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Freedom

Keep the Car Running (Arcade Fire)

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre

The pressure of “the life” was starting to cause real emotional and physical problems. Forget sleep. Not from stress over grading or keeping up with prep. I’d long mastered that insanity back in Graduate School. I just couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t stop my mind from racing, stop the endless self-interrogation. Even driving the eighty or so minute round trip to work was, I don’t know: cluttered? Noisy? No. That’s not true. The stuff of the mind and the floating debris of seven years served wasn’t at all the cause of these distractions and life-sucking moments of fear and loathing in New England. I was haunted by choices; and not knowing whether I would be able to make new ones any time soon. Without wind in my sails or enough food for my crew, there was only so much rowing I and others could do to keep the S.S. Professor Career afloat without having to raise the red and black distress flags.

On this particular midday, I am on my way to the Sheriff’s office; my entire family in tow. My wife and I were being sued for not forking over what amounted to ten thousand dollars in extortion. The former owner of our once-in-a-lifetime-rent-to-own home decided to go window shopping with our security deposit after unlawfully evicting us while my wife was days away from giving birth. The phone call yesterday from my college’s VP re: the county Sheriff trying to serve me on campus was embarrassing enough. Now, I’m walking with three boys  and my wife (carrying Oliver in a sling) across the street toward the court house–let’s look on this as a teachable moment, yeah, a CIVICS lesson. Now, the clerk in the tiny annexed shack behind the court building was overcompensating–my wife’s tears were impossible to hide in the florescent lighting. “What did we do wrong now,” my eldest said. (Through gritted teeth and a smile I said: “So . . . not . . . helping . . . “)

This was easily the lowest moment in my trip to Rock Bottom.

We drove to the college without talking. Thankfully I’d brought Arcade Fire and Mute Math with us that day. I really needed the pick-me-up inspiration we all experienced when listening to those CDs. I wondered if this feeling of regret coupled with anger and fear would become a permanent state of being. Certainly, this was Nothingness–the end of “something” and the arrival of so many possibilities. The next thing, right? This is the moment where you take a deep breath, figure it out, and move into action. But, that wasn’t happening. Even after years of academic living and artistic struggles, more than a decade at this point, I was constant and unbreakable. It was all part of “the life.” Not that I wanted to suffer; not that I even thought suffering for your art was a correct way to think about living an artistic life with conviction. I was at a loss for “what comes next”; I drove my minivan in a state of shock and indecision that I had never known before.

*****************

They dropped me off so I could teach my two o’clock American Literature course. As they drove away I realized that she had slipped me $5 for lunch. She was going to visit a friend. Not just to meet for a play date. The friend had offered lunch. No one said it but we didn’t have enough money to feed our kids that day. Well, that’s not exactly true–we were offered (another, thankfully) $75 to “cool slide” on her father’s checking Visa. But, that trip wouldn’t happen until after my three hour seminar on Twain and Chopin.

With five minutes to spare, I asked my closest colleague, my Chair, to walk with me.

“I can’t do this,” I said suddenly stopping and leaning my back to the wall a few doors down from my classroom.

“What happened?”

It all came out. She knew most of it. But, it all came out. As our SEA/SEIU rep, she knew Adjuncts were keeping the college alive during years of gross mismanagement. There was no doubt she and her colleagues did everything to protect us from sociopathic administrators, staff minions who vied for the favor of the oligarchs, students looking for any excuse to leverage grades with emotional and policy terrorism. She already understood the self-created and very real pressures of writing a dissertation. Family. Other writing. But, the economic stress of adjuncting was starting to make it very difficult to balance teaching obligations with paying the bills. After all, it’s not like adjuncts can just take on more teaching or development at the speed payment is needed. With family and freelance needs, it’s also very difficult, if not impossible, to pick up short term work, even in restaurants and cafes that, in all fairness, expect their staff to make some kind of commitment.

It was just too much. And now, that son of a bitch and his wife were trying to leech off us once more and I swear to God, I swear to fucking God . . .

“Stop.”

“Okay.”

Ten second pause; she was the master of recentering. Nothing new agey. She was the real deal. This was a sentinel to sentinel moment. (Escuchame! Mira! Basta! All clearly communicated in her “stop.”)

My mind raced: “Had I really been here seven years?”

