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

Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.

– Drew Carey, The Drew Carey Show

The AT

My hike on the Appalachian Trail was, without question, one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I am so glad that I seized the opportunity to give myself the gift of that memorable, often magical, and certainly character-shaping endeavor. There is much I could say about it – many stories to tell – and perhaps I will do so elsewhere. But for our purposes here I will share just a few bits of information in the name of satisfying what I imagine would be some pressing curiosities:

1. I lasted five weeks on the Trail before taking what became a ten-day side excursion to see friends in Nashville and Atlanta. I then returned to the Trail for another three weeks before calling it quits. So, eight weeks in all.

2. I covered approximately 540 miles of the AT – roughly one-quarter of the whole thing – carrying an inadvisably heavy backpack (especially for my body weight) the whole way.

3. There were many things gained out there on the Trail, but an epiphany about WIWTBWIGU was not one of them.

The Question Revisited (Again, and Again, and Again)

In the twelve years since leaving the AT and returning to LA, I have continued – steadfastly – to live and wrestle with the ever confounding Question that titles this series of blog posts. Over the years I have sought out the help of various therapists, career counselors, and coaches. I have read many books and completed numerous personality tests, inquiries, inventories, and exercises. I’m not saying that these were entirely worthless, but the fact is that after each – and all – of these undertakings, my Question remained unanswered.

It would be one thing if I had never known WIWTBWIGU, but that’s not where I was coming from. I knew exactly what it felt like to have an Answer, and to have such a strong sense of conviction about it that I could deem any necessary battle – however long, and however uphill – easily worth it. For at least a solid decade of my life – from, say, ages 15 to 25 – this was the case, and I didn’t just know what my Answer was, but I acted on it as boldly and wholeheartedly as I knew how (see Parts Two and Three of this series for more on that).

I think this, in large part, is what has made answering The Question since then so immensely challenging for me. It’s impossible to forget what it feels like to really know what you want to do (however “difficult” or “impractical” it may be). And, quite honestly, no other option I have entertained or explored in the nearly seventeen years since leaving Nashville has brought me anywhere close to how I once felt about writing, recording, and performing music (including, notably, “writing, recording, and performing music”).

In the aftermath of Nashville, an unmistakable (and thus far unbroken) pattern emerged, and it goes like this:

A) Work a (deeply unfulfilling) office job for as long as I can stand it (my tolerance level often being in direct inverse proportion to the amount of savings I have).

B) Usually with some kind of alternative plan in place (but not always!), quit said office job.

C) Enact alternative plan (or seek one out, if none is in place) in an attempt to break the cycle and do something more satisfying.

D) Become increasingly desperate financially.

E) Repeat.

What have some of these alternative plans been? If you’ve been reading the series thus far, you already heard about the decision to move to LA and explore acting as a potential career path. And you also heard about my attempt to secure a full-time teaching job after being awarded an emergency credential. Two other noteworthy efforts have been as follows:

1. I tried to build up a full-time guitar teaching practice. When it wasn’t proving sustainable, I tried supplementing that with freelance proofreading work. Even still, I was not able to pull it off – fiscally speaking – after much concentrated effort.

2. In 2009, I bit the bullet and decided that, fifteen years after obtaining my bachelor’s degree (and seven years after my initial experiment with an emergency credential), I was finally ready and willing to go back to school for a “proper” teaching credential (Single Subject, English). I still had many of the same reservations about teaching. But I knew from experience that there were aspects of teaching that were a fit for me, and I also knew that I needed to do something differently if I was going to break the cycle of (let’s face it) soul-crushing, mind-numbing, talent-atrophying, stagnating, go-nowhere office jobs.

So, after researching nearby universities for teaching programs, I applied for a relatively new and cutting-edge program at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) called the Accelerated Collaborative Teacher Education Program (ACT, for short). This was a rigorous full-time program that allowed candidates to earn a preliminary California teaching credential in just one year. Gaining entry into the program itself required jumping through a number of hoops, and I jumped through all of them and was accepted just in the nick of time to begin that fall.

For the next four months I lived/breathed/ate/slept/(you name the bodily function) and otherwise immersed myself in school. I rose early every weekday to spend the morning at my student teaching post at Mark Twain Middle School. Then I’d come home to work on a never-ending treadmill of papers and assignments for my CSUN classes (there were five such classes in all, and I had to write no fewer than 16 papers for just one of them!). Four days a week I would then commute from West LA to Northridge (and back) for classes. With any energy remaining I would stay up to either grade student papers or work on my own before collapsing into sleep. Any leisure activities (including rest) were indulged in sparingly on weekends, as doing so meant taking the risk of falling even further behind in my workload.

Perhaps it was the fact that I had been out of college for 15 years and was much more “out of practice” at doing school than many of my whippersnapper peers in the program. And perhaps I was a bit perfectionistic about the work that I did (I took it all very seriously, and had high personal standards for each assignment I completed). But for four months straight I constantly felt like I was struggling just to keep up (to be sure, a number of my classmates did seem pretty stressed out, as well, at least some of the time).

I never missed a single one of my CSUN classes, and only missed one day at Mark Twain (but more than made up for this by staying there longer each day than my program required me to, and also by showing up for parent-teacher conferences).

The professors for my classes ranged from good to great. I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of them. My cohort was a group of super likeable, intelligent, and committed folks with an impressive diversity of talents and interests, and this made for stimulating class discussions and further motivated me to give my all. I finished each one of my classes for the semester with a 4.0 grade-point average.

The student teaching side of things, however, did not go as well. I was dutiful about it, but was triggered in a myriad of ways: the difficulty of classroom management and teaching students at a wide range of levels in the same class, spending more time grading papers than the students (in most cases) spent writing them, and the overriding pressure to focus on standardized test results above all else (aka “teaching to the test”), for example. In the end, because I was not able to complete all of the particulars required of student teachers (and had some confusion about this, specifically in regard to the need to present a portfolio of highly detailed daily lesson plans, until it was really far too late), I did not receive credit whatsoever for the entire semester of student teaching. I would have to repeat that part from scratch. I could have done so, but it would have taken far longer to finish and I was just not willing to do it. In fact, truth be told, I was relieved to jump off of this particular high-speed train. As much of a semi-fiasco as the whole thing was, I did not feel that, by abandoning this path, I was missing out on a true vocational calling.

Under close-to-ideal conditions (i.e., teaching students that want to be there, and are interested in what I have to offer), I think I make a fine teacher. But having to twist arms and motivate the unmotivated is neither appealing to me nor a strength of mine. I knew this going in to the ACT Program, and if there is any regret about the whole experience, it is that I put forth so much effort in perhaps a misguided direction. As with so many other career pursuits, you have to really want to be a teacher (especially in this day and age) to persevere through the many challenges (and hazards) of the occupation, and perhaps that is as it should be. I have the utmost respect for teachers, and others, who truly care about what they are doing and (especially) about the people for whom they are doing it.

After this sincere effort at putting aside my issues and returning to school in the hope of finding a more meaningful and fulfilling career path, I am sorry to say that I reverted back to what I knew: the above-mentioned, well-worn pattern. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

Why am I sharing stories like this in a self-proclaimed blog about “inspired living”?  What is my latest Answer to the WDYWTBWYGU Question as I now approach 42 years of age?  How many more posts will it take for me to finally wrap this series up?

Hang in there, dear reader!  We’re almost there, I promise…

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