What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? (Part Seven)

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be…

– John Lennon, “Working Class Hero”

A Different Direction

In the summer of 2001, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was in desperate need of teachers. So much so that they were awarding “emergency” teaching credentials for qualified applicants. The idea was that if you had a bachelor’s degree, and met some other criteria (no criminal record, a passing score on the CBEST, etc.), you could be eligible to earn your full-blown California teaching credential while already employed as a full-time teacher.

This seemed to me like an opportunity to explore another potential career. I was not yet willing to go back to school (as a student) for something I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do professionally. But the fact that I could work toward my credential on the job was a major selling point for giving it a shot. So, I applied for, and was awarded, an emergency credential.

Why teaching? Several reasons:

1) I already had some teaching experience. My first job right out of college was with Summer Study at Penn State, in which I devised and taught my own music class to high school students sampling college life. I had also done some subbing for (what was then known as) the Metro Board of Education, teaching a variety of subjects to students in grades K-12 at a total of 24 different public elementary, middle, and high schools in Nashville/Davidson County, TN. On top of that, I had a fair amount of experience teaching guitar to kids and, even more so and more to my preference, to teens and adults.

2) I seemed to have a natural aptitude for it. My father was a longtime (and well-regarded) high school and community college English teacher, and it rubbed off on me to a certain extent…especially his “performance” approach to teaching. Instead of saying he had five classes to teach on a given day, my dad would say, “I have five shows today.” He kept students engaged by being a bit of an entertainer in class (he was also a part-time radio personality for a number of years), and they loved him for it. He was my model for taking a similar approach, and it was hard to deny that in a number of ways I was a lot like him. It also seemed that an endless parade of people throughout my life – in entirely different contexts – had told me I would make (or already was) a great teacher. Maybe there was something to this?

3) It was “practical”. Unlike most of the things I was interested in – namely those in the creative and performing arts – you could actually make a living doing it without having to overcome overwhelming odds.

Still, I had plenty of ambivalence. I had resisted the idea of becoming a teacher all my life to that point. Perhaps this was, in part, due to my desire to individuate and distinguish myself from my dad. But there were other reasons, as well. I certainly admired those teachers I had who were dedicated, effective, and inspiring. The great ones had an immeasurably positive impact on my life (and no doubt on many other lives, as well). But I also resented the teachers I had who were (a lot) less than great, and felt that people who didn’t really love teaching ought not be doing it (I certainly didn’t want to end up being one of those).

In addition, to my more juvenile and selfish way of thinking, there was not nearly enough glory in teaching, and (immature as it may have been) I had always desired a certain amount of glory. And, finally, the last thing I wanted was to be the kind of teacher that lived up to the maxim (however simplistic or unfair the assessment): “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” (And not to forget Woody Allen’s addendum to that: “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.”).

However…despite all of my reservations, there was one more reason in the “pro” category that, at the time, settled the argument. And that was this:

I was bored out of my skull working at the accounting firm.

Surely, as imperfect an answer as Teaching may have been, it had to be a better fit than what I was doing. This conclusion made me willing to both take a significant pay cut and have to work a whole lot harder than I currently was, just for the prospect of (any) greater career satisfaction.

The Next Round of Concentrated Effort

So, emergency teaching credential in hand and eligibility confirmed, I went about what proved to be another laborious task: getting a school – any school – to give me the time of day. Just about every day, for months, I contacted the “referral unit” of the LAUSD’s downtown office for leads on middle schools or high schools that had an opening for an English teacher (English being the subject I was deemed qualified to teach, based on my college coursework). Usually, there were none. But on some occasions there’d be a lead, and, per protocol, I would immediately fax a cover letter and resume to that school’s principal to express my interest. And then I’d follow up with phone calls (I had experience with this sort of thing).

Problem #1: The LAUSD – being the second largest school district in the U.S. – was a sprawling bureaucracy, and very often its proverbial “left hand” had no idea what its proverbial “right hand” was doing. Translation: the leads I got from downtown were often inaccurate or out-of-date. Sometimes, within an individual school, the front office would tell me one thing about the status of a given opening, and the principal or department head would tell me another.

Problem #2: I wasn’t getting interviews. The diligent efforts I made were nearly fruitless. In the end, I landed one single interview. It was for a job at Locke High School. Locke had a reputation as being one of the most troubled schools in the whole LAUSD at the time, but I went anyway. Perhaps because my interviewers figured I would get eaten alive by the students there, or perhaps for other reasons, I wasn’t offered the job.

However, I was reaching a breaking point with my (lack of) tolerance for the office job. So I came up with a plan. Figuring that I had a better shot of landing a teaching job if people at a given school actually knew me, I decided I would become a substitute teacher. This way, I could experience a number of schools for myself and see which ones would even be desirable to me as a place to work full-time. I could also carve inroads at these schools by developing a reputation as a reliable sub, and building a rapport with the staff and faculty there. It seemed (to me, at least), that this would be a much more promising way to land a job once an opening came up.

