I recall, with great vividness (and not a little shame), a conversation I had with my father when I told him my ambition was to be an artist (an actor, a musician, a writer, whatever). He looked at me and said, “And what if you can’t make a living doing it?”
I looked him in the eye and said, “Then I’ll die.”
It’s easy to talk about death when you are, as far as you can tell, immortal. I was sixteen, completely in love with myself, and not a little convinced as to my position somewhere near the rotational center of the universe. I knew that I wouldn’t have any problem “making it”, and that, if the world could possibly be so cruel and short sighted as to reject me, well then, that was a world that didn’t deserve me.
Regardless, my father, practical and far-sighted as always, insisted that I learn how to type. And learn I did, and though I may not be the fastest typist I know (my speed tops out at about 65-75 words per minute or so), my ability to put food in my refrigerator and beer in my belly stems, in large part, from the sapling planted by my father when he recognized that his son, while pleasant and sweet, was a bit of a flake. He did his best to prepare me and give me roots, and though he wasn’t entirely successful, he did manage to give me enough skills to keep me fed. For that, as for a great many other things, I am grateful to him.
Having said that, I can say that part of the assistant’s job (or secretary, to use the unfashionable term – probably in another age I’d have been called a “clerk”) is organization, a skill which anyone who knows me for longer than a few days will tell you I sorely lack. Lack might be a bit strong of a word – let’s say it’s underdeveloped, shall we? This underdeveloped skill, the ability to make order in an occasionally chaotic world, is the most highly valued part of the assistant’s trade. If I can keep my boss’s files in order, get him/her to meetings and make sure he/she remembers all his/her phone messages, then I’m a magician, and they pay me well for that. And though I suppose I can do these things, I really just don’t care. Order and harmony are all well and good, but I’m a bit indifferent as to whether anyone else has them. Yes, I am selfish, I admit it, and I have found that not all the promises of payment or the threat of punishment increase my desire to help other people get organized. I will occasionally plunge into the world of organization, but it pains me to do so, and I usually do it only for those that I love. I can often barely be troubled to organize myself, even under the most dire and necessitous of circumstances. Bears have better filing systems than I. Dogs bury bones with more forethought and are able to retrieve them with more speed than I could find you my paystubs.
So, part of the job that I can do to make my way in the world is unpleasant to me. Now, I’ve always considered that people who like to do certain jobs should, by all means, do them. A person who enjoys building should make bridges. A person who enjoys plants might make a good farmer, or a gardener, or an agriculturalist. And so on.
I also set great store by the fact that many jobs are passed down from parent to child. Fathers farming pass down the job to their sons, who may have some sort of genetic information coded in their tiny little genes (farmers have blue denim genes, like cowboys, with thick stiches).
I’m boring myself. Suffice to say, I hate my job and I want to do something else. Teaching is what you might call the family business. My mother and father were teachers (you might even say teaching is what brought me into being, since they met as science teachers at a middle school in Southern Illinois). My sister is a fantastic teacher of first graders, and her enthusiasm and grace with them is a constant inspiration to me to be kinder, to always say please and thank you, and to hold hands when I cross the street. I enjoy working with children (I’ve been a youth leader at church, as well as having been a teaching artist in Tucson and in New York), and I like to talk. So what’s the problem? Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Once Steph is out of school, I can go back to school myself, get a masters in education, get a teaching job, and that’s that. I’m earning my bread and butter doing something that is both noble and rewarding on a personal level. I’ve got a gift for it, and it would certainly sit well with my folks. Why not?
I’ll tell you why not. Couple reasons, actually. For one thing, I see teaching, not as something that you do to pay the bills, but as a vocation, like the priesthood. You teach because you feel that you want to make a difference. People teach because kids need teachers. Some of the most formative and influential people in my life have been teachers – Ms. Close, who told me I could write. Mr. McEaneny, who taught me to always remember who I am and what I represent, Mr. Siedel, who taught me that being a curmudgeon was actually cool, and that I have no idea how much I can achieve if I’m willing to push myself. The last thing this world needs is another teacher in it for the paycheck.
So, if I revere teaching so much, why not use my talents to make a difference?
I’m afraid I might be good at it.
I’m an artist. It’s how I’ve thought of myself since I was 15 years old. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be. If I were to be a teacher and be good at it, I’m afraid that I’d be like that Mr. Holland fucker. Admittedly, his music sucked (it took him his whole life to write THAT piece of trash? Buddy, you made the right decision to be a teacher), but the point is still valid. In fact, maybe more so. What if I find out that, hey, I’m a great teacher, I should have been doing this all along, and this whole art thing? Yeah, not so much. Learning that one has been fooling oneself for the past *ahem*20*ahem* years can be a bit of a jolt, and perhaps you, dear readers, might understand my reluctance to rip the veil of illusion.
I don’t want to find out I should have been a teacher. I don’t want to find out that I’ve been chasing an empty dream. Worse, I don’t want to get so involved in what I rightly believe to be a noble and praiseworthy profession that I lose sight of what’s really important – i.e. art.
Want to know the worst part? Part of the reason I want to be an artist – money. I want to be ridiculously famous and wealthy. At the very least I want to earn a decent living from art. I don’t want to starve for my art! Is that wrong? I’m tired of doing other things to earn my living! I’m an artist, goddamnit! Somebody fucking feed me!
Yes, I know the world needs teachers. Yes, I know that it is selfish to put my own goals and aspirations above the good of others and the world. There you go. I am not a particularly “good” person. I want success – money, fame, privilege – or, barring that, at least a home and a family supported by doing what I’m good at and what I love. Or what I think I’m good at. Oh, hell. I don’t know.
So I’m a little conflicted about the whole teaching thing. Lots of people are great teachers, and I know plenty of great artists who make their living teaching, but I’m a little scared that I’ll have to be good at it because it’s important, and I won’t have any free time or energy to make art, and then I’ll end up getting comfortable with it, and forget all about this stupid art thing, and I’ll have to work a regular job for the rest of my life. And really that’s the main thing. I just don’t want to work a regular job ever in my whole life ever. And yet it seems that’s all I’m fit to do. All anybody’ll pay me for, anyway.