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Anti-Social Networking | 2011 | Vampires, Vinegar, and Vaccines

03.21.11 9:17 a.m.

It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.  

-Oriah Mountain Dreamer


When I Grow Up

I will model balloon hats, semi-professionally

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was very small, I recall telling my father that I wanted to be a conductor. He asked what kind, perhaps assuming I had a yen to wave a stick at an orchestra. The question was beyond me. I grew up next to train tracks and, like most boys, felt a primordial fascination with large machinery I could theoretically operate. (Take that in a Freudian way if you absolutely must.)

As I grew older, I found other professions I coveted, ones I would inevitably slip into. In high school, having appeared as the villain in a Shakespearean comedy (As You Like It), I was certain I was meant to be an actor. I had no illusions that I was to be a leading man, but I felt I would make a damn fine character actor, a "Hey, it's that guy!" you recognize but cannot name. I had a far more certain plan for this: I would go to college in Chicago, join Second City, be hired to Saturday Night Live, and transition into steady movie and television roles. It was going to happen. When I did not get a part in the subsequent play, I moped for a week until the teacher actually hugged me in front of the class and told me there just was not a proper part for me (I did not have a "proper part" at my high school ever again, as they switched to musicals and I failed to have either rhythm or tone).

After high school, I thought I might become a librarian, because I liked being in libraries and I adore books. The nearest library training program was two hours away and I did not have it in me to either drive that distance every day or move. It seemed a difficult profession to get into in earnest, as a given town only needs a small number of librarians. Still, most of my initial jobs were in libraries, because I was good at library work. It was peaceful and involved giving order to chaos. That it gave me near infinite reading fodder via inter-library loans was an absolute plus.

The year I spent as a proofreader was dull, but being paid to be caviling about text suited me well. I worked independently and was given a wide berth so long as I continued to perform efficiently. I did not see myself as a proofreader and doubted correctly I would ever be elevated to an editor there, but it was solid work. I did not toss and turn in fear of the coming day.

I think my mother saw in me the spark of teacher. Or, equally possibly, she wanted me to be a teacher because it was what she was, though at a different level. I believed the myth that male teachers were highly prized, somehow missing that they only have value at the elementary level and even then they are also held as objects of great suspicion (what kind of a man wants to work educating small children? A pedophile, that's what kind!). Seeing this a reliable fallback, as a profession that had good benefits and was not likely to be rendered obsolete within my lifetime - and frankly having no better idea for what to study, since "English Major" does not translate seamlessly to a fulfilling career without the kind of connections I do not have - I deigned to study it. Teaching involves a good mix of theatricality and booklust. And I am a fine teacher, having transformed a few dozen learning disabled students into avid readers and competent writers. But teaching does not seem to want me despite my efforts. I go to interviews where they tell me that they do not have jobs to offer, but thought they would cause me to lose a day of pay for the fun of it. They have the jobs and thereby hold all the cards, so I cannot deny them my presence when reasonable.

I had a rough day teaching recently. It began by being pelted by fruit snacks in an unruly class that had no lesson plan - none of the classes did - and had me walking to another school in the rain where the kids were no less in control of themselves but at least had the excuse that they were younger. Then I walked into my final period of the day, on the stage of the auditorium, behind the drawn curtain. There were a collection of my favorite kids at this school, those I see the least because teachers with good classes have fewer absences. All had musical instruments and were idly strumming and banging as they chatted. Two girls with cellos were discussing Hemingway and were improvising compositions to his novels. A boy with a guitar strolled up to me, told me his girlfriend loved me, and serenaded me with the song "Wonderwall". For the first time since leaving Summer Institute for the Gifted, I recalled why I had endured so much frustration to become a teacher. If I could keep these students, I could actively want to be a teacher rather than passively enduring it in hopes a real position will materialize.

There are students out there that could disproportionately benefit from having me as a teacher. With the right students, with those who have some curiosity and compassion, I can bring the world to them. With some of my gifted kids, I could reach through the fog that was the rest of their year and allow them clarity and direction. With the learning disabled kids - much as I felt caged by boarding school life - I was someone who saw them as forming people and not a collection of symptoms and weaknesses.

What else am I supposed to do but teach? I no longer know what I want to be when I grow up. I don't feel a particular drive most days - aside from avoiding penury - and I increasingly feel a dread. Substitute teaching is not hard and I am generally well regarded at the school. I know the job I am apparently trained to do, though I was wrong about it being reliably needed in an economy that cuts educational funds well before examining real superfluity. I don't know what I want to be if it isn't this and I don't know how to find that out. I don't live in a world where my passions are enough to keep me solvent.

My only solution is to remind myself constantly that what job I do, how I get my paycheck, has no bearing on who I am as a person. I think that I will always be a writer before any other profession, because writing is something I can do without the oversight of a bureaucracy. Not being published for a year does not mean I lose my credentials as a writer.

The tension does force to mind the question of what I think I am doing. Oh, teaching will throw me a bone in the form of substitute jobs and after school tutoring, but the tenure track jobs do not seem to go to those who have been working toward them for years. Why slam my head against the wall in hopes that I can make my way through into a low-paying, high-maintenance position? Partly, it is that I have invested so much. But the state of New York seems to have no respect for this and sets as a prerequisite of continued certification that one needs to teach at a school under a mentor for a year. If you can't manage to get a job and a mentor, you can't be certified. I think this is just to prevent the pool of qualified teachers from existing on paper or to reward those who have connections (check the list of faculty for most schools. Count how many of the same surnames you see. Either there is rampant nepotism or a tenured teaching position is a dominant genetic trait).

I remember some bit of glurge, a child asked the question of what he wants to be when he grows up and answering "Happy". I would like to be happy, but my professional life does not bear that out.

So, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: Zerophilia
reading: American Psycho
listening: Wailin Jennys

Anti-Social Networking | 2011 | Vampires, Vinegar, and Vaccines

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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