One year ago today I returned to a cold, rainy dark place after teaching in a hot, humid sunny place. It was, on many levels, a shock. The biggest shock is that I quit. I quit teaching. I’ve never made a good quitter so it’s been a long slow acceptance/denial/acceptance cycle.
Oh sure, I probably quit plenty of things in my past, but this one was BIG. It was my career. I hadn’t padded my way out of it into a lucrative other job. I hadn’t saved up thousands of $$. I didn’t even have a car anymore. Or much of a working computer.
What I did have was an utter sense of loss and failure.
In the last year, I’ve dug out from under that feeling but it still loves to rear it’s ugly head. I run into former colleagues and they ask what I’m doing now, and I internally cringe, when I say I’m a barista. It’s like ripping the band-aid off all over again. But I’ve done it so many times now, it stings less and less.
Because the truth is, on many levels, I’m ten tons happier. What I am not is ten tons of financially stable or less stressed. Since last December, I’ve worked as a virtual community organizer for a wonderful education non profit (temporary), as a barista at two different places, subbed a handful of times and worked for Burning Man. I have applied for (I’ve lost count) countless jobs for which I am absolutely capable and qualified for and never heard a word. At this point, I’d love a rejection letter!!
I’ve consistently worked between 24-30 hours a week. I’ve tried to get more hours but there are none to give. Because I do not have a car, I commute via bus. My bus ride to/from work is upwards of 45 minutes each way, which pretty much bars me from getting a viable second job. I suppose it isn’t impossible, it is just that I have my limits.
I’ve learned that it’s one thing to do the food service job in one’s 20s and a whole other beast in one’s 30s. My body has finally adjusted and I cannot boast too many aches and pains anymore. When I first started? My calves, feet, hamstrings would all conspire to make my lower back a mess. I thought I’d done a lot of standing when I taught but I was ever so wrong. In the first few months at this gig, I’d have days when I couldn’t do much else after getting home other than sit or lay down.
It became clear pretty early on that being able to buy groceries was going to be a struggle. A friend urged me to apply for food stamps and I did. I began receiving $113/month. In May I took a barista job much farther from home with a $2.31 raise per hour and the possibility of health benefits after 90 days. I failed to realize the daily bus commute would cancel out any extra monies earned. Because the weather was nice I occasionally rode the 12 miles one way, on my bike, to save money.
Around June I received a letter from DSHS asking me to please update my status. I am not a good liar so I reported my new job. This magically made me then receive $16/month. In late October I received a letter that my food stamps were being cut to $15/month and finally last month, they were cut altogether, with the explanation that I make too much to continue to receive benefits. Funny because there was no change in my income. Except I now was having $99.84 taken out of my paycheck every two weeks for my newly activated health benefits.
I feel a little remiss giving so much information about my financial state. It’s not to garner pity, but rather to tell the truth. In the last year I’ve gained a much different perspective on the great recession and how a growing number of people in this country barely live. The luxury of savings is lost on me now. My dreams of continued world travel are effectively on hold until who knows when. My ability to pay off my credit cards is a joke and my student loans are on deferment. I live paycheck to paycheck. In mid September after a bout with strep throat, and at an especially stressful time about money, I developed shingles. (Thank goodness for health insurance!) My experience has me wondering what other realities hard working folks in our country face day-to-day. My empathy has never been more honed.
All this said, I am still privileged. I could ask my family for money and have. However, they are not in a position to help as they grow older and deal with cancer (in remission) and a major stroke (now recovered from).
I’m white. I’m educated. English is my first language. In the social welfare system, these three facts give me privilege.
So, all this reality doom and gloom aside, I’ve come to some hard earned ah-has. First and foremost, I’ve taken a long hard look at my worth. Not my financial worth but my self-worth. Early on (and I still knee jerk this) whenever anyone new asked me what I do I’d say “I’m a barista, but I used to be a teacher.” I STILL do this. It drives me bonkers that I still knee jerk “…but I used to be…!” It tells me I live in a society where the pervasive default resides in what I do. That my career choice is who I am.
Nay, it is not.
I’ve come to realize my self worth isn’t in what I do, but rather in how I make do.
My self worth is worth far far more than what others think. My self worth is in the vocal jazz lessons I meticulously save my tip monies for, in the meals I plan (so that my little bits of money go far) without losing my love for good food, in how I’ve managed to help friends by offering them a literal place to stay and how I can now dye my hair crazy colors without my ability to do my job being questioned.
The other incidentals of quitting are that I’ve learned to be really creative and resourceful. I can now plan five meals based on one baked chicken. Sure I could do that before, but I didn’t have to do it out of necessity. I’ve learned to not dwell too much on what I don’t have but rather to try to stay focused on what I do have. Because I am not exhausted all the time, I think I’ve learned to savior things more. Every Tuesday or so we go to the local ice cream shop and play pinball, eat ice cream and sometimes enjoy $2 cider/beer. We dance around the house to Bollywood music. We make sure to try to see art on the nights it’s free. I’ve been able to read SO MANY books this year.
Lastly, a note about teaching. I miss my kids fiercely. I wonder where they are and how’re they’re doing. I fret for my former colleagues. From the outside looking in, the environment for teachers and students doesn’t appear to be getting any healthier. I encourage all parents (I do this on the bus when I strike up conversations) to help teachers by opting their children out of standardized tests. Every parent I’ve talked to, has had no idea they could opt their child out. Go here, spread the word. Opt out.