I shouldn’t have gone to college.
At least, when I scan through the job listings found online, that’s how I feel. I should refine that. I shouldn’t have gone to college and came out with an arts degree. It hasn’t served me well.
When I began my college experience, it was full of all the anticipation and excitement of being able to achieve more than my parents had. I had stood back and watched as they struggled to get by on more than one occasion. I didn’t go without, mind you, but our lives were comfortably simple. We had warm food in our bellies and a roof over our head, but it was a very sheltered life. We didn’t travel much. We couldn’t afford things like the piano lessons I had always wanted, or the sports camps for my brother, or to hire out contractors to do the never-ending remodel work on our old farmhouse. My parents made do, and we got by, but I always felt that I was lacking something. I always felt that, if given the opportunity, I could do better.
College was to be that opportunity. For years, starting with my decision to attend a smaller high school instead of the larger, public high school that almost all of my classmates from elementary school were graduating to, it was understood that I was going to college. Somehow. I was going to get a degree and get a good job and live a comfortable life. I was gifted in a few abilities, and where I didn’t do so well, it was on me to work harder (though I often just skated by). I was a scholar. I was a model student. I kept my nose clean. When the time came, I attended a college fair, and was shown a world of possibilities in the colorful brochures and friendly ambassadors from each place. We didn’t have the power of the internet back then to really do the investigation into the campuses from our own home. It was a stack of brochures, applications, and the like that I trundled home to my room and poured over.
Each school had it’s own application fee, I quickly learned, so I had to be smart about where I applied. I couldn’t just send out fifty applications and hope for the best. It was far too expensive. I applied to two schools, both state schools, and both not far from home. I figured, well, it’s college, and it will have to do, given the limits of the means I had to pay for it. My parents had offered to pay for four years at the University of Maine, but being the precocious son who wanted more, I settled for them paying one year of out-of-state tuition for the school of my choice. I was accepted into the University of New Hampshire, exactly one hundred miles away from home, and it was there that I was going as an undergraduate in the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture. I was going to study biochemistry and become a scientist. I was going to make a boat load of money, and live in a way that would make my parents proud.
My first semester, however, proved to be more than I had anticipated. Upon returning home for the holiday break in December, I opened the letter addressed to me from the University. Because I had failed not one, but two of my classes, I was placed on Academic Suspension. I was not allowed back into school for the following term. I had failed out of college. Immediately, I thought about the check my parents had written for my tuition. I thought about the actuality of being a failure. Like I had when I had gotten lower than an A in all of my elementary classes, I panicked. I was promptly on the phone with the university, and set up a meeting with the associate dean of the college. I had to be let back in. I had to find a way.
I managed to work out a deal with her, which involved changing majors. I was to retake at least one of the classes that I had failed, which would bring my grade point average up to a level that was acceptable to remain at school. I switched to Microbiology and retook the calculus class that I had failed. The chemistry class that was also a failure for me would simply have to remain that way. I couldn’t even balance a chemical equation, let alone pass that class.
I made it through my first year of school by the skin of my teeth, and during the summer between my first and second years, I found an apartment to live in off campus, along with a job to work near school. I would move down to New Hampshire a month earlier than the rest of the students. I had my car, and a job, and obtained a permit to park on campus. I also did something that was very independent. I took out a massive private student loan to cover the out-of-state tuition bill. It was in my name, and from that point on, it was me who I would have to answer to when I didn’t pass a class. It was my reflection in the mirror, along with me who had to write the checks to pay back the loan for classes. It was up to me to make my way forward. As soon as I could, I changed my major yet again to the area where I excelled the most – English and English Literature.
At the end of my second year, I had managed a massive turn around in my GPA. I had taken courses that challenged and delighted me. I made sure to address some of my core required classes, like making up that physical science credit I had failed to earn during my first semester of my first year. Primarily, though, I spent my seat time talking about poets, novelists, and dramatists from all across the English-speaking world. I found great energy and movement in the words on the page, and engaged on a level that, for a simple country boy from Maine, was profound and enriching. I learned a lot about what it meant to be my race, gender, and class. I learned about my roots, and the roots of the people around me. I was able to critically examine my own life and communicate about it in a way I had never been able to before. All the while, I was earning really good grades in my classes. I was answering questions. I was writing papers. I was reading more literature and literary pieces than I had ever dreamed of. It was exactly what college was like in my early adolescent fantasies.
My life took a turn and I had to withdraw at the start of my third year, but eventually I did return to finish my degree. Two more years of surprise, delight, critical thinking, and further developing my understanding of the literary and cultural world around me, and eventually I graduated. My GPA wasn’t as good as I had hoped (it turns out I can’t draw, and so a failed art class happened), but it was solid, and I had earned enough credits. 128 to be precise. I bought my cap, my gown, I tossed the hat, and felt very proud to have accomplished something I had dreamed of for years.
