Actually, of course, it’s the tenure process, referring to the academic practice of hazing a probationary faculty member until they pass all your tests or go away. From the French, tenir, meaning to take, hold.
I entered the tenure process at a School Which Will Not Be Named in 2001. What happened there formed the basis of what I call my lifelong curriculum, or figuring out whether it was the shit or the fan that went so badly wrong, what part I played, and how to live my life so nothing like this ever happened again. I think I have the latter nailed.
Unless the poles were preparing to reverse themselves, I knew the outcome of the meeting before it began. They handed me the final report and told me the upshot. I tried to leave, but they needed me to perform a ritual acknowledgment, signing a paper that said I understood their decision. I never understood their decisions, but I signed the paper.
L. was waiting for me in my office, and she knew when I returned in 15 minutes that the answer was no. I handed her the report and asked her to take a look and see if there was anything useful I could learn about myself from reading it. When she said no, I asked her to take it to her house and keep it there, just in case. We drank all the way home on the ferry and all night long.
I made an appointment with the VP of Academic Affairs. He told me that if I resigned, the record would reflect my decision and not the tenure committee’s rejection of me. I resigned.
People asked me if I had considered legal action. Certainly, the committee had done some potentially actionable things, had written things down about me that were in my file that had no business being in a personnel file. But what would I sue for? Tenure? The right to work in a place that had brutalized me for 3 out of the 4 years I taught there? It made more sense to walk away.
I bragged that with one call I could get on the schedule at SCC, my former college. I made the call and told D. what I’d said, and he laughed and put me on the fall schedule for part-timers. I no longer knew if I wanted to teach, but I knew I was good at teaching, I knew I could get a paycheck for it, and I knew I would never again volunteer for years of open-ended scrutiny.
That year, I team-taught with C., which not only fulfilled our shared dream but helped shore up my confidence, as I was the experienced partner in the room.
Because I was no longer commuting across the water, I had time for extracurriculars, so I decided to audition for a production of The Vagina Monologues. I was cast as The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.
Still undecided, still teaching part-time. Ran into D., who asked if I was going to do any more theater. I said no, I hadn’t been bitten by the acting bug or anything, I just did Vagina Monologues for political and social reasons. Then I literally turned a corner and saw the audition announcement for The Crucible. Why the heck not?
I was cast and recast and joined a group of a dozen or more students who knew much more than I did about theater. I observed and engaged and listened intently to everything. I took a directorial note and shaped my character around it. I made discoveries. One was that I liked acting. Another was that I liked hanging out with creative young people. Another was that one of the creative young people flirted with me, and it seemed harmless, until it seemed harmful, and I hurt my husband, though in a recoverable way.
I auditioned for the next show, and was cast. I took a directing class at a great discount, one of the meager benefits of being a part-time instructor.
I got laid off. Enrollment was in decline. I was ecstatic — now I could take more acting classes! But what about my weekly report to Employment Security? Would I have to drop my classes if I applied for a job fitting my skills and was hired? Would I need to use my developing acting skills to pretend to look for work, or was I safe because there was no risk I’d be hired off-quarter?
Sitting in the women’s room stall, I noticed a poster: “Out of work? Need money for tuition? Try Worker Retraining!” Best pee of my life.
Turns out I qualified for retraining because a) I had been laid off, b) I had been working in a “decline” field, post-secondary English education (categorized as declining because there were far more qualified workers in the field than job openings), c) I was moving into a growth field. Growth field — the arts? Theater arts? Aren’t theater artists welfare recipients-in-waiting? Ah, loophole: The name of the program I enrolled in was “Writing and Directing for the Camera,” and the key word in that sentence was “writing,” always a growth field.
On the one hand, it was a boondoggle. I could take almost exactly the same courses as if I were majoring in “Acting” or “Production.” I could take drama classes every quarter, act in campus productions and student films all the time, and just make sure to take a couple specific courses, like Screenwriting.
On the other hand, the Great State of Washington had fully funded my MFA in writing poetry. Now they were creatively funding another creative degree for me. When the universe wants poems and stories about lemonade, it pays for an artist to go to school. And go back to school.
While I was in school, interesting things happened. Every so often I’d be offered a course to teach, and I’d end up teaching former classmates of mine. More frequently, former students of mine would end up in classes or productions with me. Other times I had paid campus jobs; I joke that I’d been a teacher, a student, and a staff member, so the next obvious step was for me to become an administrator. I never became an administrator.
I started having things to do until late or night, or all night, away from my hearth, home, husband, and kids. When you change your life, you change the terms of your marriage, and for a while, what my husband liked to call my Midlife Crisis threatened to change me into a single woman. We worked on it, and we worked it out, and there’s a lot of story there, but a different story.
I directed a play, and I directed a batch of monologues and some short plays, and I wrote and acted in some short plays and some longer films, and I showed up everywhere I could and tried everything I could raise my hand for. I attended graduation.
Though there were plays that were scheduled with roles for me in mind (thank you, kind colleague-turned-teacher!), one quarter the play had only callow roles for youths. So I went out into the community with my headshots and my college-play resume, and I was cast in my first play off campus.
The cast was all female, a dozen or so of us, and one other woman was my age. We bonded. One of her clients died, and she was grieving backstage. What kind of clients? I asked. She was a money coach for creatives and a theater marketing whiz. I started picking her brain and following her around and working for and with her, and M. changed my mind about the meaning and value of marketing. Marketing, she showed me, is communicating well enough with the people who care about what you do that they’ll know you’re doing it and show up to pay you. Making money as an artist isn’t selling out, unless that means filling every seat in the house. Doing creative work you love that fits your needs, acting as your own boss, taking the reins in your own hands — all these I learned to love, value, and do.
I kept teaching when classes were available, I started thinking of myself as a copywriter and talking up my services and getting paid to do it. Then I started turning down jobs because I had too many papers to grade. So I left SCC for good, no longer a student or a teacher, but learning and teaching all the time.
You don’t really want to read 2,600 words in one day, do you? This post will be continued on 3/20/15