Two years ago this week, I embarked on an adventure that changed my life forever.
It was scary enough to leave a cushy job I’d held for six years–a state job with solid health benefits and a decent salary–and move from a small, rural town to a metropolitan area of five small cities (and to clean out my rental house and give my cat to a close friend), all to join my husband and move into his apartment. We’d been married a month.
And I’d be changing careers entirely. Though at the time, that wasn’t the goal. This was an immediate stop-gap job: something I could do to get paid for at least a few hours each week, while I took time to land a full-time job similar to what I’d been doing, (which was writing, copy editing, and doing creative conception work on publications for colleges and universities).
I started my career as a journalist at small-town daily newspapers. After the terrible hours and pay, and taking public abuse on an hourly basis–but despite the tremendous learning experience–I jumped at the chance to land a desk job in PR, and I stayed in the field of higher ed marketing for 9 years.
But a lot of that time, I questioned my purpose and effectiveness, both as an employee and as a human being. I was conscientious, creative, and reliable, and even though I could be stubborn about what I thought should happen on a project–and maybe didn’t do things as quickly as I should’ve–I was good at my job(s).
But I’m not exaggerating too much when I say I had to get committee approval on whether or not to use a comma.
After starting out in journalism, with so much responsibility (and, really, power) at my fingertips — I’d covered some controversial school board meetings, coroner’s reports, arrests, etc. –PR work often felt like slogging through hours of meetings and committees just to make the simplest decisions, and still somehow nothing seemed to really get done.
When each new academic year started, I worried that nothing had changed from the year before: new students were starting life-changing chapters in their lives, and I was still sitting in the same chair doing the same thing.
I could’ve filled a book with stories from just one week in newspaper life. What could I really say I’d learned or done in my time in PR?
True, I worked with some wonderful people, creative people, and I’d interviewed and written feature stories about some interesting students and professors.
And I’d breathed sighs of relief for predictable hours and pay. And for a generally more positive and healthy environment than the newsroom.
I’d found typos, and I’d gone to marketing meetings where people and their egos battled over trivial issues (“But I think the link should go there.)” The end. (Or at least that’s how I viewed it in my most cynical or depressed moments).
And so, partially due to those nagging feelings of worthlessness–and partly due to my newly found predictable schedule (no more night meetings covering school board decisions–thank the good lord), I answered an ad in the paper for a local community college’s Adult Literacy Coalition, which was seeking volunteer tutors. I thought,” I like to read, why not help another person do it, too?”
So I applied, and then completed a 12-hour training through the State of Illinois over the course of several Saturdays. And I ended up working for two years with a young woman who needed basic reading skills. That’s a whole story unto itself. But I bring it up because, as you’ll now see, when I got married and moved and and subsequently had to resign from my university job, it wasn’t a completely random choice that I took a job teaching adults with low-level reading skills at a community college in Iowa.
I’d had that 12-hour training, as I mentioned.
And I’d had that real-world experience of tutoring someone who had very adult pressures in her life but who read at what was probably a second or third grade level.
I’d had the experience of bonding with her emotionally and becoming friends, but feeling like I’d really done nothing in terms of teaching her how to read.
And when the college in Iowa hired me, I’d completed an online training from the web site ProLiteracyEdNet.org, which reminded me (from my earlier training) that adults need their lessons to be immediate, that they need to feel a very obvious connection between what they’re learning and what they need in their lives, and that they face extreme barriers to success (such as daycare and transportation to even get themselves to school, for starters).
But I wasn’t prepared for what I found when the lead instructor led me down the stairs of the adult education center on Halloween day two years ago.
Say Hello to the Biggest Challenge of Your Life
The school, if it can be called that, was located in an old car dealership building downtown just a few feet away from the Mississippi River (and had flooded repeatedly over the years). There were no windows in any of the cinder-block “classrooms,” (save for the computer lab, which, lucky as we were to have it, rarely had a working printer, and in which usually a handful of the stations were frozen and wouldn’t be attended to any time soon).
I was hired to teach the “Beginning Readers” class, which would consist of students who, even though they’d enrolled with the hopes of earning a GED, were reading at a low to beginning level that put such a goal out of reach. (Or at least out of reach in the forseeable future). This assessment of their abilities, however, hadn’t been expressed to them, or, if it had, it had been done in a gentle, roundabout way so as to not discourage them from their goals.