A New Year, and New Beginnings

I gave the accounting firm plenty of notice (five weeks), and left my job at the beginning of 2002. I then took my mandatory (unpaid) week of teacher training for subs. In addition, I signed up with a company called Ivy West to supplement my subbing income by doing one-on-one SAT tutoring for high school students (whose parents could afford it) in their homes.

Before long, things were looking up! As part of my teacher training week with the LAUSD, I did an observation at a school, sitting in on a couple of different English teachers’ classes at Venice High. I really liked what I saw, as well as the overall vibe there. So I took the initiative to visit the principal’s office to introduce myself and inquire about any possible openings for English teachers. As it turned out, there was an opening, and interviews for it had not yet begun! I pounced on the opportunity, immediately faxing over my resume along with a cover letter detailing my experience visiting the school and my status as an eligible-for-hire-with-my-emergency-credential teacher. And, of course, I followed up.

At the same time, I had recently met a woman (also a teacher, it turned out) I was very excited about getting to know better. The number of shared interests we had was uncanny. Wouldn’t it be something, I imagined, if I managed to find both a job I really liked and a great romantic partner by the time I turned 30 (which was 8 months away)?

Without needless delay, dear reader, here’s how it all played out:

I got the interview at Venice High…but didn’t get the job.

I went out several times with the woman…but she had a number of other suitors, and she told me that she had started seeing one guy in particular with whom she “really wanted to see where things were going” (hint: it wasn’t yours truly).

I started subbing, but the work was not consistent, and the gigs I did get were across-the-board miserable.

I also did the SAT tutoring, but the pay was such a pittance (I was reimbursed neither for my commuting time to clients’ houses, nor for gas money) that it really wasn’t worth it.

After pursuing more leads for full-time teaching positions, it was becoming increasingly evident that, though I was eligible for immediate hire with my emergency credential, I was inevitably competing for these jobs with others who already had a “legitimate” credential. Hence, I really didn’t stand a chance. If I were serious about wanting to teach, it appeared I would have to suck it up and endure a full-blown credential program first, and then try to find work. I researched what that would entail, gave it some consideration, and then made my decision.

I was not willing to do it.

Now What?

I was demoralized. Seriously bummed out. What the hell do I do now? I asked myself.  And, then, just as all was seeming hopeless…DING!  It hit me. I went from “despondent” to “mobilized” in a flash!

The previous summer I had read a book called A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. The book details Bryson’s attempt to hike the entire length of the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail, which traverses 14 states from Georgia all the way up to Maine. It’s the kind of book that, I imagine, after reading it you would likely fall into one of two camps:

Camp #1: “I never, in a million years, would even consider doing that.”

Camp #2: “I’ve GOT to do that!”

Needless to say, I fell into Camp #2.

Those attempting to “thru-hike” the trail from south to north (the much more popular way to go) typically begin their journeys in March or April, to give themselves enough time to complete the whole thing before the weather up north becomes prohibitive. I had told myself, after finishing the book (for the first time), that if I did not have a compelling reason to be in LA come March (and I was perfectly willing to have one, incidentally…but if I did not) then I’d be out there on the Trail. I had been scrupulous in stashing away as much of my income as possible while working the office job the previous year, and had accrued a decent savings. March had arrived, and this fantastic notion of hiking the AT, which I had daydreamed about for some time, was suddenly and immediately doable.

While I had completed the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course the year before, the truth was I still had relatively little backpacking experience under my belt. Aside from a (previously mentioned) week-long trip in New Hampshire in 2000 (where, because we stayed in huts each night with mattresses and home-cooked meals waiting for us, many referred to this as slackpacking), I had only ever done trips of one or two nights at a time in the wilderness that involved actual camping (and only a few of those). I had no idea, realistically, how long I would last out there on the trail, but I was incredibly eager to find out!

Yes, in making this decision you could say that I was postponing having to deal with that ever-gnawing, unrelenting question of WDIWTBWIGU? But, at the same time, I would have endless opportunity to ponder it and (who knows?) perhaps even have some sort of epiphany at some point during my pilgrimage.

And so, in just three weeks’ time, I made all of my preparations, including (among a long list of other tasks) finding a temporary home for my belongings and buying a one-way (this was, after all, going to be a pretty open-ended trip) plane ticket to Atlanta. And, sure enough, in the late afternoon on March 30th, 2002, there I was on the summit of Springer Mountain – the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail – with a backpack weighing in at 51 pounds, ready to embark on one of the most extraordinary adventures of my life.

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One Response to What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? (Part Seven)

  1. David McGarvey says:

    Hi Eric – Thanks for posted these reflections. I find them fascinating, and can’t wait to hear the next installment. A 51lb packback? You ARE an Iron Man!

    For myself and a number of my friends, the solution to the WDIWTBWIGU question was to have kids. I don’t know if having them provided the deeper meaning to life that I sought, or whether the sheer exhaustion of parenting just burned out the desire for deeper meaning. My career became a tool , rather than an end, and it was able to bear that weight of responsibility. Though, with the kids moving out of the house, we’ll see if those feeling come back! Thanks for the insights, I may need them soon!

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