She knew I wasn’t ready to hear her just yet. So she paused a bit more: “You were born to teach today. This is one day out of many where you’re going to want to walk away. But, don’t. Not yet. We need you; they need you. So, just teach. Then, go home.”

Silence.

Smile.

Walk to the classroom.

“How’s everyone doing?” and something about struggle, learning hard truths about yourself, and why today may in fact be the best day to teach Twain and Chopin.

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About Dean RCB

Dean of Academics Lebanon College Philosophy and Integrated Liberal Arts Writer & Producer (theatre, television, film) Composer & Producer RCB lives in the Upper Valley with his wife and four boys.

10 responses to “Freedom

  1. Doc, as someone who has walked that walk right off of the cliff into the unknown (more than once), with no safety net, no assurances, no real reason to be confident in anything worldly… I admire and respect all that you have conveyed here. To teach is to live that which you teach. All frustration, desperation, anxiety, rage, awareness of injustice, courage, love, unity, faith… it all comes through the moment you address your students. YOU are the “teachable moment”. Thank you.

    • Brother from another mother and sister, that meant a lot.
      Pretty anxious about going public with the CHRONICLE piece.
      Keep sending these good vibes.
      You are a rock star, a beautiful rock star, my friend.
      A thousand blessings from Quechee,
      Migrant Intellectual aka Dr. Robert Craig Baum

  2. Pingback: Diggers Are the Most Beautiful People in the World « migrantintellectual

  3. We were unable to fight back. So, we left. Negotiated a great deal elsewhere. We’ve been recovering ever since, almost out of the woods. Helps not Adjuncting right now as I focus on other projects and ways to make a living. Blessings!

  4. Thanks for signing my petition, and please get everyone you can to sign it. Every little bit helps, and every signature adds one more name. I know. It’s endless. Your pain is endless. I feel for you. We’ve all been there one way or another. And that’s why I’m making this petition. Maybe it won’t do anything. But I started it about a month ago, with just my lone signature, and today I just got one more signature: yours. Maybe you can share it with others, and get more signatures. In the meantime, thank you for sharing this with me. It was lovely. It was painful. It brought tears to my eyes. It was ecstasy.

    • I’ve forwarded it to everyone I know. I also really appreciate you reading part of my bigger Adjunct story. I’m in the process of working on a novella that’s written in the Upton Sinclair tradition of “The Jungle” focused specifically on a family who lost their husband/father to a treatable cancer which moved into the lymphnodes because he had no health insurance, lived “the life,” and like most of us was convinced in time, if he did good work and taught well and stayed the course, he would gain full time employment with benefits. It’s a terrible story but one that speaks to the heart of the matter — like Upton, the only way to end this is to tell our stories and fight, fight hard, and without looking back. I now fight for the graduate students who are entering their dissertation phase or facing their orals. I fight for the college student who just felt the inspiration to teach, to read, to research, to become a completely different sort of person (see Rorty’s “Theses on the Humanities”). I stand with you, my new friend.

      Thinkers and teachers and workers and people of the world rise up!

      • Have you read Bolaño’s 2666? He doesn’t hold out much hope, but it is a hell of a novel, or several novels in one. AND he was a drifter of sorts, doing odd jobs here and there, writing what he could whenever he could, never recognized, until now, after his death, at what, all of 50 something? I read it in Spanish, but it has recently been translated, as all his works have (a new surge in his popularity, sad to say, a little late!)… Anyway, between writing your novel and sticking up for the underdog, and reaching out to friends who are out there (and by God we need them, because close by, they are too afraid to show their face, at least where I am!), see if you like it. It’s ambivalent but powerful! Oh, and what beautiful language.

      • Wow. Great reference. Something I truly don’t know at all. How exciting!!!! 🙂

        Solidarity!

      • Try to have a great weekend. AND let me know how things turn out for you with the house. I know you’ll keep teaching: it is our strength!

      • We lost the housing battle but now live in a better area, away from “ground zero” for our particular woes in NH. Migrant Intellectual and the Adjunct Nation project is slowly going national thanks to the people at Adjunct Project and the media folk who have opened their eyes and heart to our plight. Teaching is what we do; writing is what we do; thinking, researching, fighting for those “yet to come” — this is what we do.

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