Friday, August 15, 2014

Starting Over

Beneficence, the unofficial mascot of my new school, Ball State. Source
And you of the tender years
   can't know the fears
   that your elders grew by.
—"Teach Your Children" Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

School starts on Monday. It'll be my first first day of school in five years.1

I say school, but what I really mean is class, and when I say class I do mean class rather than classes, because I'm only taking one this fall.

~   ~   ~

Since moving to Muncie, I've been looking ahead to Monday, August 18, with mixed feelings. It represents the end of an excellent summer vacation, spent with my new wife in a new home—a real, actual house, no less—but also the beginning of a new chapter in my life: graduate school.

Grad school is something I've long wanted to do, but the original plan was much different. After a semester of undergrad, I set my heart on the study of linguistics. I wanted to get a PhD and become a linguistics professor somewhere.

Maybe that was always a fantasy. Acquiring a PhD has always been a tough gig, and getting a tenure track position at a university little easier. What really convinced me it that it would be a waste of my time to try, though, was the Great Recession. However challenging it might have been to pursue my dream in the pre-2008 world, graduating in 2009 made getting into a PhD program look fiendishly difficult, as young people delayed entry into the job market by going to grad school in record numbers.

Perhaps "waste of time" is too strong a term. At any rate, I realized I was unwilling and maybe even unable to undergo the loss of time and energy, the uncertainty, and the hardship required to achieve that particular goal. I didn't want to move all over the country hunting jobs for the next several decades. I didn't want to compete in the cut-throat academic world for low pay. I didn't want to publish or perish. I wanted peace. And in the world of the post-2008 "economic recovery,"2 there seems to be very little peace to go around in academia.

So I looked for something else. I did two years in AmeriCorps, which would be a great program if it actually paid people a living wage for their service to the country (like, say, military service, or literally any other public-sector job). As it was, I lived on a small stipend and foodstamps and worked my butt off five or six days a week. Afterwards, I cobbled together a meager living from teaching test prep for a for-profit education company (shudder) and teaching some friends the basics of Biblical Hebrew, and then finally got a full-time job proofing resumes for fairly low pay (still better than my previous gigs, sigh).

Life in this economy hasn't been easy for most Americans. I don't think my story is particularly unique, but it is what it is.3

~   ~   ~

Meeting Anna, getting married, and moving to Muncie has given me a chance to hit the restart button, for which I'm grateful. I'm going back to school to get certified as an elementary school teacher. It will take at least two and a half years. Even though I'm a grad student, I'm basically just getting a BA in elementary education, so it will be entirely undergrad-level classes. I don't know how much fun it's going to be being almost a decade older than my classmates. Maybe no fun at all? 

I've always loved school, though. I love learning new things, and I love teaching other people things, so learning stuff with the express intent of using it to teach others seems like it's going to be fun. Or at least entertaining enough and worthwhile enough that I'll be able to bear the awkwardness that may come with being caught between grad and undergrad. 

And maybe it won't be fun; maybe I'll just do my time and move on to do the worthwhile work out in the field. I think education in America is in a seriously bad place, though I'm not of the opinion that it's ever been all that great. The way I see it, the root of our problems is this: America's poverty levels are too high, much too high for a rich country, and we have too many impoverished students in particular. Poor students need the most intervention (read: money) in order to succeed, but tend to get the worst resources because of how schools are funded and the ability of richer students to opt out of public education. Impoverished students are increasingly segregated into schools by themselves, to the detriment of their educational performance. (Also, speaking of segregation: racial segregation in schools is on its way back.) The result of all this is a system that adequately serves the needs of middle-class and wealthy kids, and throws poor ones under the bus. 


America's school troubles, in other words, can be summed up with that old chestnut, It's the economy, stupid

Troublingly, the "education reform" movement ignores this, and has been implementing misguided solutions like using standardized tests to determine which schools should get government funds (Surprise, kids, your whole education is now oriented around the ISATs!), as well as opening charter schools (Kids, your education is now being used to profit large corporations! Ain't that swell? Also your teachers get paid less here. And there's no evidence this school will do better on average at educating you than a traditional public school. We're much more likely to expel you to keep our numbers high, though!).

I hope to be able to do my part in building something better than what we have now. Failing that, I'll serve the kids I meet to the best of my ability for as long as I can. But first, I gotta get through grad school...with undergrads. 

~   ~   ~

If I'm not careful, I may end up at Bracken Library for the whole semester, where I often go to read books for fun. Source

Which brings me back to my opening remarks. I'm only taking one class this fall because I can't get in-state tuition rates till next year, and the difference is steep enough that it makes sense to wait till then to get started in earnest. I can't tell whether this first semester is going to be a challenge or not. I've enjoyed lots of free time this summer, but I'll start to feel guilty if I don't find something worthwhile to do with my extra time this fall. But what exactly that will be remains to be seen. I'm considering finding a job (top of the list: substitute teaching) or starting some kind of big personal project, or maybe just finding a bunch of on-campus activities to get involved in. 

Whatever it is, I recognize that it's an enormous blessing to have extra time to myself this fall, and that I would have a much bigger, more intense set of worries if not for Anna. So I'll end this post with a word of thanks to her, my beloved partner, support, and friend, for this gift: the chance to start something new.

1. Unless you're counting my AmeriCorps years working in schools, which did include "first day(s) of school" in a distinct sense.
2. In scare quotes because the gains from said recovery have overwhelmingly gone to the richest Americans while the rest of us climb over each other for the few remaining jobs at low wages. Wealth inequality is probably the economic problem of our time; possible solutions range from raising the minimum wage to creating a no-strings-attached minimum income for all Americans, with a job guarantee program lying somewhere in the middle. Sadly, thanks to the Reagan Revolution in the 80s and the Democrats' reaction to it, both major parties are apparently too far to the right to seriously propose any but the first and least radical option.
3. I do remember sitting out on a hot day in the park one summer not long after the economic downturn. It was a gross, humid day, and I had stripped down to a grody white undershirt, my body sweaty, my hair mussed. As fate would have it, a Japanese TV crew walked through the park just as I sat down, spotted me, and came over to interview me about, what else, the economy. It was pretty surreal. I told them that yes, the economy did indeed suck right now. I can only assume I looked perfect for the part of down-on-his-luck schmo, though whether that's an accurate description of me, a highly educated white male with a great middle-class social support system, is open for debate.

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