It was nearly immediately, though, as I added my degree to my qualifications to the resume I had drafted in the Career Services workshop prior to my graduation, that I realized how unmarketable my skills were. I was an English major, which meant I was good at one thing: words. I could type, copy other peoples’ words, and arrange them in a way that made sense to someone else. After trying and failing to break into the publishing and editing world (I had no idea I should have done an internship), I settled for a data entry job at a company close to where I grew up.
Hours and hours of mindless entry of figures and words into specific spaces on a computer screen numbed me. I wasn’t challenged. I wasn’t pushed in any way. It wasn’t long into that job that I saw myself stagnating, never moving up, and never being satisfied. After some heart-to-heart conversations with my partner at the time, along with other friends, co-workers, and my family, I decided to try my hand at substitute teaching.
I immediately fell in love with the job of being at the big desk in the classroom, and was soon enrolled in a graduate-level course at a local university to earn my teaching certification. For two years, I was back in the classroom, engaging, rekindling my love of knowledge-gathering, and being asked to challenge myself in a way that brought me such joy. I looked forward to every class, nearly every project, and succeeded at what I was doing. My student teaching experience put all that I had learned to use, and along with that came the weird belief that my education and training had use, finally. I was finally doing what was my calling in life – my vocation.
With the ink still drying on my certification, I set about trying to find a teaching post. In 2006, there was already a glut of Language Arts teachers looking for a job. It was typical, but I managed to find a number of job posting boards online. I started by applying locally, in the state where I had become certified. Then, I learned about the states that had reciprocity with Maine, and would recognize my teacher training in order to get a license to teach in their state. My search broadened, and one after another, I would send all the documents and paperwork that each application required. Beyond the curriculum vitae, most wanted a copy of my teaching philosophy, copies of lesson plans, detailed responses to upwards of three or four essay questions, and copies of my credential documents. Each application packet was an investment of time and energy, and with each one I sent out, I pinned a little bit of hope to the outside of the envelope, or to the email (I loved the schools that accepted emailed documents).
Eventually, nearly at my wit’s end, I applied to a recruitment company in England who was bringing foreign trained teacher into the UK to fill gaps in the workforce for the country. Within weeks, I was packing my things and traveling overseas to take up my first real post as a teacher. I was in that job for two years, and all during my time there, I felt like I’d finally made something of myself. I finally had achieved everything I wanted to. It was a shame, though, to have to travel the three thousand miles and to a totally different country just to fulfill a dream, to feel justified, and to have that sense of satisfaction. I had to give up that post, though, and return to the U.S. in the late summer of 2008. The partner wasn’t enjoying our time overseas, and needed to be closer to his family, and so I obliged. I figured that I had two years experience teaching under my belt and that finding a job back stateside would be easier than it was as a completely new teacher had been.
It wasn’t what I thought it would be. There were still so few English Language Arts posts available to me. I was tied to the Boston area, which meant I was applying for jobs where teacher who had earned their Master’s and Doctorate degrees were also applying for the same posts. I stood no chance.
Then, just as I had resigned myself to having to look outside of education for a job, though I had managed to obtain my Massachusetts Teaching License and registered as a substitute for Boston Public, the economy tanked. I watched it happen, in real-time, on the television, while I was sitting in the house of my partner’s parents, applying for work. I knew instantly that any chance I had for finding a job had simply vanished.
The four months of unemployment were terrible. Daily, I would wake up with hope, pour myself a “cup of ambition,” strong with a little cream and sugar, and make some more progress with the job hunt. I would send off application after application. I would reach a breaking point where I simply could not look at the listings on Monster or HotJobs any longer. I simply had to step away. As with every teaching application I had filled out, every job application had a small bit of hope pinned to it. Every one of them I had invested energy in. I had psyched myself up to making the commitment to the document, to play ball with the required forms and details about my previous work experience. I would tweak my skills in order to align them to what I though the companies were looking for. Time and time and time again. By the end of the week, when everyone around me was celebrating Friday, I had really became unglued.
I had lost hope. I had lost my sense of worth. I was a total bear to be around. I was mopey, lost, and disgusted with the choices I had made. I didn’t regret going to college then, but it was close in my mind. The student loans still needed to get paid. Every damn month, hundreds of dollars were sent out in order to keep those wolves at bay. Because of the way my private loan was set up, there was no way to escape it. My father, the cosigner on the loan, would get harassed for payment if I didn’t make one, and I hated that. It was just a reminder of how I had failed to make him proud, failed to do better than he had done.
