She Who Hath a Trade
In August of 2004, my dad fell and broke his hip. He had, by that time, an advanced case of Parkinson's Disease. Part of the reason he fell was because he was confused.
It happened that my sister and her husband had reservations for a vacation in the Rockies at that very moment. So I had to go home and clean out my dad's apartment, because it was the end of August and the assisted living place wanted to move someone new into Dad's space on September 1.
And so, in the course of seeing my beloved father on his deathbed, and clearing out his belongings, I hardly noticed the email informing me that my services as a writer for Gale Group would no longer be required. The email came the same week I was caring for Dad. I happened to stop by the public library to look up my messages, and that was what I got.
Lost my dad, lost my job. Couldn't get either one of them back. Miss them both, but not the "them" they had become in the end. The "them" in their prime. There's a difference.
Well, there was no replacing Dad. But my stomach gets empty every 24 hours, so I had to find a job.
At first I thought I could get more writing gigs, so I applied to be a substitute teacher. By an entire quirk of fate, I began teaching not at Snobville High (where I thought I'd go, since it's within walking distance), but at an old-fashioned Vo-Tech with classes half a day and "shops" the other half. After working for 20 years alone in a home office, I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of young people from Camden, New Jersey.
I liked them.
Thus I began subbing at the Vo-Tech regularly, and when an English teacher went out on extended leave, they gave me her classes. Then the business teacher had a maternity leave. I, who hadn't worked in an office since 1986, was teaching "Office Basics!" After that, I taught World History for eight weeks.
Then I took a test, along with about 125 other people. I couldn't believe how simple the test was. I had two hours to finish it, and I was finished in an hour. I literally checked every answer. "I must be taking the wrong test," I thought. But when I looked across the room, many of the other people taking the test looked baffled.
Before the test score even arrived, I got a Certificate of Excellence from the test place. Then I got the score. I completely aced a 120-question multiple choice test.
Last year I became a full-time teacher at the Vo-Tech under a provisional certificate. I had to go to night (and weekend) school, and pay lots of money to various individuals and state entities, in order to get a piece of paper that would officially certify me to do what I was already doing. You see, my degree was in writing, not teaching. There's no state in the union that wouldn't see this as an easy way to grab some ducats.
In today's mail I found my New Jersey certificate to be a public school teacher.
Friends, I never thought I would be a teacher. And candidly, if someone had foreseen teaching in my future, I would never have predicted it would be in a school full of poor urban kids.
Most days I miss my old job. It's easy being your own boss if you're motivated by hunger. But just as often, I look around me at all the fresh faces, all of our nation's future nurses, and plumbers, and office workers, and I'm glad to be out in the world, doing some good. Just a little bit of good, and no harm.
The Vo-Tech building was designed by the same architect who designed Philadelphia's famous Museum of Art (the one with the Rocky steps). Above the Doric columns and the mini-Rocky steps at the Vo-Tech, there's a motto chiseled into the facade:
"HE WHO HATH A TRADE HATH AN ESTATE"
(When the Vo-Tech opened in 1926, it was all-male.)
Often when I go to work I ponder this motto. I was a tradeswoman of words ... and I built a hut. Now I'm a teacher, building a cabin. It's a long push for the estate, but you know what? I'm not hurting anyone, and I'm doing a little good. Let them say that of me, at least.