Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where was I? (Welcome to the Trollhouse)

It has been more than 18 months since the last time I wrote to you, but I've come back like a drunken, abusive husband begging his way back into your heart. The right side of my brain is rusty and my chops are weak -- it will take some time to develop them, so forgive the blandness. I'll get to the reasons as to why I stopped writing and why I've decided to start up again, but first I want to tell you about what has happened in my life for the last year and a half.

During the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, I had basically stopped writing to because I was embarking upon the very beginning stages of my CAREER (and when I say that I'd stopped writing, I don't mean simply writing on this blog; I mean WRITING). At that time I made a conscious decision to dedicate every moment I had at my disposal to the CAREER. This decision affected every area of my life -- my social life, my writing life, my sleeping life, my sanity life, and others. Some areas were enhanced, some areas were neglected, and many were changed for both the better and the worse. That time and that shift in priorities was something that I had been working toward for a very long time. I did what I had been planning to do.

What I had planned to do was to work very hard, mostly sacrificing the aforementioned sanity, sleep, writing, and social life, among other things. And that is what I did.

Things went well. I started as a student teacher at an amazing high school with an amazing English department. I did well, I made friends with my colleagues, and I became a good role model for a lot of my students. I was depressed after it was over, four months after I had begun.

Lucky for me, though, one of the teachers at the school was pregnant, and the English department hired me to take over her classes while she was out on maternity leave. I got to go back, to work with my friends, to see my old students again, and to develop new relationships with new students. I was there for the duratioremainder of the school year -- about three more months. It was great.

Summer came, and for the first time in a long time (ever) I had a decent amount of money with which to enjoy myself. I hung out in the city, I hunted down the Stanley Cup, I taught a summer-school class, I bought things I'd needed but could never afford, and I read books. Things were great in every area except one: I didn't have a job for the next school year. At this time, teaching jobs in America -- and especially in Illinois, where I was -- were being mowed down like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre all over again; a flood of tens of thousands of experienced, valuable teachers had been fired, and in theory they would have had first crack at any jobs that should open up. The only problem was that teaching jobs weren't opening up. Anywhere. Almost every teaching department in the country was cutting staff, not adding staff. And the departments that were adding staff essentially knew who they were going to hire before they even posted the job publicly (districts are required by law to publicly post all available positions). I applied for dozens (hundreds?) of jobs all over the country, but the situation was so bad that I would be grateful for an automated email response that simply told me the position had been filled. I think I got about three of those.

Luckily for me, however (and I did feel lucky), one of the friends I had made in the English department I'd student taught/maternity gigged at was having a baby, and she wanted me to teach her classes for the first few months of the school year. I jumped on it; I loved it there, and I wanted to end up there. Secretly I was hoping that if I stuck around long enough, something would open up and my wish would come true.

That job lasted until mid-October. Again I was sad to leave my friends at the school and the kids, and I found myself in the familiar position of not having a job (which, if it's never happened to you, you have no idea how depressing and degrading it can be). I went back to applying for every job teaching English I could find, and I got the same response I had gotten before: nothing. No phone calls to schedule an interview. No emails to clarify information on my resume. Nothing.

I haven't yet mentioned that I was good at what I did. I was good at it -- that's all I'll say. I'm confident about that.

And then something happened. I got a call from one of the English teachers I'd been working with for the last year and a half. Her sister was an English teacher in a different district, and her department had an unexpected vacancy they needed to have filled immediately! I'd already been talked up and recommended, and I had to contact the English department chair immediately!

I went in for an interview later that week. A few days later, the principal called me and told me that someone who used to teach in the district decided at the last minute that she wanted to come back. Thanks anyways.

Through various channels I heard that the English department head had loved me, but the principal didn't like me because I was too casual (and because my hair was a little longer than the standard buzz cut, because I had a goatee, and because I wasn't an exact replica of the government-issued douche bag, if you ask me. Kids don't need alternative role models, anyway, right? We're each one of two perfect types of people anyways:the perfectly male or the perfectly female).

Back to the job board.

No bites. Again.

Things went like this for about two more months, until Valentine's Day, of all days (I was actually on a date on this particular Valentine's Day -- first Valentine's date in quite a while), I was hit with a storm of phone calls and e-mails from the English department head I'd interviewed with a couple months back. They had another unexpected opening! And he'd thought of me right away! He'd already spent time convincing the principal to change her mind about me, and things were looking great! Full-time salary and benefits would be involved! Was I interested?

The thing was that I had already committed to doing yet another maternity gig for one of my friends at the old school. I was due to start in a week or two, and I didn't want to leave them without a replacement lined up so late in the game (they were my friends, after all). But, as a testament to their goodness, they found out what was happening and called me to tell me that I absolutely could not pass up on the opportunity for a full-time job at the new school. It was really great of them. So I took it!

I started the new job in late February. The teacher I was replacing had been one of the most popular at the school, which made it a bit more difficult to pull my usual "get the kids to love me right away" trick. But I was confident in myself. I worked hard, and the kids began to really like me. Things were going well!

In the classroom.

Outside of the classroom -- in the teachers' office, the principal's office, and the district offices, things were not going well for me. It turned out that, of the two positions that had opened unexpectedly in the English department that year, only one would remain as an actual position for the next school year; the other would be eliminated. That meant that of the two teachers who had been brought in to fill those positions during the school year, only one would be brought back.

No problem, right? For the most part, I'd had nothing but the highest recommendations and fantastic success wherever I'd taught, and I'd developed a relatively well-known (in the area) reputation as an up-and-coming, hot-shot young teacher. Once I got into that classroom and people saw how I was with those kids, no one could compete with me.

