Mid-December, for any seniors who applied early to schools, is notification time. The few weeks before we break for the holidays, students come in each morning high-fiving one another or offering consolation. It’s equal parts jubilation and heartbreak and then there’s the fear, the anxiety that even my most accomplished students have: What happens next? How do I make all the decisions that await?
Friday, one of my students in the back of the room raised her hand. “Ms. P?” she said. “Did you always want to be a teacher?”
“Oh God, no,” I said. “Never.”
But my nephew Jason had finished parochial school in eighth grade and had entered Westerly High School as unprepared as if he’d been dropped into a modern day Man Vs. Environment reality show wearing nothing but a loincloth and brandishing nothing more helpful than a can of oven cleaner. My sister was desperate, and I was home from college with nothing to do besides get in a good disco nap and head out with my cousin Susan and my friend Karyn to dance until the place closed and we headed off for a 4AM serving of pancakes at IHOP.
Yes, I had been a good student (not counting Algebra) and I had a degree in hand, but college during the Reagan Era meant lots of people scrambling to get into the business school, late night study sessions for statistics, a pre-accounting exam vomit session in the bathroom, the dread of some microeconomics professor nicknamed D+ Pugh. WSBE kids (the acronym for the Whittemore School of Business at the University of New Hampshire), didn’t meet us at 5AM for green beer on Saint Patty’s Day. They didn’t answer the midnight summons to play snow football on the tundra that was the winter lawn of Hetzel Hall.
And God forbid they did attend a party and meet you at the garbage pail punch bowl some stranger was stirring with a lacrosse stick. Just before they headed back to their rooms to cram for the Strategic Management midterm, they’d ask you your major.
“English?” they’d gasp, as if you must have been too drunk already to consider dipping back into that witches’ brew. “What the hell are you going to do with that? Step in dogshit?” Well, really they said, “Teach?” but the tone was the same. And, since I had no earthly intention of ever doing so, I felt justified snorting and saying, “No way!” and then slinking back into the crowd in search of fellow Liberal Arts rejects.
So home I came after it was all over, back to the farm where my father could always use help and where other job prospects would surely abound. For example, the very first newspaper I read ran an ad inviting me to the Mystic Hilton to learn about an opportunity in sales that could lead to jobs in management, five-figure commissions, the chance to work for one of America’s most successful companies.
“They want you to sell vacuums,” my brother said. Just to prove him wrong, I went, and, okay, my brother was right, but the image of the organisms living inside my pillow will haunt me always.
“Something else will come up,” my mother said.
Before I could get a job managing a clothing store, I had to master dressing mannequins in store windows while ignoring seriously creepy comments from passersby. Entry level positions as receptionists meant I had to sit there staring at the elevator doors in case someone important came in. The way I would know if he was important? He would ignore me. If I happened to try reading The Awakening, for example, to pass the time, I was viewed with derision by certain lawyers who checked to make sure I was not holding the book upside down. I took a bartending course which was fun but if I worked nights, how could I dance?
Meanwhile, as I waited for a Forbes 500 company to discover me at Septembers nickel night, Jason and I sat at the kitchen table amidst his sisters’ coloring books while my sister cooked and several cats ran in every time the door opened and several more ran out. We studied a little bit of everything but our biggest hurdle was an American Studies test. The era escapes me as do the facts that, somehow, we both committed to memory. But I do remember it was fun. We weren’t exactly serious, but we did work hard. When Jason got the test back, he’d earned a B+. I baked a cake in the same shape as his grade and we blew off the day’s homework to eat it and feel pretty damn good about ourselves. When my brother-in-law Jerry came home from work (several cats trailing him through the door, several more dashing outside), he cocked an eyebrow at the test as if someone had just shown a true skeptic the latest photograph of a shadowy Sasquatch.
“You know,” he finally said. “You ought to go into teaching. You get summers off.”
Summers off? How could I have overlooked that?
It still took me a few more years to step in front of my first group of students. When I did, clutching my handwritten, color-coded introduction to Julius Caesar, my upper lip froze so completely, I thought I might be having a stroke, but somehow, the bell rang and I regained feeling in my face.
It’s funny for me to think of it all now. The years between me and the absolutely right profession for me. But my own path might not be as helpful to those students who sit before me every year at this time fretting over the arrival of news that they think will define them. How do I explain to them that sometimes, it’s something much less momentous: some time to kill, someone who needs you, a kitchen filled with a revolving cast of cats.