For college, I went to an expensive private school in the Midwest, because my girlfriend went there, and I got in, and no one advised me on how student loans worked. All I knew was, I was a poor kid, and I got accepted to a fancy school, and they were giving me half in grants and half in loans and I wanted to be a teacher so I would just pay them back later.*
Dare I say, I had a fantastic time at school: I broke up with the old, shitty, lying girlfriend and got a new one. I read interesting things and got exposed to exciting ideas. I was active on campus: my first year there I won the 1st place award the school’s literary journal gave out. I won honorable mention, too. The next year I was that magazine’s Poetry Editor. And the year after I was Editor-in-Cheif. I was in the English department building more than I was at home. I was a tutor and TA for more than one professor. I won lots of other awards, for writing and for being poor. But best of all, I had some really great professors. Ones that encouraged me, ones that saw things in me I was afraid to believe in before because I had no outlet for them.
Then I got into grad school. I realized there I was not a special fucking snowflake. My first workshop I brought a poem in that the professor claimed was so shitty he “didn’t even know if it was a poem.” I had no community there. I had few friends. I lost my voice, and wrote poems that were funny because I was afraid to be serious. I am embarrassed by my thesis. The last punch in the mouth I got there came in the form of a cruel twist of tired symbolism: I got cancer. When I graduated, I limped home to Chicago, tail between my legs, my self-critic so loud in my ears I have been incapable of writing a single poem for almost 4 years. Before that, I hadn’t stopped writing poetry for a decade. When I think about writing poetry, it is acutely painful. It is like looking a friend in the face after you have inflicted a deep betrayal. Oh, yeah, and there are no jobs, either.
So I work at a wildly popular grocery store chain, that pays my bills and is the place that I met my current and forever girlfriend. But I am pretty pissed off at the way school turned out for me. I owe more money than I will ever pay back in my lifetime and I have a job that I could have gotten without a high school diploma. I teach adjunct here and there but the longer time goes on the more likely it becomes that I will never get a full-time gig. And so returning to the scene of the crime every fall just feels more and more like an insult. I feel used, like I’m the piece on the side that’s not good enough to take home to mom. Like every December, when the term is up, the college I’m adjuncting for just leaves my stipend on the nightstand and tells me to lock the door when I leave.
So I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore. I really wanted to be a teacher, a creative writing professor (I have a Masters degree in Fine Arts in Poetry), but those jobs are going to people with lots of books published, with PhDs, and I am not that person. I’m just good in the classroom, and I get great student evaluations at the end of the term, but I’m not Robert Pinksy. I’m not a name the school can use to bring in the money, ahem, excuse me, I mean the students.
I have thought of myself as a teacher for a long time now, tied my identity to my occupation in a way that has harmed me. I am thinking too narrowly about this: I can volunteer and use my talents that way (because, since I am bringing in money, who gives a toss if my students aren’t paying some school shittons to listen to me talk? And really, the thing I miss most is being in a room talking to people about poetry). The core problem here is that I am smart and I have talents that are going underutilized. Essentially, I need an outlet. One that doesn’t involve putting perishables into a bag while someone talks on their cellphone.
I am going to stop wasting my time trying to be accepted into academia. They clearly don’t want me. I am going to switch gears–I have some volunteer options in the city I will check out when I move home. And I am going to dust off the gears in my brain and start working on a little creative memoir project I keep putting off. And I am going to post little pieces of it here, just to keep myself on track and honest.
Thanks for reading and be nice to yourselves,
Your Pal Eli
*Of course I knew teachers didn’t make oodles of money, but they wouldn’t charge me a king’s ransom for an education with no job waiting for me on the other end, now would they?