I have spent the last seven years in the composition classroom pouring my time, my energy, and my self into my students’ writing. I have sat through countless hours of committee meetings, faculty meetings, division meetings, task force meetings, curriculum meetings. I have trained dozens of writing tutors, advised hundreds of students, taught 4-4 loads composed entirely of labor-intensive service courses. I did all of this at the expense of my own creative work, a sacrifice that nearly always went unnoticed.
Well, unnoticed by my students and many of my colleagues. Definitely not unnoticed by me.
And then a month ago, almost exactly one year after being granted tenure — a promise for a lifetime of sacrifices, a lifetime of frustration over my lack of creative output — the dean and my division chair walked into my office and sat in my ugly, uncomfortable vinyl chairs to tell me that my position had been eliminated due to budget cuts.
I was angry, I was hurt, I was confused, I was frustrated, I was scared, I was ashamed. I was good at my job, even if I didn’t love it, and I had given up a lot in order to keep it. I hadn’t published in several years, and I hadn’t really written in even longer. I had put off settling in during my pre-tenure days because I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I didn’t want to make a life for myself only to have it taken away by a tenure denial.
Last May, after a meeting in his office, the president of the college shook my hand and said, “We want you here for as long as you want to be here.” He looked me in the eye and said those exact words. The memory is incredibly vivid.
I’d finally attained the prize that made all that sacrifice worth it, the permission slip that would allow me to get comfortable and start living my life. Within months, I spent my tenure raise to replace my ailing ’98 Buick with something fifteen years newer, then bought a house a few weeks after that. I amassed shiny new stuff to convince myself that the seven years of sacrifice had been worth it, and I settled in for the duration with the mindset that this is my life and this is permanent. It never occurred to me that tenure could be temporary (unless I slept with a student or something similarly impossible and heinous), but in the span of an eight-minute meeting, my reality — my mindset — was turned inside out. It took only eight minutes to understand that nothing is permanent and everything can be taken away, no matter how deserving you are or how hard you worked for it.
Now I have to re-think what “the duration” might look like. I know one thing for certain: my teaching days are over. I gave up nearly a decade of my creative life in service of something that didn’t give back — couldn’t give back due to the unique nature (and vulnerability) of my particular position — and I am never making that mistake again. I should be terrified because the car and the house aren’t going to pay for themselves. I should be terrified because I will be unemployed in six weeks. But the truth is that I’m not scared. The car and the house? They’re just things. Things aren’t what matter. If I lose my things, I lose my things. Better to lose things than to lose my self again.
The truth is that every day, I’m a little more grateful to have lost my job, no matter how unfair it sometimes feels. The negative emotions are still there, and probably always will be, but they’re slowly being joined by feelings like anticipation and joy. Now that grading papers and sitting through meetings have lost all meaning, now that there’s an end in sight, now that I’m no longer invested in a teaching career, I occasionally feel my old self bubbling up from the deep, deep place that it retreated to. I am ready to read, ready to write, ready to publish, ready to work. Ready to find a life that will support me rather than stifle me. It’s seven years overdue, but as the cliché goes, better late than never.
I’m excited to cobble together a living doing what I love instead of what I think I ought to be doing. If I have to revert to the ’98 Buick, so be it. This isn’t how I should have arrived at this particular crossroads, but regardless, I’m here. Either I can embrace it or I can be bitter. Bitter is more my style — I don’t excel at much, yet I’m a master of hanging on, holding grudges, and withholding forgiveness — but this time, I’m going to let it go. I owe it to myself. I have been handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m hellbent on not squandering it. I’ve test-driven the respectable life I thought I was supposed to live. Now it’s time to live the life I really am supposed to live.