Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
I had been a staff writer at a local newspaper for some thirteen years when the new editor (my seventh since starting there) called me into his office and told me I was fired. I was, he explained, "not a team player."
Before I had a chance to say, "Well, duh," I found myself back in my small apartment in Brooklyn, staring wanly at a fairly pathetic checkbook.
(This editor, I should add, was also under the impression—for reasons I cannot fully explain—that I was a devil worshipper. But that's a whole other story.)
Two months later, it was clear—to me, at least—that the journalism industry was dead. Or if not "dead," exactly, it was at least uninterested in anything I had to offer it. It was time for a new tack.
The idea of teaching—getting myself one of those cushy university jobs—seemed obvious. I'd taught at the University of Minnesota back in the mid-'80s, and hadn't had much trouble with it then, so why not? I mean, I didn't exactly have a Ph.D.., but hell, I'd published some books, I'd been an almost respected reporter for two decades—with that wealth of experience behind me, who could resist? Reporting, after all, was a kind of teaching, wasn't it? You're trying to tell a story or explain the facts and issues in a manner that would help the reader better understand the world, right? That I'd mostly written human interest and first person pieces didn't even need to make it into the equation, way I saw it.
It was also pointed out to me that the fact I was blind couldn't hurt, either—along with all that experience, whoever hired me would also be able to check off a box on their EOE and ADA forms.
So with Morgan's help, I whipped up some resumes and cover letters (first time I'd needed to do that in twenty years), and started mailing them out to most every college within an easy commute. Journalism departments, English departments, writing programs—even philosophy departments (my degree was in philosophy, and though I hadn't exactly kept up with developments in the field, I figured I could fake my way through Descartes and Plato well enough). Then I sat back and waited for those lucrative offers to start rolling in.
Much to my amazement, one Monday a few weeks later, one actually did. Well, whether it was "lucrative" or not I didn't know yet—a friend of mine warned me that he had to teach seven or eight courses a semester to make ends meet—but it was an offer nevertheless, which was more than I'd heard from much of anyone else.
"Would you be interested," the email from the department chair read, "in teaching a Literature in Translation course?
Why yes, I thought. Yes I would. Funny thing was, it was from a school I'd only sent a resume. Without a cover letter, my resume must have seemed kind of sparse. But here they were, so I wasn't complaining.
I sent a nice note back, expressing my interest and asking what books I'd be teaching.
The next morning, I received a reply that didn't answer my question, but did ask me to come in for an interview as soon as possible—as in that morning.
So I put on some deodorant (a habit I'd sort of given up on since being fired), changed my shirt (ditto) and ran outside into the middle of an unexpected downpour.
Forty-five minutes later, the rain still coming down hard outside, a guard lead me up to the security desk. I'd come in through the wrong door, and so had to be lead through the building, cane in hand.
The woman at the security desk picked up the phone and called the sixth floor, where my appointment was scheduled.
"Hello?" she said into the phone. "Yes, this is the security desk...someone there is going to have to come down here—we have a visually-impaired man who says he has an appointment up there, and someone needs to help him."
Oh Jesus Christ, I thought in dismay. That was the last introduction I needed. I'd sort of neglected to mention the whole "blind" thing in my resume. Might as well call up and say "the midget's here."
In any case, the woman who came down to retrieve me was very pleasant. I apologized for the inconvenience, and explained that I probably could've found my way up there unassisted as she lead me through a maze-like configuration of doorways and corridors and elevators (making me realize it was probably for the best).
The office she ushered me into was quiet and bright. There didn't seem to be anyone else around, until the department chair who'd written me stepped out of her office.
She was a woman in her early-fifties, I'd guess, with what I'd come to think of as an academic haircut.
She shook my hand and directed me into a conference room, where we both took a seat at the end of a long table.
Immediately, she began explaining the class—which she identified by number, perhaps not realizing that it meant absolutely nothing to me. There would be 28 students, and it was important that I do more than just lecture—that I make them do little projects in class. Reports, small group discussions, short writing assignments.
Now, I remember being a student, I knew people who were students now, and everything she mentioned sounded like a nightmare. Nobody wants to do small group discussions. They're a waste of time and they make everyone uncomfortable. Nobody wants to give reports in front of the class either.
But what was I going to say? "I have no intention of inflicting any of that crap on the students"? No, that wouldn't be wise. So I kept my damn mouth shut and nodded.
"So why don't you tell me about your experience?" she asked.
"Well, uhh..." I began. "I taught Intro to Humanities at the University of Minnesota in the mid-80s....and for the last 20 years I've written for various newspapers and magazines, published a few books and...ummm...well, I guess professionally, that's been it, really."
Instead of asking me to leave, she pulled out some sample syllabi from previous sections of the same class. I reached into my bag and started poring over the first one. Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, the Bible, Shakespeare...I could handle all that easily enough. Then I glanced at the dates beside each assignment.
"So this would begin in January?" I asked. That would be swell—I'd have plenty of time to prepare, and also get through the few freelance things I was working on at the time.
She smiled nervously. "No, um, this would start...Thursday."
My stomach clenched up briefly. "As in 'the day after tomorrow' Thursday?"
She then explained that they were rushing to get the position filled after two other people who were supposed to be teaching backed out.
Then she asked, "Are you still interested?"
What choice did I have at that point? I wasn't hearing from anybody else. Plus, I figured I could wing it for a couple weeks until I got things under control.
Then she told me how much I'd be paid.
Man, I thought, all those legends I'd heard about how shitty teachers are paid really are true!
But again, at this point I had no real choice at all.
After the interview, the woman who retrieved me from the security desk give me the tour. She showed me where the copy machine was, the kitchenette, my new cubicle, and my classroom. It all sounded so definite, so final. She didn't say "if you get the job, this is where you'll be." She said "this is where you'll be."
That's when I started to get nervous. Had the interview really gone that well? Had the two shared some kind of hand signal? Or were they simply so desperate to put a body at the front of the class that they decided to hire the first person to walk through the door?
They were both very nice, and the class seemed fine—but the day after tomorrow? As she brought me back downstairs to the front doors, I was beginning to sweat.
But even as I sweated I was thinking that I had no choice—that I'd asked for a damn job hadn't I? And here was one now.
I stepped back out into the downpour. The chair had told me before I left that she'd be making a decision first thing the next morning, and that she'd send me a note. Figuring I had until then, I picked up a payphone, called Morgan, and the two of us went to a bar.
I didn't sleep well that night.
How could I pull a syllabus together, fill out all that paperwork, learn where everything was, acquaint myself with a completely new environment, compose a few lectures—all in a day?
The next morning, there was nothing. No note, no confirmation. I wasn't sure what "first thing in the morning" meant to this woman, but by the time the clock struck noon, I began to relax. She'd clearly done something else. Canceled the class, hired a janitor, conscripted her golden retriever to teach Gilgamesh to a bunch of business students.
When, come four o'clock, her official rejection note arrived, I was more relieved than I could remember being in quite some time. I'm sure that golden retriever will do a better job than I would, anyway.