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The Honeymoon Is Over

November 15, 2005

It's great when the person who just hired you makes you feel special, writes Shari Wilson. But don't expect it to last.

He was wonderful. I spent an hour with him across the table. Laughing, smiling, he made me feel welcome, valuable, special. When I got the chance to speak, I told him about myself, where I came from, what I did. He nodded, interested. By the time I got home, I could hardly wait to e-mail him. By the next day, I was checking my e-mail constantly for his e-mail address.

I couldn't stop thinking about him.

This was no romance; it was an interview. He was the dean of academics at a college 37 miles from my home and I was an experienced adjunct hoping for a job to pad my spring schedule.

The day after the interview, I received no reply. It was not until the next day that I heard from him. He phoned me. And the answer was "Yes." He would hire me. I had to hold myself back from giggling and squealing like a 16-year-old girl. But I was happy. It was the start of something new, something not yet awkward and straining. Excited, I received an e-mail from him a few days later with more information -- two or three classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I smiled. It fit exactly.

It was the "honeymoon" stage. The time when all things were good. I had not yet used up my maximum number of photocopies allowed; he had not yet called me in for a grade review. Right then, months and months before the semester started, it was the perfect campus, the perfect boss, the perfect students.

Don't think I didn't know this would change. I had experienced this before. My first job, over six years ago, was working for the perfect boss at the perfect institution. It started off like a dream. I had been tutoring for a company that trained high-school students to prepare for the SAT. Yes, I'd had my eyes on teaching for some time; tutoring was as close as I could get so far. Then I applied for a teaching job at a local business college. Yes, they offered four-year degrees in 18 months to qualified students. Yes, they helped students with financial aid. Yes, it would be the perfect stepping stone to a community college or university in the area.

I stepped into the air-conditioned office and was handed an application form. I immediately noticed the clean, blue-gray carpet, the freshly painted hallways. I saw two young women rushing by the front desk. They seemed excited -- maybe a bit young. When I turned to go, I saw a classroom door swing open. White boards, dry erasers, clean desks, students in clusters. I smiled, thanked the receptionist one more time and went to labor over the form.

I returned the next day and left a 10 x 12 envelope at the front desk. Inside was the me that I show prospective employers: a fresh cover letter, a résumé geared to make the best of the tutoring and a little volunteer work with juveniles, references from people I trusted. For the next five nights, I waited by the phone. Nothing. On the sixth day, it came. A call. Melanie X from the business college. Yes, I told her, I was Shari Wilson. She went on to tell me that she was the dean; that she wanted to talk to me a little more about my experience. Excited, I marked the time on my calendar: 1:00 p.m. the next day. I could hardly wait.

I dressed in my suit the color of eggplant and brought extra copies of my résumé. She was ready for me, a tall, competent-looking woman with her hair styled like a talk show host. Our meeting lasted an hour. I hardly spoke at all; mostly smiled and nodded. At the end of the hour, she shook my hand, told me that she herself had started as a tutor many years ago, and told me that they would have me teach a night class this coming semester. Stunned, I walked down the blue-gray carpet into the reception area. More details about classes, students, textbooks. Forty-five minutes later, I found myself sitting in my car in the parking lot, hands resting at 10 and 2.

I'm a teacher. I got a teaching job. Oh, my God, I'm a teacher! Driving home, I wanted to shout out the windows.

Melanie couldn't have been more helpful. In the weeks to come, she would coach me, lecture me, give me tips. By the time classes rolled around, I felt like the most-prepared amateur in the county. Whenever I walked out of class, there would be Melanie, offering a helping hand, a kind smile. If a question came to me, I would simply swing by her room, wait by the door until she waved me in. Then I would sit in the chair across from her, ask her advice and listen while her beautifully coiffed hair moved in front of the shelves and shelves of books.

At home, I would gather up papers and forms, filing in manila folders, careful to keep everything in place. My confidence soared. I created new assignments, new work for the students. And I blossomed. I loved this job. I loved this school. Yes, the classrooms farther down the hall from reception were shabbier. Yes, I had to bring my own dry erase pens, yes, other instructors were annoyed at my constant attendance at the copy machine -- but somehow I was in seventh heaven.

By the end of the semester, Melanie seemed busier than ever. Now I had to stand a few more minutes at her door before she had time for me. But she still waved me in, smiling. She even helped me file my grades with the admissions clerk, making an extra copy for my files. What a terrific boss, I thought.

During the few weeks before the next semester came, I felt lonely for my newfound friend. I almost reached for the phone just to hear her kind voice. Finally it was almost spring and I knew it would be fine. This time it would be two classes -- twice as much fun, I thought. With quality time with Melanie, I could perfect my teaching even more. A few days before class I traipsed into the campus, arms full of handouts and books. As I passed her office, Melanie looked up for just a moment and gave a short, quick smile. A redhead was in her office, a young woman in a suit, holding a notepad. As I rounded the corner and got in line at the copier, an adjunct who'd been there for years said, "Who's the new recruit?" I shook my head. When another instructor dropped in, both voices came at once:

"Fresh meat."

"No kidding."

"Just another semester."

I stood, my face heating up like an electric blanket, a slow-hot burn. They talked for a moment about upcoming classes and students. Even though I'd only been there a few minutes, I felt strangely tired.

Later, as I turned to check my mailbox, I almost started. There was Melanie, my boss, with the redheaded woman. They both laughed as Melanie showed her the coffee pot, the microwave, the mailboxes. I'm just overreacting, I thought. Yes, that's it. She's got a right to have a job, too, I thought. But all the time my head was yammering platitudes, I couldn't help but think, "I've been replaced."

When classes started, I could feel a palpable change in the atmosphere. Melanie no longer had time for me. Even the barely-past-18 receptionist seemed cool and unhelpful. As I stood in the adjuncts' lounge, making copies or grading papers, I felt abandoned. Finally an adjunct of longstanding took pity on me.

"Hey, you doing alright?" I nodded. She sensed my suffering. "I know," she said, her hand touching the back of my chair, "it was the same when I came here, too."

I dropped into the real world. Suddenly Melanie was criticizing me at every turn. I made too many copies, I wasn't accurate about my grammar, I used a slang word while lecturing. I weathered it the best I could, taking my comfort with the older adjuncts in the part-timers' lounge. They understood. They were kind. One confided that in her second semester she'd almost quit. She couldn't stand the constant harping. Staying on, she found that the dean, her old best friend, would turn her attention to another tarnished newcomer as each semester rolled on.

But I, too, had had my part in it. I had imagined her as the perfect boss. I had soaked in the attention like a new sponge, never imagining that this was just the honeymoon. The lesson learned was a sharp one -- never invest too much in one job, in one department, in one dean. Yes, I was excited about the new part-time job for spring. But I knew that the kind faces would not always be the new ones. It would be the weathered faces of instructors that have gone before, the deans that hired me years ago, the office mate who lent me his stapler last semester. Here was where my investment should be.

 

Bio

Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. Her last column was about poor teaching.

 

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