Five years ago I quit a job I had loved for so many years but was physically and mentally wearing me down, packed up my third grade classroom, kissed a good health plan goodbye, and made the leap into deep space: grad school. I packed up my guitar, my songs: Oakland Roads, Monkey Bite and Little Verb, my books: my Charlotte’s Web, Abel’s Island, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But I also packed up, “Your attention please,” and “Clap twice if you can hear me…Clap 23 times if you can hear me.” I said goodbye to an amazing group of teachers and filled my basement with bins full of binders and books.
For what? An MFA! Bicycle rides down the long slow tree-lined entry to the silent library at Mills. Small classes. The quiet lawn. Reading, thinking, writing. Discussions with the higher part of my brain. It was wonderful.
But it was a little terrifying. I wasn’t 29 like most of the rest of my classmates. I had kids. I had a little gray in my barba. In fact, I had a barba and often had to turn on the light when I went into the Men’s room. What if this was a huge mistake? I shrugged, picked up my ukulele and thought, ‘Well, if all else fails I can become a ukelele rockstar.’ I wrote a song called Ukelele Rockstar. It began:
Ukulele Rockstar, really gonna go far
Doesn’t need a house, doesn’t need a car
Doesn’t even know where he’s going to go
Two years of blissful debt later, I got my M.F.A. in English/Creative Writing and put out feelers to teach in a community college. Nope, nope, nothing, are you kidding? Nobody. Nowhere. Doubt. Fear. What had I done? Then I happened to write an email at just the right moment and was suddenly told, “Something has shifted!”
I got a part-time job at Laney College, a community college in Oakland, exactly where I wanted to be, because a wonderful teacher happened to retire and they happened to need someone rather fast. I taught an English class called Foundations in Reading and Writing in a program called Gateway to College. These students had dropped out of high school and then turned around and, judo move, gotten into a dual enrollment program at their local two-year college. My students were wonderful, full of hope, new beginnings, determination. We read Zora Neale Hurston and Hill Harper and recited “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” Some of my students were challenging, full of anger, substances, trauma. I rode my bike down through the mansions of Piedmont to the sparkle of Lake Merritt, rolled past the trees and geese and joggers and dogs, over the little green bridge, under the tunnel, past the person sleeping in a tent, past the boarded up Convention building, to Laney. I added classes. I taught students from 18 to 88 years old, from all around the world. I worked with a great bunch of dedicated colleagues. I quickly discovered teaching kids had taught me how to teach anyone. I loved it.
I was getting paid peanuts. I added a job teaching English at Diablo Valley College. I rolled out through the tunnel listening to All Songs Considered. The sun rose on the sleeping lion, Mt. Diablo. I cut across pleasant hills and rolled into a pristine campus. I loved my students there as well. The teaching was fabulous. You stepped up to the front of the room and they got quiet and looked at you and listened. Can you imagine? Sometimes I stepped up twice just to marvel.
I was working with great colleagues and amazing students from all backgrounds at both colleges. I was still making peanuts, almost half what I made teaching third grade.
A full-time English job opened up at Laney. It was the first in eight years. I applied. I waited. I never heard back. I followed-up. They told me I had applied incorrectly. The gods cackled. HR slammed shut the door.
Months later, I applied for a full-time job at Diablo Valley College. I’m told some 200 apply. They choose 15 for an interview. I managed to get the interview. I interviewed. I didn’t get called back. I hadn’t interviewed in a million years.
The next year, my third as an adjunct, I rolled up my sleeves and said, OK, I’m all in for this job hunt. I went to a workshop on the hiring process. I asked wonderful, veteran colleagues for help. They went out of their way to give me advice. I went to a job coach. She helped me lead with my “headline.” I applied for four jobs. I got interviews at three of them.
The first was far inland. I was excited about the possibility, but I had doubt about working in what seemed a more insular community than I had ever experienced. Nearby was an extremely wealthy gated community. Still, it was a community college, serving students of many backgrounds. I needed to get a full-time job. I practiced hard for the interview. I did well. They called me back for a final interview with the district president and the vice-president. There was a mix-up and they didn’t show me the interview questions 30 minutes before like they were supposed to. They handed me the questions and said take as long as you need and then we’ll start. They stared at me. I read the first question over and over, not concentrating, and said, “Let’s just start.” At the end, the president looked into my heart and saw I had doubt. He said, But how would you feel about teaching out there, away from your diverse urban community? He had me. I said something unconvincing. He shook my hand out the door.
The next interview was for Diablo Valley College where I had already taught for two years. I had been evaluated twice and had excellent evaluations, but they don’t use those in the hiring process. This was my second time interviewing there. I prepped hard again. It was extremely competitive. I didn’t get a call back. Again. I felt the fury of the scorned and vowed to seek part-time employment elsewhere. I rattled off emails to a different district. They didn’t reply. Apparently nothing had shifted.
