After reading an awesome blog entry today, I was inspired to tackle a topic that I have been dancing around since starting this. One of the worst experiences - and oddly enough – best of recent years. I am talking about my career at the Business School, which, to misquote T.S. Eliot, ended with both a bang and a whimper. But before I get into the unpretty details, I can’t resist going back all the way to the hilarious start.
It was April-ish 1987 and I had just returned to this country after almost a year in Asia. The rekindling of my relationship with my now husband led to a change in my amorphous idea (as opposed to any real plan) of what to do next in life. My visit became a longer stay and I needed a job. So I did what no one here would ever do: I went around the university from department to department, professor to professor, and asked for work. I did this because I had no idea at the time that the customary way of getting a university position was through the exchange of fluids or sharing a common gene pool with someone who was already there. Amazingly everyone I talked to that day stayed quite polite and kept their laughter on the inside. After the pleasant rejection from the fifth or sixth professor, I asked for suggestions of where to go next and the answer was the Dean of the Business School.
This is a really nice office! I thought as I sauntered into it. Despite my introduction and explanation of why I was there, the Dean was still confused. What on earth is this American girl doing here?? We talked in circles for a minute and then I said that Professor So-and-So had told me to go there. “Aaachh soooo! Well if Professor So-and-So thinks there is work for you, then here you go!” He handed me two forms and I stood there in confusion. ”Take those back to him and he will help you fill them out.” I thanked him and left. Back in the Professor’s office, I showed him the forms. ”Aaachh soooo! If the Dean thinks there is work for you, then I there you go!” We filled out the forms and I had my first two courses.
I went from there back to my apartment where my roommate asked me how the first day of job searching had gone. I told him solala. All I had found were these two uni courses . . .
”Are you joking!?” he asked.
I stared at him.
“No. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Why?”
He then explained to me how I had basically tripped and fallen onto the top rung of the teaching career ladder.
Over time, two courses became four, and then five, and even six for a while there, then back to five. Five years became ten, then 20, then forever. I started saying “If someone had told me way back at the start that 25 years later, I would still be here . .. I would have laughed.” But it was the kind of job you simply didn’t give up easily. For one thing, where else could I find a position that gave me five months off a year?
I loved the work (the teaching part) but disliked the place. A huge, cold, concrete and metal building decorated in every color imaginable as long as it was a shade of gray. Relationships between colleagues also worked best when kept cool and distant - we called it “professional”. Secretly, we all knew just how unimpressive the work was in reality and that we didn’t really deserve the knee-jerk respect that came with the position. Deans came and went, and so did the Heads of the Business Language Center, all of whom seemed to be chosen according to two criteria: their (high) disinterest and (low) spine density. In the meantime, the secretary ran the computer systems and the computer systems ran the show.
My biggest problem, though, was seeing the education my Business students were getting. The message seemed to be ”Dont look right and BY GOD dont look left! Keep your eyes on the goal (profit)!” Eventually I designed one of my courses around the idea of being as subversive as I could get away with. Tried to get them to question one established economic principle after another. Tried to get them to consider alternatives to our current system, to see that maybe, just maybe, we had not yet arrived at the be-all-and-end-all of possible ways to organize ourselves socially and economically. I got them talking, then debating. Sometimes even wondering. Their English got better.
My career peaked with a nomination for a teaching prize, but at the very same time, behind the scenes, changes were in the works that would eventually cost me my job. The first was a brand new curriculum designed to drastically reduce the number of students in the (overrun) Business School within the first two semesters - we are talking the Agent Orange of weeding programs here. And it worked - there was an 80% reduction in the number of students between the first and second years when the new curriculum went into effect. This, of course, drastically reduced the number of Business Language teachers necessary - from 7 down to 2. So who has to go? The ones with the lousiest contracts or the ones with internal reproductive organs? (And in our case, those two groups overlapped almost perfectly.) But how do you get rid of them after so many years? Luckily they have all been working under a long chain of time-limited contracts (technically illegal in this country), so lets make a rule to break that chain: they all have to go on a forced, unpaid sabbatical every seven years.
My colleague and I got the news that this rule would apply to us and she quit the very next day. I decided to put up a fight. The first meetings went well. I left the Dean’s office with the assurance that this would be fixed. Then came week after week of hemming and hawing and conferences and delays and false promises and twists and outright lies. I took it all the way the university Vice-President’s office, but then stopped short of taking her advice to make it a gender discrimination case. Not because the fight in me was entirely gone, but because of a phone call.
It came somewhere in the middle of all this. It was the Chairman of a little alternative school near where I live. They were looking for a native speaker to teach there and would I be interested? If that call had come a week or two earlier, I wouldn’t have considered it seriously at all. A week or two later, probably not either. At that very moment, though, I thought ”What the heck? No harm in looking at the place.” And I went for an interview.
It was lovely and homey. We sat in a bright colorful kitchen that smelled like coffee and apple pie. There was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. The people were smiling and laughing and they looked like people who I could be friends with. The school was disorganized and improvised and lacked professionalism. Based on the eclectic collection of hand me-down dishes in kitchen shelves, it clearly lacked funds as well. The kids were coming and going and everyone was on a first name basis. They had called me, so I chatted away with all of them, totally relaxed and then it hit me: this was a job interview! So I pulled myself together and made an effort to make a good impression as a teacher with lots of experience. I (diplomatically) asked direct questions about the school based on its questionable reputation in the community and got honest unruffled answers. I drove home thinking that destiny was sending me a sign.
Shortly thereafter, my fight to keep my job at the Business School came to an abrupt end. By email, no less. And a forwarded email at that. The Dean had written my boss to thank him for his efforts in trying help me keep my job, but unfortunately, it wasn’t going to work out. He should tell me to clear out my office and give back any of the university’s property I might have. My boss had no better idea than to forward this email to me with the question ”What do you make of this??”
What I made of it was that it was a really fine send off for an employee of 25 years.
Two days later I drove to the university and completely cleared out my office – a fairly Herculean feat that I only accomplished thanks to sheer rage. My secretary realized what was going on and called my boss who then rushed over. He told me it wasn’t necessary to clear out my office for the one semester, but I said I preferred it this way. He gave an impromptu and thin sort of retirement party speech interspersed with additions to the string of dubious assurances I had been hearing in the previous months. We made our awkward and insincere Goodbyes.
Before writing this, I looked at all the emails that had gone back and forth in that period (yes I still have them – I hold on to everything it seems). What I discovered in them, now after the fact, were 6 of the 7 classic stages of grief. Shock, denial, anger, depression, release, and return to love. (I skipped over the “honor the departed” one.) But what I liked the most from these emails was a sentence written immediately after everything was decided: “Best case scenario: one year from now I will look back at all of this and be thankful that I was forced into this career change.”
It has been almost four years now. And I couldn’t be more thankful.