Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sometimes There Is Hope

Sometimes there is hope. A decade ago I was sitting at my desk talking with a friend who had retired before returning to work as a contractor. I was talking about all the things that my wife and I want to do when we retired. “Why are you waiting until your life is almost over to do what you love?” my friend responded. Taken aback, I didn’t answer. I had already passed 40 and, while I had a job I loved and that paid well, long hours on swing shifts made it physically taxing and no one was allowed to continue in that one position for more than a couple years. Usually it was filled by people doing their last tour before retirement, but I had another 20 years to go, and whatever my next position would be, it’d be a move backwards. Besides, my degrees are in the humanities: I lacked the IT training I’d need move on. I was stuck.

Then came 9/11. I was at home when the attacks occurred but went back into an evacuated building to keep vital systems running so the government could continue to operate. I wasn’t in any danger, but I didn’t know that at the time. The guards took my name as I went into work and told me that if there was another attack my office was “a tomb.” For the next 16 hours I sat with a handful of coworkers keeping essential systems running and watching the towers fall again and again on the BBC. I drove home past fire engines and ambulances with a plume of smoke in the sky above us. The events of that day caught my attention and made me think "what is it I am doing with my life?" My wife and I talked and talked about what we wanted to do. Her career was (and is) going well and she loved what she was doing. We knew we couldn’t leave the area, but I wanted to teach college--to do what I love before I was too old to enjoy it.

So when my position tenure expired the next year I reentered the workforce, looking for a door into academia. We knew it could be a long haul, but I worked for years on my doctorate; working fulltime, researching on weekends, and writing at night. My wife and I knew I had the patience to grind it out. I spent the next few years scrambling to find work. I did museum exhibits and websites, swept floors and cleaned out old garages and basements for historic sites. I tracked down photographs for authors at the archives, and sold stuff on eBay. Running a small online book store that specialized in academic titles made money for awhile. My wife got used to having the housework done and dinner ready when she got home.

When not working I spent my days at the library doing research and writing and began to add to my thin CV. When I found a temporary position we put some money away and paid off what debts we had accumulated. “Vacations” were quick trips to conferences to give papers and make contacts. At one point I was promised that a short-term grant-supported position would be made a fulltime job and, since my car was on its last legs, splurged to buy a new one. It wasn’t fancy, but it was new and it would run. The day after I signed the loan, my boss announced that he had changed his mind and my job would disappear at the end of the week. Still, while things were tight, we were never poor, never missed a meal, never had to skip any medical treatments, and I was never late paying a bill. Nonetheless, we always knew we were one serious illness or accident away from the financial edge.

Five years ago I applied for a teaching position at a small university and was hired as an adjunct. I enjoyed teaching and liked my coworkers and the vast majority of my students. Unfortunately the pay was low, even for adjuncting. When a TT position opened I applied, but they wanted someone with a different specialty and I was passed over. Still, I taught what they asked me to teach, at the hours they asked, and did work outside of my official responsibilities. I mentored senior projects, worked on faculty committees, advised a university club, and acted as the unofficial IT person for my coworkers (my old skills came in handy). Even better, the job gave me access to a library so I could continue writing.

Not long ago my department chair told me they had the money for an additional fulltime spot. It’s not TT yet, but will be, and they asked me to apply. Last night she emailed me and told me that I have the job. My contract will be ready this week and I can pick up a key for my own private office Monday. My boss also began discussing what types of future projects will look good to a tenure committee. Tomorrow I am going to walk into “my office” for the first time in a decade. I already know the first thing I am hanging on my wall--an award I received at my previous career that I had been given for sticking with a long-term project when most of the others bailed out.

25 comments:

  1. Excellent news! Congratulations to you.
    Will you still be "morose"?

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a really touching story especially because it seems like something we can all relate to. We've all made critical purchases just before the job we had changed or disappeared. We've moved around and made big sacrifices. It's heartwarming to see the payoff here. Best of luck for everything falling into place. Congrats.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Congrats on the good news! Very happy for you! Remember, this is something you earned.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for telling your whole story, and congratulations to both you and your wife (for standing by you)!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wonderful news, and uplifting story! Congrats!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Congratulations! That's wonderful news, and a well-deserved reward for hard work! I hope the FT to TT conversion goes equally smoothly. Is that something that will happen automatically, or do they have to do a separate search?

    I do have to say, mostly as a warning to others, that in my experience this kind of thing is extremely rare. I know of far more cases of people going above and beyond, only to see the full-time or tenure-track slot to go what I think we called here earlier a "fresh face," or even to be told, after many years, that the position they've occupied, shaped, improved, etc. is being eliminated (or converted to PT, which can have nearly the same effect).

    I also have the nagging feeling that the very few instances I know of people moving from contingent to TT within the same institution (except in the case of spouses of TT faculty) are all men, and that most of the people I know who've worked equally hard only to be dismissed with thanks (if that) have been women. But I'd really, really love to hear counterexamples to that pattern.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Brilliant! Congratulations, completely. Tell me, though, though your moniker is "Morose," have you been happy to have taken the shot?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Adding my own congratulations; perseverance does pay once in a while.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Congratulations. Sometimes things do work out in the end.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I love stories like this. Congrats, Triple M!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Congratulations!!!! I am so happy for you!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you for all the well wishes. A few comments/answers.

    I will keep "morose" for now. "Middle-Aged and Merry" sounds kinda lame. I am open to suggestions.

    My wife is indeed great! When I would get discouraged she'd tell me that she's never known me to be happier than when I am teaching.

    When my spot moves from term to TT there will be an open search so I will have to compete for it. Since the person they hire will be replacing me, the job description will reflect what I have been doing and who better to replace me, than me? Still, that does open some unpleasant possibilities doesn't it?

    Today I bought a frame for a foreign poster I bought well over 10 years ago because it was related to my dissertation. I set it aside to put on my office wall someday. Tomorrow "someday" arrives.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "Middle-aged and Mellifluous"?
    Enjoy today!!

    ReplyDelete
  15. "Middle-aged and Mellifluous"?

    I dunno. It make me sound like I'm a smooth jazz channel on satellite radio...

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.