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06.26.04 12:03 p.m.

Make yourself an honest man, and then you may be sure there is one less rascal in the world.  

-Thomas Carlyle


Previously in Xenology: Xen was fired and sought a new job.

The Center on Catherine Street
The Catherine Street Community Center is a large brick building less than a block from a busy thoroughfare. Outside the building, young children play basketballs and jump rope on bare concrete. I arrived just before one in the afternoon and the temperature is already climbing into the nineties. Granted, I was not helping matters by wearing pant and a long sleeved dark shirt, but the children must have been sweltering as they moved at a hummingbird's pace.
I maneuvered my way past the fence that holds the children in and the rest of Poughkeepsie out. These children need grass and clean air, and they get car exhaust and pavement. I had to walk a full block before finding a legitimate opening in the chain link, though the temptation to just climb over the fence was largely tempered by the fact that I very much would like to be in their employ and being mistaken for a kidnapper of inner-city children would not do much to convince them that I am responsible.
I sat with the director of the center, feeling confident for the first time in my weeks of interviewing. The ad asked only for a high school graduate who could teach children how to use computers. I was getting my Master's in education, had done several courses in literacy and technology, and done a semester long study on a dyslexic student to measure if blogging facilitated an urge to write creatively. True, the object of my study was Emily, but I got an A nonetheless. Furthermore, and admittedly pathetically, my brain has wired itself to understand the binary whirring of computers like a second language. I can't understand math, but XML is a breeze.
I told the director all of this, stressing my computer background. When she called up to request an appointment with me and before I knew the nature of the job (I had taken the brute force approach to reentering the workforce, sending my resume off to whomever I thought might vaguely have me), she was startled that I was typing it out. Only when I retraced my steps in job-hunting did I realize I had serendipitously impressed her.
"Are you a racist?"
"Despite this man's racial handicap, he's a damn good educator."
I stopped mid sentence and looked bafflement at her. "Am I a racist?" I repeated back, hoping I had misheard her.
"A lot of our students are Black and Hispanic," she explained, "and some people aren't comfortable teaching minority children."
I took a calming breath, quite thrown off that this woman felt it necessary to ask me how I felt about the color of skin these children might have. Before I could answer, she added, "We only have a few white people here." It should be noted, I suppose, that she herself was of an obviously Western European bloodline. Encountering the staff later, I would learn that they were mostly Caucasian as well.
"Ma'am... these are children we are talking about. I hadn't cared to notice how much pigment they had until you mentioned it. I would have no more trouble teaching computer skills to a child of Hispanic or African descent than I would of a red haired child or a thin child."
"Well, we've had people we hired complain," she defended.
"I promise you I won't. I do not now, nor have ever had a problem with anyone's race." This was not wholly true. After I was attacked in high school by a group of Hispanic teenagers who thought that they were a real gang and suffered some stress related memory loss, I was nervous around high school aged Hispanic boys for a few weeks. Obviously, this did not bear explaining to this woman, especially given that one of my best friends at the time was a Hispanic girl and the fact that I stopped being quite so nervous after a few weeks.
I noticed that my claim of race apathy did not seem to impress this woman one way or another. It wasn't that she was unfriendly, merely that I felt a very slight ring of condescension to the proceedings. I kept my cool because, as I said, I felt I was actually more than qualified for a job.
What was worse that the slight placation was the undeniable feeling that she was testing me. After every few sentences, she would make an analytical noise in the back of her throat and begin writing something on a legal pad. A few minutes into our interview, one of the staff members rushed into the room and asked the interviewer to take care of some trivial matter. The interviewer got up, excused herself, and very conspicuously turned the legal pad over in front of me. She then left the room for no shorter than seven minutes. The temptation was obviously there to see what she had been writing, however I wasn't about to give in to this urge. Whenever it began to wax in me, I just inventoried "Master's degree, educational background, technology classes" and the like silently. She couldn't faze me with simple psychology tricks. Dave had trained me well in the art of Psych-Fu.
She came back and immediately and without preface asked me why I was fired from my last job. I suppose this is her prerogative, so I laughed lightly and explained that there was a bit of disagreement on that point.
"What sort of disagreement?"
"They insist that I was fired for having too many books out."
She clucked and wrote a note on her pad. "And how many books did you have out?"
I could tell from her apprehensive look that she wasn't sure if this was a lot of books to have out or if she should consider this fact as somehow indicative of my personality. On the one hand, I was fired. Fired is bad. But I was being completely forthright, even conversational about the point. "I guess you are pretty mad at them then?" she finally said.
"No, not really. Obviously I wish they hadn't fired me and I disagree with their given reasoning, but I don't hold any ill will toward them,"-it's okay to lie a little in a job interview-"After all, they did employ me quite happily for several years during which I felt like a part of the Howland Library family."-A family with a sticky fingered cousin, viciously racist spinster aunt, and ragingly impotent step-parent.-"And, you will note, I did win the Dutchess United Educators Award for my work at the Dutchess Library..."
