Most everyone who knows me has heard me complain about my teaching job. I’ve been unhappy in it for ten years. To be complaining that long there’s something wrong with the job but there also has to be something wrong too with me.
This year I applied for other teaching jobs. I filled tedious applications and sent them in. Since applying, I complain less about my job. I wrote a dream plan for a year from now. Most of it, other than quitting my job’s money and healthcare, turns out to be possible immediately. The job doesn’t keep me from being a writer. I even write while teaching. The job doesn’t decide who I am.
Toni Morrison’s New Yorker piece “The Work You Do, The Person You Are” is about her childhood job cleaning a white woman’s house. She was paid two dollars and gave half to help her parents pay bills. The job though became more onerous and hazardous and less profitable. Morrison was afraid to tell her mother lest she make her quit. She liked the freedom and responsibility that came with the money. She let slip some of her troubles to her father who said:
“Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come home.”
This is what Morrison heard:
- Whatever the work is, do it well — not for the boss but for yourself.
- You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
- Your real life is with us, your family.
- You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.
I hear both of them as I think about my job and my work, two very different things.
My job is at school. I don’t respect my bosses but have let go most of my anger. They do their best; we simply disagree on fundamentals. They treat employees as pieces in a game, lines on a balance sheet, things rather than people. Like Morrison’s boss, mine ask for more work some of which is onerous or dangerous. Like Morrison, I have grown to resent this.
Where Morrison was reluctant to complain, I had no such reticence. I complained loudly. The noise I made kept me from hearing the fatherly voice within me saying, You don’t live there. You live at home with your family and your writing. That voice slowly got through. Go to work, get your money, and come home. I’ve learned to let the job fall away as I leave the building. At first, I imagined tearing off a uniform and throwing it to the ground. Now I imagine folding and setting it on a shelf for the next day. I leave the job and don’t look back.
When Morrison eventually quit, I bet another girl took her place like switching parts of a machine. It’s the same at my job. Each spring a dozen teachers leave or are pushed out and replaced. The job owes nothing beyond a paycheck. It’s just business. That goes both ways.
I save loyalty, drive, and love for home, investing them in family and writing, my real work. The job is just business. I live at home and here on this page. I keep the two separate as I can.
Morrison says, “you are not the work you do, you are the person you are.” Here’s what I hear:
I am not the job I do for money, I am the person doing work that’s my own.
Morrison’s father wasn’t spiteful about her boss. He simply reminded her of the job’s place in her life. I’ve been full of spite, when my bosses define me as ineffective or merely developing. Those labels dog me, but I try to leave them at the job, folded on a shelf, as I go home to family and blank pages waiting for me to do my real work.