Eventually, I did find a job. It was an underpaid job working for a textbook publisher in Boston, where I did something similar to what I was doing before I had gone to get certified to teach. Data entry, phone call answering, customer service, and light office work summed up my time from 8:00a till 5:00p every day, Monday through Friday. I had the stuffy office attire. I had the uncomfortable office chair. I had the commute into the city. I had something, but it was certainly not tapping into the part of me that was a teacher. I constantly felt the need to work up the courage to go to work. I loved my coworkers, and though my boss was tough, she had given me a chance to work, and for that I was grateful.
Still, I was unsatisfied.
It wasn’t until a little party after Thanksgiving in 2009 that the possibility of pushing myself intellectually again came into my mind. My partner and I had been invited to this small gathering as a way to meet new people in the Boston area. We had just moved into our small apartment in the North End, and were trying to make contact with other like-minded people around the city. So, when we got the invite to come over after we’d spent time with his family, we both agreed happily, and would bring some wine along.
Sitting at the kitchen table, it was clear to me that I was a bit older than the crowd that had gathered. The host and I sat and talked at length about the things we were doing with ourselves and in our lives, and the conversation came to my creative outlets. I had been working on a small bit of writing, but it was just something that I did to keep my mind active. It was a way for me to deal with the mundanity of office worker life, and it was free. He looked at me square in the face and asked, “Why haven’t you gone to grad school for writing?”
The truth is, I had never really considered graduate school. I thought my chances for going were long since over. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was done school, and that I needed to just get by with what I had. Still, as we talked and sipped more wine, the idea stuck. He had a contact at a small college in Vermont that he wanted me to connect with and talk about my options. He put the bug in my ear, so-to-speak, and the more it crawled around in there, the more I wanted to take that step. I wanted to earn my Master’s degree. I wanted to at least be on some equal footing with the other people applying for teaching jobs in the Boston area. Sure, it was yet more fiscal commitment to the government for loans – thankfully public loans, and not private – but in the long run, if I could land a decent teaching post, I could really make a go of the life I wanted for myself and my partner, and those loans would seem like a small investment over the long term.
I applied. Within a few short weeks, I heard back from the program director, and was accepted. I got myself to a very small campus in the middle of Vermont, and for a week, I spent my time attending workshops, talking to other writers, and setting up a study plan that would carry me through my first semester of graduate school for writing. I was taking my English language training to a different level. I was taking a sometimes hobby of mine seriously. I was putting one of my greatest strengths to work for me. Because it was a low-residency program, I would be doing all of my work from home, around my full-time work schedule. It fit my life perfectly. It would keep me busy, but it was something I could do and achieve. It was a massive life goal within plain sight.
It also turned out to be more than the partner could handle. In our time together, he had seen me go back to school three times. Once to finish my undergraduate degree. Once to get my teaching certification. Once to now pursue my master’s in creative writing. He was tired of waiting for his chance to go back to school. He had never completed college, and was frustrated by my constant educational advancement. It wasn’t that I hadn’t given him a chance to go to school too – he just couldn’t decide what to study. He was keenly aware of the investment and money that going back to school would be, and was afraid to take that first step. I, however, took the plunge boldly, and he resented me for that.
After leaving Boston and my forty-hour-a-week job at the publisher, I found myself back to square one, yet again, looking for work. This time, though, I was a bit easier on myself when I went looking for gainful employment. Since I was technically in school, the student loan payments had eased up a bit, and I could postpone making the big payments until I was done. This freed me up to take on a part-time retail job as my source of income. Sure, it was way below my skill set, and it didn’t really push my abilities very hard, but it was a job. I had been working in retail and food service since I could hold a job (apart from the four years of teaching and office work), so what was required of me came easy. Besides, I was in school again. I was a student. Again.
I got through my master’s program just this past summer. I am now in Portland, Oregon, another highly educated liberal-minded town, similar to Boston. I have my Oregon teacher’s license, and now my MFA in Creative Writing. I’m ready to go.
At the time of this writing I have submitted over forty teaching applications since moving here in March of 2013.
In all that time, I have had one principal reach out to me for more information, and then I never heard from him again.
I’ve had my resume gone over by other administrators who work in schools. I have all the right credentials and degrees. I have teaching experience. I have exactly what I need to be in front of the classroom. Just like the other 200+ people who are looking to take on the role of Classroom Teacher of English for Portland Public Schools.
So, I’m once again back to where I started. Only I’m further in debt, over-qualified for any job that will actually hire me, and wondering if this is really my lot in life. Is this what I get after all those years of class time and expanding my perception of the world around me?
I’ve started applying for jobs that will not satisfy me because I simply must work. I don’t know if it’s possible to achieve work satisfaction in America any longer. I also do not see the relevance of going to college any more. I feel like I was fed a lie and now I’m dealing with the outcome of that lie. That saddens me