She wrote on her pad again. My nerves were slightly jangled. But I'm so very qualified, I reminded myself. She isn't allowed to shake my confidence.
She put the pad down after underlining something. "Can you teach science?"
A look of consternation passed over my face. "Is that the job? This was not mentioned in the ad. But," I reasoned after catching myself, "I feel that I am more than capable of teaching science to children." At the elementary level, teaching one subject is no more difficult than teaching any other. It wouldn't be physics, just demonstrating how to make a baking soda volcano.
Again, she wrote. "Normally we have our applicants come back to spend some time with the children while they are being observed by the rest of the staff, but I really need this positioned filled immediately. So I would like you to go be with the children for an hour or so now. What grade would you like?"
"I'll hardly put your child in danger at all."
"There are no fifth graders," she said as though I should know, "You can go with the forth graders." She led me out of the conference room and added, "We are throwing you to the lions."
"I'm all for a trial by fire," I assured her with a smirk. I couldn't imagine that the fourth grade class would be any more difficult that the younger classes. If anything, they will be easier to deal with because they have something like the foundations of reason.
The room into which I was brought was the rough equivalent of an elementary school gym classroom. The floors held the demarcation of colored tape that had long since been waxed over, though the wax was chipped and filthy now. There seemed to be no real indication as to which group of children playing at various tables against the walls was which class. A tanned young man came up to me and introduced himself. I forget his name, so we will call him Fitch only because Abercrombie is too awkward a name. He was, he said, the teacher of the fourth grade class. I threatened my left eyebrow not to raise itself in amused doubt or I would pierce it. It obeyed well enough.
Fitch was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap. He introduced me to the children, calling me Mr. Xen. He, he explained, was Mr. Fitch. The young man in the corner tending to smaller children, he continued to explain as though I didn't quite get the cleverness of this code, was Mr. Quentin.
The children I was introduced to were in two very polarized groups. The boys were sitting glassy eyed on either side of two of their peers, who were playing Pokémon: Tangerine Pandora Tomorrow. Aside from a wire stretching from one Gameboy to the other, no communication was occurring between them. The girls were sitting around a round table and chatting loudly at one another, punctuated occasionally by a piece of paper being thrown from one to the other. Mr. Fitch did not seem to think much of the paper throwing, so I let it slide as well. I did not understand the nature of this test, nor by whom I was specifically being observed. Mr. Fitch hardly seemed a contender for this job, as he was already off watching Mr. Quentin making a stop animation movie with a few magnetic figures.
In fact, the only person paying much attention to me was a small girl named Chloe or Madison or some other designer name. She had whiskers and a cat nose painted on her face, I noted amusedly.
"Hi, I'm [Generic Designer Name #7]," she said pleased.
"I am... Mr. Xen, evidently. How are you?"
"I had my face painted."
"Oh, I thought you were a tiger or lion."
She looked at me as though I were daft. "No, I had my face painted. Obviously." If you have never been patronized by a fourth grader, I suggest you try it once. They are exactly at the right age that they could call your sexuality into question and still manage to seem completely harmless.
The other girls at the table had apparently smelled blood in the water, so a girl next to Choemadisontopanga asked if I lived near her. On discovering that I lived in Walden, Madisonkelseychloe asked, "Who do you live with? You don't live alone, right? So you live with someone? Do you live with your parents?"
"No," I answered under her barrage of questions, "I live with my girlfriend?"
"When are you two getting married?" Blanechloeamorgan asked.
"My god! Did Emily put you up to this?"
Mr. Fitch sidled up to me and confided, "Don't tell these girls anything. I let it slip that I was getting married and now they ask me every day if they can come to the wedding." Turning to Kaylaaliyaahblane, he added, "And no, you can't come to the wedding."
I ate up the rest of my hour talking to the kids and making sure they were not going to die of a paste overdose. The boys moved as little as was possible to maintain homeostasis, so they were no problem. The girls, aside from cattiness and a tendency to remember I had a live-in girlfriend, just tended to play with bits of paper and gossip to one another. I tried to be authoritative, though there was little cause to do anything more than be pestered by Aaliyaakelseymadison.
After a short conversation with Fitch about how much he is looking forward to being a sophomore at Mount Saint Mary, the director came down and retrieved me. She handed me a packet and told me to correct all the errors with a red pencil. This was, at least, an overt test to discover how literate I am. Half an hour and a dulled pencil later, I handed in her packet, now nearly totally red with correction and she showed me the exit. She did not ask me any questions nor ask if I had any.
I felt that could have gone better.

Soon in Xenology: A wedding. A job. Crouching tigers.

last watched: The Muse
reading: The Hammer of God
listening: Day I Forgot
wanting: Interviewers to be plain with me.
moment of zen: I'll let you know.
someday I must: get a freaking job.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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