I had one option left after all my hard work and preparation: Merritt College in Oakland. I was excited about the position because it was the only one to list being bilingual in Spanish as a desired qualification. It is in Peralta, the same district as Laney, but smaller, still incredibly diverse. I prepared hard again. I circled the table talking to myself. “You see before you a re-invented man. After 16 years teaching reading and writing at the ground floor…” This job would mean teaching exactly where I wanted to teach, in Oakland, in the same community, más o menos, where I had taught for 18 years, at a diverse, urban college.
I drove the ten minutes up the hill to Merritt. I interviewed for the job with no doubt in my heart. All I knew was I wanted it and I would do great things if I got it. They were nice and the interview was structured in a way that felt friendly to the applicant. They laughed at my jokes. I walked out feeling hopeful. Outside, in the parking lot up in the Oakland hills, I looked out over a crystal clear view of the entire San Francisco Bay, the new white Bay Bridge in the foreground with its long white cables, the Golden Gate far in the distance.
I waited a week. I waited 8 days, 9 days. I decided it was time to move on. Suddenly, I got a call to come back for a final interview.
I returned to the campus on the hill. Another interview around a conference table with many new faces and questions taped to the table.
I left feeling good but had no idea who I was up against. I waved to the gods and said, I’ve done my best.
I waited a week. Nothing. I waited two weeks. Silence. It began to feel a bit pathetic to tell people I was “still waiting to hear.” OK, feller, time to move on. The days piled up. Summer was starting without me.
I took a deep breath and told myself it was time to get back on Adjunct Airlines, a freeway flyer. Here’s your peanuts.
For three weeks I answered every phone call. It was election season and there were a lot. Then, on a Monday, the phone rang again. I answered it and it was none other than Bernie Sanders, or a recording of Bernie, urging me to get out and vote the next day. Later, the phone rang again. I answered it. It was a Feel the Bern volunteer, making sure I knew where my polling place was. I did: the garage where it always is. The phone rang a third time. I considered not anwering it. What was the point? I picked it up anyway. It was the robot lady calling me about an urgent deal with my credit card. Bless her.
Three weeks of this, fueling my doubts. You’re too old. They’ll want one of those 29 year olds you sat next to in grad school. You’re too white. Too male. The kids came home from school. Milo asked, “Hear anything today, Papa?” I shook my head. Maya had recently written an essay where she mentioned that she knew how hard it was get a job because her dad had been looking for one for two years.
An hour later, the phone rang again, on that Monday before election day, and Maya was sitting nearby on the couch in the office and the door was closed because Milo was out by the piano having his first saxophone lesson with the same teacher who has now taught him ukulele, piano, and clarinet.
So Milo was blowing strange notes loudly out of his newly borrowed saxophone and the door was closed and Maya was typing on a laptop and I was standing there holding the phone. I peered at the number and it was local, so I answered it, expecting Bernie, Hillary or the credit card robot lady, or maybe that fun fellow from the fake IRS, threatening to throw me in prison. But it was someone named Vivian, calling from “Peralta” (the community college district of Merritt) and she asked if Evan Nichols were there. People trying to sell me stuff ask for Andrew, my first name.
I said, “This is he,” and she said, “Hold on” and there was fumbling and silence and I thought, well, even if this were about the job I’ve just blown my whole future with that whole “This is he” thing. Still, I gestured to Maya as if to say, this is something maybe. She sat up and looked at me.
“Sorry about that,” said Vivian, coming back on. “Are you still there?”
I searched my brain for an answer and replied, quite cleverly, “Yes.” My heart was pounding and I just wanted the news one way or another, bad or good.
“We would like to offer you the position of English Instructor at Merritt College,” she said. I gestured to Maya. Her eyes widened. I searched my brain and said, quite cleverly, “Really?” I pumped my fist. Maya smiled. Milo blew a bad note on the sax like a dying whale and his teacher said, “Good!”
Vivian told me they would send me an offer letter and I would need to circle that I accepted the offer and sign and date it and then scan it and send it back by clicking Reply All. I said will this be a letter or an email and she said, “It’s a letter, sent as an attachment.” That didn’t seem possible to me but I tried to be reasonable because she was offering to change my life. I thanked her and told her that was wonderful news. I hung up and whispered to Maya, “I got the job!” and she got up and gave me a hug. I wanted to shout but I wanted to wait ’til Milo’s lesson was over and his teacher had gone.
When his teacher whistled his way down the stairs, I told Milo the story and he couldn’t stand the waiting even from the beginning of the first sentence to the end, so I quickly blurted, “I got a phone call…and I got the job!”
Later, at dinner, we waited ’til Amy was seated and eating and then began giggling and looking at each other and I said something about Bernie calling and Maya said, “Yeah, Papa got some good calls today.” Amy looked around and instantly knew and it was time for celebrating.
Today I met with my tenure committee and tomorrow I will complete three weeks on the job as a full-time Merritt English professor, teaching reading and writing to an amazing mix of students. I was falling through space for a while there but oh what a glorious leap it was. My feet are just now touching down on the ground. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing when I took that mad leap. I knew that being a third grade teacher had been the best job in the universe for 16, or maybe 15, years, but I also knew my vocal chords were going (surgery the year before) and that my class size was growing and I really wanted to try teaching grown-ups. So, I leapt. I’m awfully glad I did.
Let the new adventure begin!