I was there early and when I got to my classroom in the low-lit basement, I found a small room with a whiteboard, some file cabinets and bookshelves strewn with random papers, pictures, and flashcards, and I was nervous and excited and ready to go.
But then I met my “class,” and it slowly began to dawn on me that any ideas I’d had about how to teach and manage this group were going to go out the window.
On my first day in the field of Adult Education (and Adult Literacy), I was introduced to the following students:
- a scared-looking West African woman in her 30s (and mother of three) who had never been sent to school–who had never used a written language, ever–in her home country
- a smiling man (also from a West African country) built like a refrigerator, who’d been a professional athlete but who’d worked rather than gone to school (as a child) in his native country, and therefore had never learned to read and write (and therefor can’t find a job),
- two local African American students of advanced ages, (one of whom had even earned his high school diploma in another city), but whose reading levels put them somewhere near second or third grade level (in terms of comprehension, writing, etc.),
- an elderly refugee from Burma in her who understood literally not one syllable I said to her, (and vice versa), but who smiled nonetheless and who laughed, (either nervously or disdainfully, I couldn’t tell), when I tried over and over to teach her “pencil” and ”clock,” and
- a nineteen-year-old African American woman with Down syndrome (and her aide, who was paid to attend with her but who sat reading a book).
I’ll never forget the moment of looking around that room and seeing the creased faces, the spotted hands and teeth, the sweet smiles and somewhat distrusting glances — and the utter jolt of realization that these people desperately needed help and that I was supposed to be the lifeline to that help. I didn’t know it that day, but that moment would likely change the course of my life forever.
I jumped in and did the best I could, sweating and worrying and smiling and laughing and holding back tears, all at the same time, every day that I worked with this group (and with the random low-readers who would show up for a day or a week and then never come back).
Out of the Depths of the Dungeon and Into the Light
Over the course of these last two years, our center has (thankfully, and amazingly, I might add –since our district has, in the past, received no funding whatsoever from the state) — been relocated to a brand-new, state-the-art building that actually looks like it’s part of a community college. I’ve gained more and more hours and more responsibility, steadily, since the day I started.
Student lounge, updated from old one… by about 30 years
And I’ve now worked with hundreds of students, in both the English as a Second Language (ESL) and GED programs, as well as those “beginning” readers, and have even helped at least a few GED students succeed — including one who graduated and received a college scholarship for which I nominated her.
But I’m part-time, (as is nearly everyone teaching in this field); I have no health benefits; and I never know from one semester to another — scratch that, I never know from one DAY to another — if my employment status will be the same tomorrow as it is today. I can’t save for vacations or health costs, let alone buy the new clothes and manicures and other luxuries I used to have.
I’ve been treated with extreme disrespect by GED students once or twice.
I’ve driven the half-hour commute to work to find the building dark and locked, and/or come home to check my bank balance and find my paycheck wasn’t deposited–all without the slightest heads up of communication from anyone at the school.
And yet I’ve come back and stuck with it.
Because I can’t bring myself to leave the students who so desperately want to work, who want and need better jobs (or a job at all), but who didn’t finish high school and/or don’t know how to read.
I should leave for financial reasons, but can’t bring myself to do yet because I’m so passionately attached to the students and to the mission. How can any of them get anywhere –or help their children do the same — if they don’t have even a high school-level credential, let alone read, write, and speak English?
I’m definite that I’m purposeful in this situation.
I don’t have to seek committee approval on a comma. Instead, I have to try to teach students–everyone from teenage skater boys to 60-something grandmothers –what a comma is, and how it’s different from a period.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stick with it. The pay and lack of benefits aren’t even close to enough to make a living. I have to rely on my husband to carry the financial weight, (which he’s been supportive of but which really isn’t sustainable). And I’m committing to a marginalized field that leads to almost nothing promising in terms of advancing a career.
But I’m living a life in which I could fill a book with stories after just one week.
And, for now, I believe with every inch of me that these students need me, and that that is what I need.
I’ve been mulling over whether or not to publicly share my thoughts about my job, and decided to at least do one post about it, in response to this prompt from The Daily Post.
And even though this post is more serious than some of my usual stuff, I’ve linked up to this funny lady’s blog as part of her “I Don’t Like Mondays” blog hop.
Check her out and link up if you’re a blogger, too.