The 157th person to tell me I would never get a job in teaching was my mother’s friend’s sister who was visiting from New York. We met in line at the Safeway and engaged in the small talk that transpires between well-meaning 50-somethings and 20-somethings clinging to youthful naivety.
“So you’re in graduate school. What will you do when you graduate?” she asked.
“I want to be an English teacher,” I said.
“But there are no jobs in English. I’ve never heard of anyone getting a job as an English teacher.”
This irked me. The woman was from New York. I was young and naive, but even I knew you could find anything in New York. Men in full drag swallow live boa constrictors in the New York subway stations just because it’s Tuesday. There had to be at least one English teacher.
This was getting depressing. Blind optimism can only take a person so far. And I’d been hearing bad news for years.
The first people to tell me I would never get a job were the staff of The Boston Tourist where I interned during college. One of the women asked what I wanted to do when I graduated. Cheerfully, even nobly, I declared,
“I want to be a college professor and write a book.”
Seven women in three different rooms simultaneously turned from their computer screens and laughed, a long, jaded, I-have-crossed-the-river-Styx-and-seen-the-darkness laugh.
“That’s what we wanted,” one of them said. “But there are no jobs in English.”
Oddly, this sentiment was echoed by the professor in charge of career development for English graduate students at my university.
“A Masters degree?” he asked.
“I want to teach at a community college,” I said.
“My wife has a PhD and even she can’t get a job,” he said. “Not even as an adjunct. Not even at…” he cleared his throat. “…not even at community college.” He handed me an article entitled “English Majors Find Jobs in Tele-Marketing,” pushed me out the door, in much the same way one would push someone who was coughing blood.
The thing that kept me polite was that I knew people cared. Student enrollment was up. Full time positions were down. Adjunct instructors who were paid a paltry wage.
What my detractors did not know was that I saw teaching as extension of my youthful subsistence, like being a surf instructor or a professional disc golfer. You did it for the joy of doing.
It was also the family business and, at sentimental moments, I thought of myself as the last in a line of fishermen. My grandmother taught. My father taught. My mother taught. I wanted to take the boat out for a few choppy years before the bank took it, and I moved inland.
The most useful employment advice I got came from a retired community college instructor from Montana. “She likes young people,” my mother said of her friend LaRayne. “She’ll help to you.”
LaRayne had lymphoma and her small apartment was a sick room. Very slowly she made me a cup of tea. Then she gave me a few pieces of sensible advice and some encouragement, which is often the best thing a teacher can do.
The next time I saw her she was in the hospital. I thought I should say something intimate, ask about her disease, but what could I say. “How you doin’?” She was dying. The lady at the Hallmark store had recommended a laminated copy of “Footprints in the Sand” but that was between LaRayne and Jesus. I could not say whether He carried her or not.
All I knew was that she lay deep inside her eyes, as though her soul looked up at me through a tunnel.
“Are you teaching?” she asked without moving.
I think it was the most graceful thing I had ever seen: that sheaf of a woman, her body so bound up in the disease there was nothing left. And her question: Are you teaching?
I knew she came from Montana. I liked to think that her strength came from Montana too. Perhaps she had carried water for miles in a steel bucket, delivered babies in straw beds. I liked to think that there was a place one could go for that kind of strength. But in truth, all I knew about LaRayne’s life in Montana was that her mother had once taught a dog to wipe its feet before coming in the house.
“I got a job,” I said.
“Good,” she said.
I didn’t take her hand or hug her. She seemed too far away, and I had bathed in sterilizer before entering her room, but I told her that I had a job. I was a teacher. In that antiseptic waiting room between her death and my life, we were both teachers.