**Unless she was married to the Dean**.

That's right -- that teacher the principal had hired instead of me after my first interview?

Dean's wife.

This was the person I was up against in competition for the job.

I felt good about my chances.

Not.

Long story short: after a long, painfully grueling couple of months, I did not get the job.

I do not mean to completely discount the ability of the Dean's Wife to teach, mentor, and serve as a role model for young people; she may, in fact, be the better teacher. My issue was that I had not even gotten a look from the higher-ups, not even a consideration. I assumed this was because they knew, as did I, that I could not compete with the Dean's Wife. At one point late in the school year, when I asked the English Department Head how I had been doing in his English department, he literally responded with, "I don't really know. But I assume you are doing fine, since I haven't heard any complaints."

I was frustrated. Everyone who had seen me teach up to this point had told me what a bright future I had, but there weren't any jobs; now I had a job right in front of me, but no one was looking.

It pissed me off. I had been working my ass off for two full years, sacrificing my sleep, my sanity, my social life, and I was basically right where I'd started: jobless, miserable, and nowhere near the top of the hiring heap of hundreds of thousands of teachers in America. Another year of working 80 hour weeks for almost nothing was staring me right in the face; if I was lucky, they'd ask me back to do it again.

I wondered how long I would have to allow myself to be miserable before "it" happened, "it" being that moment when the recession breaks and schools started hiring teachers instead of firing them (either that or people realizing that teachers are kiiiiiiiiiiiiiindof important).

It made me even more miserable. During those months, I was probably lower than I had ever been. I felt I had no control over my life, my future, or my own happiness. It was an entirely hopeless, helpless feeling, and it had been nagging at me for a very long time.

Then something happened: at the end of the school year, I realized that the full-time salary the district had been paying me had been piling up in my bank account for a few months and had gotten to be a relatively substantial amount -- more money than I'd ever had, anyway. What was I going to do with it -- string it out for as long as I can as an unemployed, miserable teacher? Hope it lasts until the next grueling, temporary thing happened? Save it, and keep my nose to the grindstone? Again? Until the whole running-in-place cycle repeated itself?

I decided to get the fuck out of the Midwest at some point in early June. It was an incredibly easy decision once I realized I could do it -- once I realized that the shackles of my previous life I had always imagined being there were really only in my head, as they are for most of us. I did not realize until then that no one is ever really tied down to anything unless they choose to be tied down to it, and that anyone at any time has a choice to try to do what might make them happy. It was a liberating feeling -- quite the epiphany.

Less than ten days later I had flown to Seattle and was spending my nights sleeping on a friend's couch and my days searching for an apartment one of which I got. It was about three weeks after I decided to leave Chicago for Seattle that I packed up my tiny Honda left the Midwest for good.

I took my time driving across the country, laughing along the way as if I was an escaped criminal who'd just avoided being locked up for the rest of his term. It was the time of my life. I spent the first weekend in Minneapolis with two friends who lived up there; we drank beer, ate Jucy Lucys, and in general had a great time. After a few days there, I drove off, stopping for the night in dead Bismarck, where I could hardly get a fast-food taco and soda for dinner. And I don't like to drink soda.

I left Bismarck as early as I could the next morning. Although it was interesting to see the flood waters that were creeping up to the edge of the highway at that time, North Dakota is not a good state visually speaking until you get to the western edge, near Montana. I don't know if they are mountains or hills in the western edge of North Dakota, but they are beautiful -- a welcome relief from the flat farmland of the rest of the state.

Almost as soon as you cross the border of the mammoth Montana, you know that you are in for a great ride. Looking out your window, you get the feeling that you are seeing land that almost no one else has seen: mountains, huge expanses of grass, houses with miles between them, herds of cattle, herds of buffalo, moose, and the Big Sky. Nobody knows Montana, but it is America.

After five days on the road I crossed over the sliver of Idaho, where I stopped in a strange but beautiful town in which they had never heard of Italian salad dressing. I took this as a sign that there was no need for me to investigate the town, but that I should just take it for the beautiful, backwards lake town that it was, and cross the border into Washington.

My last stop before I hit Seattle was in Spokane, which is a great college town filled with beautiful college girls and millions of bars, pubs, and restaurants. As soon as I got there and was being checked into my hotel for the night by one of those beautiful girls I was reminded of the strange, unknowable quality that Washington girls have that makes them different from girls from other places, though I guess that can be said about girls or people from anywhere.

While I was in Spokane I got the news that a friend of mine had died in a motorcycle crash the day before. He had not been in my immediate circle, nor had I been in his, but we had been friends for more than a decade, and I could have called him any time for anything, just like he could have called me. This was strange for me, and I started thinking about how I'm not too young to die anymore. This was what I thought about as I sat at the college bar right next to my hotel, mostly alone. I silently raised my glass to my friend many times that night.

I didn't wake up the next morning until almost noon, which was check-out time at the hotel. I really couldn't afford to spend an extra eighty dollars for nothing, so I called down to the front desk and ask the beautiful Washington girl if I could have an extra hour. She let me. I showered, packed up, and raced off for Seattle.

I really can't tell you how I felt as I was pulling within viewing distance of the Space Needle, the Seattle skyline, and Mt. Rainier, or how I felt smelling the Pacific Ocean water again for the first time. I could tell you I experienced a moment of Zen, but that wouldn't mean anything. What I can tell you is that I laughed out loud to myself again, like I had when I left. I don't even know what I was laughing at; maybe it was all the people who were telling along the way and before I left that I was crazy to do what I was doing while I was thinking I would've been crazy not to go. I felt as though there had been some sort of deep secret no one knew about even though it was right there in front of all of their faces this whole time, and I'd found it.