Before I can do Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard #4 (and resurrect a series that has laid dormant for over a year), I have to tell a very personal story. And it’s time to do it now.
For those of you who’ve been getting to know me in one place or another over the past couple of years – be it at Tennessee Tech or online through Twitter or what have you – there’s a bias that I hesitate to bring up too much in this climate, knowing how many people come from how many different employment backgrounds, but that’s inescapable given my own. It’s the interweaving of life and work, and the identity that we take from our work.
My grandfather was a dentist. He practiced dentistry in the military, and then settled with his wife in Berea, Ohio to establish a community practice. He engaged with his professional societies vigorously; he reached the presidency of the Ohio Dental Association, and even served as president of the Ohio State University Dental Alumni Society in his late EIGHTIES, long after his retirement. Anybody who spent too much time around him saw his “Rx for Apathy: INVOLVEMENT” motto, and his commitment to his community and his profession was awesome for me to see in my youthful years, and awesome for me to talk over with him on precious Saturday mornings having breakfast before Ohio State football games when I was in grad school.
Even as I saw the stresses over the profession when I was in grad school, nothing interested me near as much as the practice of college teaching. (The one substantial regret I have from graduate school was not pushing back when my boss shot down out-of-hand my desire to look into science education labs and seek out postdocs that were more teaching-focused. I understand why she did, in terms of the pressures on the research-one professoriate. But my heart never left the classroom, and any thought of being a research professor was setting myself up to fail.) When my postdoc failed, and the prospect of teaching at a small residential two-year college came to the fore, the picture of a life in a small town as a respected member of the community working in education REALLY appealed to me, and it felt like a thing I could make a career out of.
It bears mentioning that, in the year 2000, I was really naïve.
Fast forward through 14 years and three different jobs that I took with the feeling that I absolutely had no choice each time I moved and the thoughts in the back of my mind that I could have done better. The reason that Virginia Intermont’s failure hit me so hard, at the end of the day, is the fact that I left what I did on that job with zero regrets and it still didn’t matter. In both of my first two jobs, the institution continues on (in a different form than when I arrived at both, but it continues on) and I’m torn whether I could have changed or hidden elements of who I was or been a bit more agreeable and patient and not had to move my family around. Maybe I could have stayed at Middle Georgia long-term; maybe I felt too much principle when I left Shorter. But I see the mistakes I made at both places. I fully realized the type of professor I wanted to be at Virginia Intermont, I found a place I loved and students I wanted to serve for the long haul.
And the school failed anyway.
I tossed every application out to every small teaching-centered college or university in the universe because I’d started doing something professionally that I dearly, desperately wanted to continue and I felt like I could articulate a vision for success. I interviewed at several, and all but one of those processes failed for one reason or another. I targeted one Christian liberal arts college in particular, and went through a very full process on the phone, on Skype and over a two-day (!) in-person interview schedule to work to make that happen. At the very end of the process, they canceled the search and allowed the due-to-retire professor to stay on for another year. Failure, in your face, again.
I’ve said a good bit about the search process that didn’t fail elsewhere. I’ll always be grateful for that one job application in 2014 that didn’t fail, and the work I did at Tennessee Tech shifted my thinking about science education – and got me DOING things in science education – in ways that I really can’t count. But the job title was “temporary instructor of physics.” The vocation that I had taken so much value from was gone. And you might be treated exceptionally well in that job – and I was. And you might be listened to and valued by your colleagues in every aspect of your work in that job – and I was. But the word “temporary” is still there. The word “professor” is in your colleague’s titles and not your own. The institution devalues. It’s worthy work, but there’s inherent disrespect in how your employer classifies it.
What was once theoretical for me – the reality of jobs drying up in higher education, the tenuous nature of those who deliver the teaching that our students depend upon for that vital degree – became very real in that time, even as I knew that I was incredibly fortunate to keep full-time employment in 2014. I saw it happen in so many others’ lives as well, in so many other places that failed and in other places where people’s secure employment was suddenly changed and made less secure.
2014 was a very hard time, and made very real to me how hard things were for others. You shouldn’t have to go through awful things to build that empathy. But I’m not that good a person.
Jimmy Eat World’s Damage was released in the summer of 2013 to more underwhelming reviews than raves, and it’s still not even close to one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World albums (although to me a bad Jimmy Eat World album is still better than 90% of bands’ entire catalogs). It’s the album on the downward side of the band’s career, and it has all the foibles of that stage of a band’s lifetime.
But most songs that become my lifelong favorites have a moment where they just hit. And there was a moment sometime in early 2014, when I saw how the Virginia Intermont story was going to end, and when I heard what had just been a good steady rocker and it hit me between the eyes. And as each step of my job hunt became more vivid, each lyric from the song resonated more and more.
Here we go, here we go; we’ll take on so much pain
To feel secure – or not feel anything
I only pick a fight I’m sure to lose
So how could I not hold my hope for you?
How slowly we built the walls
In years they pile on
I will steal you back…
And my word, I had taken on pain – and put myself and my family through so much hardship and instability in pursuit of this thing that I care so deeply about. And, again, we had comparatively remained stable; we had known people who had and then found themselves without.
One of the most gratifying things to discover was that Jim Adkins didn’t see this lyric as it sounded on first listen, but wrote it as I heard it when it hit me at its hardest – as a point of commitment:
I guess you can read into it as a surface thing, like, literally wanting someone back whose grace you might have fallen out with…but I view it more like a first-person speaker in that song making decisions, rather than just resolutions. It’s more about, I think, finding yourself and being okay with yourself than it is wanting or needing something from the other person in a relationship…
So as the song became a theme for a stage of my life, the title – “I Will Steal You Back” – never was about a person. It was in part about that job title, but that’s not even the entire picture. It was about that picture I had in 2000 – that naïve vision of a stable place in a small town for the professor and for their family, a picture that wasn’t that unreasonable in my youth but a picture that has been slipping steadily out of view for most of my career. It was determination to get that for myself and my family. It was determination to stand in defense for those others around me who were struggling to have that for themselves and and their families.
I’ve been successful in one, but there is still a long, long way to go on the other.
“It’s gonna be how it is; there’s some things you don’t change.”
I’m done with telling myself that story.