Wednesday, January 23, 2013

# 35 That Question.

    So, I graduate from teacher's college and like hundreds of other new teachers in the province, I hit the bricks looking for work. I'm told, it's a bad year for new teachers, 65% of my graduating class don't get a job because the market is flooded with new graduates. 

    Many argue that the universities should not be allowed to saturate the market with teachers when there are so few to be positions available. The ugly truth is that the universities are in the business of selling people skills for the classroom, not getting them a job. I don't realize it at the time, but I'm not in as bad shape as many of the other graduates. I have an English degree, a teaching license, and I am also a licensed (journeyman) carpenter. Even though, I've had enough of the trade, it will prove to be more significant in my second career than the first.

    In the coming months, I flood the market with my teaching C.V., traveling everyday from school to school trying to get important face time. I apply to every job I hear about within sixty miles of the city and attend interviews, many just for practice. It seems every principal wears a blue blazer with grey flannel pants and a school tie. I sit outside administration offices regularly, everything seems so bland, fake wood furniture, synthetic wall to wall carpeting, miles of beige walls, and lots of wire filled glass fitted inside steal doors.

    So, I'm sitting in this interview for a building construction position offered in a small town school. I'm nervous, prepared and very keen to win them over. They don't provide the applicant with the questions before the interview like they do now, so, I have spoken with other new teachers and develop a list of things I should and shouldn't say. Everything goes very well, and then, the principal leading interview panel pops an unexpected question.  He says, "I'm curious Dave, I notice that you are a licensed carpenter, but you also have a degree in English Literature, what is the connection?"  I didn't expect this question and for the life of me I can't think of why anyone would ask it. So, I speak without thinking. 

   I say, "High school provided me with a grounding in the basics, but it didn't teach me any specific skills for world of work. As a result, I had to do quite a few semi-skilled jobs before I landed in the position of a carpenter's apprentice.  My grandfather had been a housing contractor and although my dad spent most of his career at Foreign Affairs in an office, he was weekend builder. When I left school, I discovered it is difficult to land any kind of job with possibility of promotion, so carpentry seemed like a good fit. I served the four years, did the in-school sessions, wrote the government exams and I was declared a journeyman carpenter by the state. Unfortunately, building wasn't the place I wanted to stay, so I enrolled in university. When I got there, I couldn't decide what to study, so I picked English because I found it easy." Nobody in the room says a word, they all look at me and then divert eye contact.

   Then the principal breaks the silence with, "Well, thank you very much for attending the interview with us today Dave. We will make a decision in the next day and call the successful candidate soon." I stand up, thank everyone for their time and leave. When I pull into the driveway I notice it is close to an hour drive one way. I walk in the front door and there is a message to call the principal. I dial him up and he says how "impressed" they all are with my "diverse background" and he would like to offer me the job. I didn't think too long about the offer before I decline. I realize it is too far to drive everyday and I know I can do better.

   The only reason this interview sticks with me to this day is that question. Over the years I am asked numerous times to explain why I am a carpenter with a degree in English Literature, like it's an unusual combination. Personally, I never get why people see it is odd or even note worthy. After many encounters with the question, I start to joke about it, and make up different responses for the sake of my own entertainment. I always try and say something very open ended and make a point of not explaining myself. Here are some of the answers I have provided over the years:

   Carpentry is very spatial, and English is very verbal, obviously I have both hemispheres working, all systems are a go!

  Well, you know, Jesus was a carpenter and he told a lot of stories too.

   It always made sense to me, building is an art fueled with spatial skills and English is an art fueled with verbal abilities, they just seemed to balance each other out so beautifully, don't you think?

   Carpenters do everything related to building. They are often the first on the job and the last to leave. English is similar in that we can approach any idea in any subject. In order to build you need vision and in order to communicate that vision you need language. 

   Carpentry is an art and so is literature, they're so compatible, I felt they should copulate.

   Writers build their work much the same way carpenters build houses, from the ground up.

   Many people I have worked with in the trade seem to understand the relationship, but very, few in education ever seem to get it.  After all these years in teaching I still get the question put to me. Just the other day I'm in conversation with a colleague and he says, "You teach English and you are a carpenter, that's an odd mix."  I patiently say, "I would probably never be asked that question if I were an architect, lawyer, engineer or landscape designer."

   I have learned that many people are envious of the ability to build with wood. I guess when you don't do it for a living, there is a certain romance to the image of working with wood. Teaching is like that too. A lot of people see it as a romantic occupation, but that's because they are looking at it from the outside. Many years ago an English teacher stops me in the hall and says, "Oh, I love the smell of wood!" to which I reply, "Well, try working with it all day. Do you like talking to adolescents after a long week in the classroom?"

   I have taught cabinet making, woodworking and house building for several years and finally my clogged sinus' demanded a change. I enjoyed doing it for the time I did, but I don't miss it. Carpentry has always been good to me and I have never regretted learning it, I recommend it to kids regularly. Unlike teachers there is almost never a saturation of people who can perform a trade.

   One of the things I have always loved about working with teachers is that most have very diverse skill sets and they are usually quite humble about it too. Over the years, I have worked with teachers who have been Olympic athletes, musicians, artists, lawyers, pilots to mention only a few. So, it always strikes me as odd that so many ask me that question.