One of the better compliments of my life was this: You know when to leave a room.
Now, whether I am particularly adept at how I leave a room is a whole other issue, but I like that someone thinks the above of me.
A few years ago, however, I was beginning to think that me leaving was really just me quitting in a slightly more eloquent disguise.
This feeling that I had become a life-long quitter all came down on top of me in a shitty hotel room in Temple, Texas. I was there because I had an interview for a full-time instructor position at a community college—
—Well, I was there because for the past year I’d been living below the poverty line as an Adjunct in Oklahoma, and the wear of that life was taking its toll on me.
Oh, and I was in Oklahoma because I had been living on the margins of poverty as an Adjunct in Texas.
And I was an Adjunct in Texas because, after receiving my MFA, Adjunct work in the Texas Panhandle was the best college teaching gig I could find.
In short, I was moving from part-time job to part-time job, hoping that one of them might stick, hoping to be given the chance to show people what I great teacher I am, and what idiots they would have to be not to hire me full-time.
I genuinely, truly believed that this would happen.
Instead, for 2-3 years, I found myself living like some kind of Roving English Instructor, dispensing structure and content advice from the back of an RV (I didn’t actually have an RV, though in retrospect I should have). I was experienced. I was hard-working. I could be had for less than 25% the cost of a real employee, and—BONUS—I didn’t require insurance or any other outside investment from the colleges at which I worked.
But while I thought I could fashion a full-time job for myself through talent and effort, at each school I ran into a wall. They all praised my teaching performance and my work ethic. They all wished dearly that they could hire me on full-time. But there just wasn’t any money with which to do so. The departments, and sometimes the entire campus, were under hiring freezes that showed no sign of relenting. When lines did open-up, due to retirement or departure, the school took the lines away altogether, rather than replace the outgoing faculty. And the holes that were left? Why, they filled them with the inexpensive and readily available labor of Adjuncts.
It wasn’t me, it was them.
And, to be clear, by them I do not mean the lovely people in the English Departments in which I served. I owe a great deal to all of those kind folks. No, by them, I mean the Administrators at nearly every college in America who have decided that the people who teach American College Students are not worth the investment.
The Adjunct Issue is one that many people are now (finally) discussing, and I will probably say more about it later, but for right now I’ll stick to that moment in Texas when looking for somewhere else to land began to feel like an internal character defect, rather than a rational choice.
I remembered that feeling from when I quit the basketball team my sophomore year of high school. Everyone around me, including myself, considered basketball to be an inalienable part of my life. My mother had been all-state. My sisters had received similar honors. I had played organized ball from the age of five.
And yet, I was pretty terrible at it. I am short. I am slow. I lacked that streak of mean that makes a person truly competitive. And my ineptitude was taking its toll. By the age of fifteen I had blown-out both ankles and broken three fingers, my nose, and my tailbone.
And then we got a new coach. A coach who did not allow people to treat the game as casual fun to be had with friends. She wanted talented champions fully dedicated to the sport. When she demanded that I choose between the Speech Team and the Basketball Team, I made my choice.
That this choice warranted even the slightest comment from anyone at all sounds silly now, but it did. Understand that I went to a small school (most graduating classes sat about 20 people; I think mine was about 35), and I was one of the girls who played basketball. No matter that I wasn’t particularly good at it, it was part of my identity.
And I had quit. Such a dirty word. A word for losers. I felt that word divide me from the people who played. The friend with whom I’d grown-up playing ball? She felt betrayed, and she I never were that close again.
So I sat in my shitty hotel room in Temple, Texas, feeling much as I had in the weeks leading-up to when I’d turned-in my high school jersey, because I was beginning to fear that I was walking away from things, not because the things themselves were not satisfactory, but because I was simply the kind of person to whom quitting had become a habit.
Why couldn’t I just stay in one place? Work hard? See it through? Surely, surely something would turn-up at my current school if I just persevered through a few hard years.
Instead, there I was, leaving again. Quitting again.
At some shitty chain restaurant next to the hotel, I received the phone call letting me know I did not get the Temple job. That night I drove the eight hours back to Oklahoma in silence, refusing to allow myself even the small escape of music. Had I become a life-long quitter? Was my constant searching for something better not ambition, but a sign that I was some horrible malcontent?
Even eight hours of silence on Oklahoma back roads didn’t answer those questions. But luckily, one of the full-time gigs did come through, so I was given a small reprieve from their consideration.
A reprieve that ended this past year, as I am once again leaving.
For the past two years, in the position I received that summer, I have been given a livable wage and decent insurance. I met some amazing people, both colleagues and students. I made some great friends. This job has been everything I’d been seeking since I’d begun circling in Adjunct Hell.
And yet, I am leaving.
And so I’ve spent the past few months once gain battling the daemons (some in my own head and some flesh-and-bone) who think my leaving is really just me quitting. Again.
But as I pack-up my life in Missouri—as I scrounge liquor stores for free boxes and delve-out my condiments to friends and once again curse myself for owning so many books—I know that those daemons are full of shit.
My decision to quit basketball? My feet were slow, but my brain was not. And that competitive streak I lacked on the court came roaring into the forefront when it came to the mental arena. I excelled, and I was recognized for this excellence, all without breaking a single bone. I was far, far happier than I had ever been on the basketball court.
And my decision to quit my adjunct schools and seek full-time employment? Well, sticking around a college as an Adjunct rarely merges into a full-time position. It does happen, but I could name friends who have been waiting for nearly a decade. There are countless stories of people who have been waiting even longer.
And my decision to quit my current job? The administration at my current school does not value its faculty. At all. I could give several examples of how this is enacted in their policies and rhetoric, but this one, I think, is enough. On more than one occasion, high level administrators have actually uttered or emailed some version of the words “faculty aren’t what’s important.”
I don’t need eight hours of silent Oklahoma back roads to face-down the daemons that call me a quitter this time. I am no longer some nervous teenage girl standing in the musty coach’s office with my jersey clenched in my hands. I am no longer the desperate and dispirited Adjunct in a shitty hotel room hoping to live above the poverty line. I am no longer the underpaid faculty member at a school that openly dismisses my efforts.
I no longer see striving for a better life as quitting; I know my talents and my worth.
And I know when to leave a room.
I realize I have called myself a good teacher several times in this blog, and I know there are those (particularly MidWesterners and Southern Ladies) who will read this and squirm uncomfortably at my naked self-trumpeting.
I am no longer ashamed of being good at my work and of letting people know that I am. I am a good teacher. I have personal testimonies and impersonal numbers to back this up. I strive to be even better, but I am good.
And here’s the thing, there is a ton of stuff at which I am absolute crap. I can’t swim, remember? I mean, Jesus, there are toddlers who can swim. And my running is the kind of wheezing, old-woman shuffle that real runners find laughable as they lap me on the trail.
My romantic relationships are doomed. My apartment is rarely tidy. I have no idea how to dress myself.
I mean, I could go-on, but it’s starting to get embarrassing for everyone.
So, yeah, I’ve got some teaching swag. I don’t apologize for it.