MITT ROMNEY: I love teachers.
BOB SCHIEFFER: I think we all love teachers.
I just accepted a job teaching writing at a small private high school with a liberal slant and a hippie-fied aesthetic. I have applied to many teaching jobs, but I fought hard for this one, because it sounded better than any job I’ve applied to so far—perfect for me, in fact. I have been walking on air since I got the offer.
And then this morning I woke up with a sudden panic in my chest.
The woman who founded and runs the school has a PhD in rhetoric and composition and helped shape the writing center at a major university. She left academia 40 years ago, disgusted by male peers who, she hinted, ran the department like a cross between a Chuck E. Cheese and a gentleman’s club. She believes in her school, she believes in her kids, and she believes in her lifestyle, which as far as I can tell involves a lot of time spent working and reading in a cozy armchair next to her spouse in the shabby but beautiful house they have filled with books and precious artifacts.
Despite this, there was one moment of our meeting when her face clouded over and she said, “I’ve never done anything my whole life, except just teach.”
* * * * *
From what I can tell, the University of Chicago, where I got my PhD in English, considers me deceased. If you don’t believe me, look at their “job placement” page, which lists every academic job their graduates get, no matter how transient or low-status, but makes no mention of the writers, teachers, consultants, journalists, programmers, lawyers, etc., who come out of their program every year.
As far as the University of Chicago is concerned, not only was my graduation in December 2011 my most recent accomplishment, but it will always be my most recent accomplishment, unless I get a university job down the line. Many academics consider the world outside of academia devoid of all intellectual stimulation and rigor, and the decision to leave seemingly strikes them as tantamount to abandoning the “life of the mind” for an endless parade of Katy Perry tunes, American cheese, reality TV, and trips to Six Flags.
This is obviously silly, and good, smart academics certainly don’t think that way. But this assumption about leaving academia masks certain others that are decidedly less silly. Assumptions that most people never articulate when you’re thinking of leaving, because they’re too painful, too gendered, and maybe sometimes a little too true.
For a man, opting out of academia sort of implies choosing corporate lucre over the intellectual life, which is a bit déclassé. But for a woman, it is far more likely to mean choosing a low-status job in the public sector over a high-status (if still underpaid) university job.
If you lined up in a row all the women I know who left grad school, they would look something like a female version of The Village People. Public school teacher, public interest lawyer, nurse—all models of civic responsibility, public servants who keep our society running on public-sector paychecks, and with no expectations of the deference granted their high-status peers. These are the people who are lauded on bumper stickers instead of listened to in election years. And they are disproportionately female.*
They are also the smartest women I have ever met. They are writers, thinkers, activists, poets, performers, and artists. Their conversation has made me smarter and their accomplishments have inspired me to do more. Selfishly, I hope they will eventually become mothers, so I can meet their brilliant kids.
Kids who will grow up to be . . . . well it depends. Are they boys or girls? Do they want to have a family? How much? Will someone else be able to help take care of the family? Support it financially? Will they be willing to tough it out in a career where they’re either an outnumbered minority or an undervalued majority?
How important will status be to them, and what will they sacrifice to chase it across the finish line?
* * * * *
I think I will love this job teaching high schoolers to write. I love it already, and I haven’t started yet. Sitting with the director of the school, going over the class material, imagining myself imparting the fundamentals of self-expression, which I picture getting these kids into good colleges and then good jobs after that, I think, this is so much more fucking important than anything I ever did in grad school.
“You have to learn how to express yourself,” I imagine myself telling these kids. “When you know how to communicate your ideas in writing, people take you seriously. You can tell the world your thoughts, your experiences, and the world will listen. You can argue your points. And then you can achieve . . . ”
I picture myself really thinking about this one. I guess it depends?
“Anything,” I would have to finish, even though I don’t really know what that means anymore.
Once when I lived in Chicago an exterminator came by the apartment. We made small talk as he wandered around, poking the long nozzle of the pesticide sprayer into closets and checking for ants under the sink. His head and shoulders deep in the kitchen cabinets, he asked me what I did for a living. I said “student.” He asked about my post-graduation plans, and I said, “I hope to become a professor and teach English at a university.”
He emerged from under the sink right away. He said, “I got a lot of respect for schoolteachers. They got the most important job in the world. My mother was a schoolteacher, my grandmother too. You gotta be really smart to be a schoolteacher. They got the hardest job in the world.”
His head disappeared back under the sink, but he went on talking about it for some time. I felt a little squirmy. I wasn’t the one he was talking to. I wasn’t a noble public servant. I was in school because I loved ideas. I was in school for the life of the mind. I was in school—let’s face it, I was in it because everyone told me I was smart enough to win the whole game, to wear the tweed suit, to be a professor. I felt a million miles away from being the person this man thought he was talking to. It made me feel a little guilty, like I was getting away with something.
Before he left the apartment, he shook my hand. “Good luck with the teacher thing,” he said. “It’s a tough job. I really admire you.”
I’m still not the person he means. I’m not taking on the overwhelming odds against public school teachers. I’m not working with the disadvantaged kids who need it most. The kids I will teach are just shy, or weird, or they’ve been bullied or ignored in bigger schools, and their parents can afford to send them to a small hippie school with tiny classes. If being a teacher is the hardest job in the world, I hardly qualify as a teacher at all. But I no longer feel a million miles away from the person the exterminator thought he was talking to. If I work hard, someday I will be “just” a teacher, too.
In making decisions about our lives, we measure out what we can handle in tiny little increments, slivers of difference. We weigh our talents and our passions, our dreams and our guilt, what we need and what we can give, what the world says and what it means. And if, at the end of the day, we feel womaned by these decisions, we put it into next week’s lesson plan.
*They were also disproportionately women of color. Women of color left my program in tiny, silent droves while I was there.