February 21, 2013: A brave new day that marks a brave new Day–or a dumb new Day, depending on your point of view. What happened was this: I quit another job. My second. My second in a month, in fact. Here’s what happened:
About two months ago, I went on an interview for an adjunct professor job. Okay, fine, adjunct instructor. It sort of came out of nowhere (read: connections, right place at the right time, desperation on the part of the institution of higher learning at which I interviewed), and after 2.5 years’ worth of detachment from academia and all things intellect-related, I was ill-prepared. My specialty was pharmaceutical-grade supplements and how to write 3,762 variations of the sentence, “It’s best to consult your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen.” It was no longer thesis statements, “brainstorming,” or literary motifs, and it was definitely not pants from New York & Co., which I had been allowed to eschew at my place of employment in favor of my favorite jeans with the teeny tiny pin-sized hole in the crotch region. But since I was planning on returning to the world of higher education anyway, and because I thought I might be through with staring blankly at a computer screen while perusing Google News every three minutes, I decided to give it, as they say, the old college try, pun absolutely intended.
For a full week I prepared for the interview. Let me rephrase that. For a full week I over-prepared for the interview. I was asked to prepare a demo lesson and to submit a teaching portfolio–something I did not have that was supposed to be filled with lots of other things I didn’t have. The night before my boyfriend would fly thousands of miles away from me to be with his family for Christmas, a night that was supposed to be filled with holiday tidings of good cheer and snuggling and gift exchange, I was blowing my boogers and tears into his shirt as I struggled to come up with a way to present “Developing a Thesis Statement” in an interesting way in less than ten minutes. Less than thirty-six hours later, I was in pantyhose sitting across from a man in an untucked polo shirt and black jeans asking me if I knew how to fix Blackberry passcodes. He had been locked out of his phone and was going to bleeping kick the bleep out of the next person who bleeping knocked on his door.
“I’m literally the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in your life,” he said seriously, “but when bleep gets a little crazy, I’m a little, eh, you know.”
I nodded and smiled politely, deep down hoping and praying that I hadn’t accidentally gone to the wrong interview, and then wondering if maybe that was the better option.
“I just, you know, I need my phone, you know? I literally have like 86 texts right now and I can’t even read them. It’s so bleeping annoying as bleep.”
An older man holding a stack of papers knocked on the office door sheepishly.
“Dammit, Milt. What did I say? I’m trying to conduct a bleeping interview here.”
I left two and a half hours later holding an English Composition textbook, confused about where my afternoon had gone and what I had agreed to. Two time zones away, my boyfriend listened in great amusement as I tried to explain that I had just experienced, first hand, a real-life episode of Community. And that’s what I kept telling myself in the weeks that followed. “This will be fine. It will be like Community. You will teach Chevy Chase how to write a thesis statement, make a little money, get to put your name on the top of a syllabus, and get called ‘professor.’ Do it for the story. You only live once.”
Fast forward two months later. I am sitting with a student as he reads David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College. For the last few weeks, I have been feeling increasingly queasy and uneasy about the decision I’ve made. Not just the adjunct job, but everything. Sure, I’m happy to be free of the office monotony and all the other “quirks” of my former workplace that I had grown to hate–the quirks that had gnawed at me day in and day out and made me feel trapped and suffocated and alone. And yet, I’ve found that I am not the same person that I was three years ago, when all I wanted to do was to teach at a college, and when facilitating the proverbial “lightbulb moment” for a student felt like the feeling that inspired 5ive to write the song, “Slam Dunk the Funk.” When I was passionate about something, or at least good at telling myself that I was passionate and that I wanted to do something to help students, to make a difference–important things, no doubt, but I’m different now. Three years later, I don’t feel the same kind of gratification when a student reads David Foster Wallace and writes his reaction to it in a Word document with his professor’s name at the top. I don’t want to be the person helping the student write it, or the professor who will eventually read it and give it a grade. I’d rather be the person writing it in the first place. Not David Foster Wallace, exactly, because we all know how that story goes, but I want to be the person behind the words. I’ve always wanted this, but I didn’t know how much I really prefer to be behind them. I’m bad at talking to people, performing–because that’s what I’m really doing when I’m talking to someone I don’t want to be talking to–I’m bad at explaining and I especially don’t like explaining things twice. I don’t like running the show, or learning strategies, or teaching strategies, or telling a student to read their paper out loud if they really don’t want to because some education expert thinks this always works. Maybe I do like the safety of a computer screen after all, the comfort of its brightly lit screen, and the gentle clicks of the keyboard. Maybe I do prefer making writing work, or making writing better, rather than trying (poorly) to show someone else how to do it. Maybe I made a little bit of a mistake. Or maybe I made the opposite of a mistake. Maybe quitting job 1 was needed to make me stop idealizing this teacherly life that I thought I wanted. Maybe it’s a good thing that I am here, thinking that I don’t want to be here, as this student reads this commencement speech. Maybe this is my commencement.
The speech, if you’ve never read it, is about thinking. Wallace says we’re all hard-wired to be self-absorbed. That is our default setting. After all, we experience the world through only one body, so it’s only natural that we are programmed to have a somewhat intense “inner life.” And adult life, he says, is full of these annoying moments when we are so wrapped up in ourselves and our problems and needs that it becomes self-crippling and depressing as bleep, because why is the grocery store crowded tonight? Why is there so much traffic? Why did the microwave stop working at the exact moment I decided to heat up soup? Why can’t the world just work in my favor and operate on my clock and fulfill my needs when I need them to be? We are a race of self-worshippers, in a way. Wallace doesn’t exactly say that, that’s my interpretation. He does say, though, that adults always worship something, but this always ends up having the opposite effect. For example, if you worship your body, you’re always going to feel fat and ugly; if you worship your mind, you’re always going to feel stupid and fake; if you worship power, you’ll feel weak.
Reading this, I realized that above all, I “worship” approval. A lot of the time when I do something, it’s because I feel as though someone else wants or expects me to. Or that said thing would “look good” to some other person or group. This is why I was going to go through with the professor thing, I realized, because to quit would mean disappointing my parents, and confusing everyone who thought I’d be “really good” at it (including my former self), and inconveniencing an employer, and possibly severing potentially beneficial professional connections forevermore.
This thought process is the opposite of productive and helpful. Instead of challenging me to be “great” and strive for “achievement,” it leaves me hopeless, and sad, and wrapped up in this idea that everything is working against me and life is so stressful and hard and why do I have to do things I don’t want to do?
And the very simple, obvious answer to that is that I don’t. So bleep it.
I drove home from work with my heart pounding. There was no traffic. I sat in my car outside my house, took a deep breath, and made the call.