When I was in my early twenties I bottomed out. I'd had a depressing job at a methadone clinic and was desperately trying to salvage a relationship which provided no satisfaction, save being able to say that I had a relationship. I cracked and bridges were decimated. I spent a summer getting provisional teaching credentials and in the fall began as a day-to-day sub at a Compton middle school and an evening ESL teacher for L.A. Unified Schools. I remember the exhaustion and Sundays collapsed on the couch drinking tea and watching Masterpiece Theater while my mother helped me grade papers. Drifting off there on the sofa was the most satisfying sleep I've ever had. I started in Compton as a sub and by the year's end I was department chair. This was the first year that all teachers were required to pass the Cbest test, which at the time was written at about a 5th grade level. Teachers were given three opportunities to pass the test and after three failures, were removed from the classroom. I showed up to teach in Compton on a Monday morning and two-thirds of the other teachers were gone. They never returned. The few remaining teachers and I tried to keep some semblance of learning going in the auditorium but mostly we just ran movies, which fortunately I was able to provide.
One year in Compton was enough, although they called and begged me to return for several years after I quit. I loved the adult school teaching job and ended up working for my dad during the day and teaching at night. As I began to really take over the business, Number One Son was born. I taught for about another year and then retired. A number of my former students worked for me and many remain in touch. This was something I loved doing and seemed to have an aptitude for.
For over two years I send out resumes all over trying to get an adult school gig. I really love the classroom and a bit of extra income could make a dent in some student loans. I get a ton of form rejection letters. There is one interview which I think goes well but I never hear a word. In early January I send out another stack of resumes. Again, there is a stack of “thanks but no thanks” letters. I am called in for an interview at the same school where I've interviewed before. Again, I have what I think is a good interview and am even introduced to the principal who is very impressed by my stellar letters of recommendation. This second interview also results in radio silence and I accept that I am simply not destined to return to adult education.
There is sub work in charter schools, which I am also credentialed for. I submit an application and am surprised, but not optimistic, when I'm called in for an interview. The morning before the interview I rush over to Richard's cottage for a pick up from Out of the Closet. Except for the few pieces of furniture designated for donation the place is bare. I survey the pile. Desk. Dresser, Nightstand. The chair that he died in. This is all that is left. He's been gone now nearly two months and I'd expect to be less raw but his presence is etched on my psyche for nearly forty years. Now that I don't have the memorial to fuss over there seems like there is nothing left to feel but his absence. I stand waiting for the funky furniture to be hauled away. I don't think I've ever felt more bereft.
I rush home and use nearly a whole bottle of Visine to make myself presentable for the interview. I drive all the way to Woodland Hills although I know myself that I would unlikely hire someone who hasn't taught since mimeograph machines and chalkboards. I'm 59, the kids are grown, my best friend is dead and I have no more clue about what to do with my life than I did when I was in my twenties.
The interview is conducted by a former teacher. He asks me a lot of questions about handling discipline. I respond pretty consistently that if a teacher is engaging students, discipline shouldn't be an issue. I describe a couple of teaching activities I'd have up my sleeve in the event there is no lesson plan. His list of questions is complete and he notes that I am one of the most pedagogically qualified candidates he's interviewed. Plus, impressed by my usage of the words “genial” an “verboten” he digs my vocabulary. We keep talking. I ask about how the classroom has changed and how cell phones are managed and lessons are presented. We segue into educational philosophy and the politics of charter schools. I am hired on the spot, provided that I am not incubating tuberculosis and there is no Interpol match on my fingerprints. There is a training session next week. I will likely know way more than the facilitators and the other newly hired teachers, I am warned, might seem extremely green but perhaps I will benefit at least by the discussion about the classroom in the digital age. Plus there's free food.
The interview's emphasis on discipline makes me wonder if I'm getting in over my head. I know that kids are practically hardwired to act like assholes in the presence of a sub. But I do have a decade, albeit not recent, of experience and perhaps more salient is that I survived my two teenage sons. Plus, I genuinely like kids and I'm banking that this goes a long way. No matter, it's been a long time since I felt any sort of success so even if the subbing is unbearable, after all those resumes, it's nice to get a bit of good feedback.
I am buoyant after the successful interview. I am enormously grateful for this one good thing. I pick up my friend and neighbor Laura. While I'm sure that I will never go a day without thinking about Richard, as I begin to crawl out of my hole, and socialize a bit, I am reminded that there are other committed friends who advocate for me and comfort me when my spirits are low. Laura is thrilled to hear about the substitute teaching job. While I am gushing about it, the phone rings. The call is from the adult school that blew me off after two interviews.
The caller asks if I'd been processed yet and I am totally befuddled and blather inanely for a few seconds. It turns out though that I did get exactly the adult school job that I wanted, teaching ESL at Roosevelt High. I taught there twenty five years ago and it was one of the best teaching experiences that I had. The principal has requested that the district process me for employment, but as is typical of LAUSD, that ball is dropped and I am never contacted. I stop by the school this morning and after making about twenty phone calls trying to get me processed I am finally given the number of someone I can call in two weeks to arrange to start the hiring procedure.
I know that there have been other sub-optimal times in my life but the year before I started teaching when everything blew up and the last few months are periods I will likely remember as the lowest of the low. When I was in my twenties, teaching gave me a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Now, over thirty years later, the prospect of the classroom feels like another karmic life preserver.