book. Writing essays and fiction came naturally to me from a young age. I loved, and still love, libraries and bookstores. So why not pursue a career that engages what I love? That’s the myth we cherish most, isn’t it? Do what you love. Of course, for those of us who love talking to students about literature and teaching them how to write and think about what they read, the options are increasingly narrow and unappealing, as chronicled by better scholars than I.
So, what do we do when what we love fails to be an option? How do we make the job we have something we can love? How do we reconcile love and bill-paying and supporting our families?
Maybe we can’t.
To some degree, I am just doing what I have always done, since the day I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree 21 years ago (OMG teh oldness. Authentically old). I taught SAT prep courses (Pure Evil, the testing) while I earned my teaching certificate. I taught public high school and middle school English for four years, then applied to a Masters program in English at a local university. The intent was to return to public school after finishing the degree, but a lectureship opened up at the same university, and they hired me. So I stayed on as a full-time lecturer in English. I loved teaching at the university level. My classes were smaller than my high school classes had been; teaching two or three days a week felt so liberating and flexible after the rigid public school bell schedule, and my contact with students’ parents was limited or non-existent. Even though I was teaching the same course each semester, I could choose my own texts and themes and had a lot of creative freedom. Despite the pay cut I took changing venues, for the first two years, I thought I had found Teacher Heaven. True love.
Of course, the Honeymoon Period ended, as they tend to do, and I began to think more critically about the job. I took on an administrative position in addition to my teaching duties (no extra pay, of course). Administration is not my forte, and the work it took to do that job at an acceptable level, in defiance of any authentic talent or desire, really drained me of creative energy and motivation. So I started, as I had done 5 years earlier from my public school classroom, to look at graduate school as a path to something different and better. (Here is where you may snicker jadedly at my silliness). I left my university job for a short time to complete my PhD. And complete it I did, two kids and a variety of identity crises later. I then returned to work at the same job, finding that my status had in fact changed for the worse with my shiny new diploma, and that the path to something different was a yellow brick road to my own backyard. That’s right. We’ve gone from Benatar to Garland in one post. Now what?