There exists some conventional wisdom that the average person changes careers seven times over the course of his or her life. Though I doubt the veracity of the claim, it stews in my current state of mind, “Four more? Is that what the back 40 of my life is going to be like?” As I ponder my future prospects, I wonder if I even have it in me.
See, I was one of those people who thought he could do the one thing he did (in my case, teaching) until he was ready to retire on a modest pension with his house and student loans paid off. Fresh out of college and a year of AmeriCorps doing volunteer teaching, I was going into my first teaching job like most other liberal saps, sure that I was going to “make a difference.” Even after a couple of years of teaching in a decades-old trailer with mouse holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling in Orange County, Va., I was undeterred. Oh, those little fuckers were going to undergo some serious transformation under my watch! Like so many other young and idealistic morons, I was going to CHANGE THE WORLD.
Yeah, okay. After a decade or so of teaching mixed classes of special ed, I had few illusions left to shatter. Sometimes little Norman just wasn’t going to pass his standardized tests no matter how many times you tried to get him to compose a five-paragraph essay on the social impacts of our First Amendment freedoms, especially if he hasn’t developed a full grasp of the alphabet by the time he’s in 8th grade. If Walter hasn’t learned by 17 that it isn’t appropriate to masturbate under his desk, he’s probably going to be beating it in a cubicle until they fire him from increasingly low level jobs for the rest of his life.
I was at peace with that. No, not changing the world…but have you heard that little parable about the little girl throwing the starfish back in the ocean? It is dumb, and I hate it, but yes, sometimes you just need to make a difference to one to make it all seem worthwhile.
Somewhere around year number 13 into teaching, something went terribly wrong. Many, many teachers got laid off, and the special education staff was slashed almost in half. One summer, after six comfy, complacent years teaching 8th grade civics, I got called to the principal’s office and asked if I wanted to take over the school’s program for the emotionally disturbed.
Say, when you put it like that, it sounds like you’re moving up in the world! I just knew getting that ED designation in grad school would make me an attractive candidate for a management position! Then I found out that meant everyone else who was doing it quit, and I would be the only one teaching three grade levels of bat shit crazy, potentially volatile kids all in the same room and be responsible for all their casework plus four SOL subjects per grade level.
I laughed in that man’s face. “I’d rather work construction” were my exact words.
So that’s what I did, starting my own business doing home improvements. I really didn’t know shit, but I’m a quick study. I’ve often said I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in life if not for a ready willingness to get in over my head. By and by, work and opportunity came my way, and I did my best to take advantage of it. By year number three, I had two regular employees and was subbing out lots of work. Things were great, and money was flowing but….
I was terrified. Shit, what if I lose this contract? (I did) What if I can’t pay the mortgage on the house? (thankfully never happened) What if the wife leaves, and I’m the only income? (she did, and I am) What if I accidentally shoot myself with a nail gun, and it lodges into the part of my brain that controls my ability to get erections? (somehow dodged that one) These are the things that keep men up at night and wear on their souls!
It all wasn’t without its merits, however. Having had a chip on my shoulder toward authority since gestation, I am well-suited to being my own boss. I don’t like taking other people’s shit or suffering their mistakes, and for the most part, I didn’t have to…with regard to work, at least. Want to take the day off to do paperwork and send the crew out to work? Want to have a beer with lunch? Want to be able to fire people who get on your nerves? Verily, I say, it is good to be the boss.
As much as I loved the freedom and self-satisfaction, when a job offer came my way with the promise of a big steady paycheck and the accompanying security for Henry and me, I jumped right on it. Daily travel? Oh, yeah, I love travel. Thirteen-hour work days? No problem, I hate sleep anyway!
In the heat of demonstrating that can-do, positive attitude and holding faith that things will work themselves out, one can easily look past the detriments of a life of hard labor on the road: maintaining a 50/50 custody arrangement is exceedingly difficult, as is maintaining relationships.
– Time to yourself? Good luck with that! You’ll feel guilty that you didn’t spend time with the friends you never see anymore.
– Want to see your kid at least once during the work week? You’ll hear about it because you can only work a 10-hour day in order to pick him up from preschool before it closes, never mind that you worked through lunch.
– Certainly don’t get caught up about knowing where you’ll be next week or the week after or trying to plan a life around work because it isn’t going to happen.
Not to say that I don’t enjoy certain aspects of life on the road. Visiting corners of the world I haven’t yet seen, finding holes in the wall serving up the local specialty, spending time outside through the beautiful Virginia seasons… all of these things are easy to find pleasure in. As well, like a Siberian husky, I need and crave the physical exhaustion that accompanies a long day of labor, when the persistence of thought abates and my mind can be empty. Some people do yoga; I prefer shoveling gravel and tossing 80-pound bags of concrete. I swear, it makes me a better person on so many levels.
But life on the road sucks when all you really want to do is be there for your kid as he grows up. I’m over leaving tears on the pillowcases in shitty hotel rooms at this point, but I do wonder how I’ll make it work in the long-term. I know I only have about eight more years until he hates my guts, then another five to eight before he figures I’m less worthy of contempt again, if I’m lucky. The knowledge that these days of endless hugs and unbridled enthusiasm will not last forever is unsettling… but, then again, so is the prospect of homelessness.
Every once in a while I’m put in a position to make a decision between security and the gambit of potential greatness versus utter failure. While I’ve certainly done things for the sake of security, none of them are story worthy. The times I have said “fuck it” have always been my defining moments, for better or for worse. While I still don’t know for sure what the resolution to my current situation will be, I remain certain of this much: a life without risk is a life unfulfilled.