Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Summer Less Ordinary, Part I: Road Trips

For most of my life, summer has been a season without accomplishment.

I have to qualify that statement with this observation: my childhood summers were fun, productive times when I engaged in all the usual outdoor activities, riding my bicycle, playing little league, splashing around in our wading pool and, when I got older, walking to the municipal pool to beat the heat in a chlorine-rich environment. As I moved into adolescence, though, my interests shifted more to inactivity: television, books, and writing.

Yes, I was writing, plowing through reams of notebook paper creating several different science fiction worlds; and when I wasn’t writing science fiction, I was reading it. Movies were rare treats, television offered little to amuse me, so I stuck to my books and my pen.

This included family vacations. I missed a lot of scenery keeping my nose buried in a novel or a notebook. I also managed to get myself carsick in the process, particularly when we’d be traveling up the Alsea Highway to Waldport. Once we reached our vacation destination, I’d keep myself glued to that book, often shutting myself in the parked car to get out of the chill of our coastal campsite and away from the distractions of my younger brothers. This didn’t happen as much when I was at camp, and had social stimuli to keep me from boredom; but camp was rare, two weeks a summer at most.

There was also the piano: I spent many an hour at the church, finding a Sunday school room with a piano and playing until my fingers were sore.

One thing I didn’t do much was work. I did have an office job at my dad’s church, but that didn’t take much time. I remember a fellow Scout coming to me once and trying to get me interested in a job at the lumber mill where he worked during the summer, and telling him I had too much to do at home—“too much” meaning too many books to read, too many stories to write.

This practice continued through college and graduate school. I had occasional temp jobs, but for the most part, summer was a time for me to relax and read. Becoming an educator, I naturally assumed I’d continue having that kind of summer. To put it in the form of a joke popular among my fellow education majors, “The three best things about teaching are June, July, and August.”

Unless, of course, you haven’t got a job waiting for you in September.

My first summer of limbo was in 1984. In those pre-internet days, teachers found work through college placement services. Regularly I would receive fat packets from Willamette University stuffed with job leads that met my search criteria. I’d either send back a card or make a phone call—I can’t remember which, though since it was long distance (remember when that was a factor?), I assume it was the former—telling them who to send my placement file to. And then I’d wait for the phone to ring. When it rang, there’d be an administrator on the other end setting up an appointment for an interview. This happened eight times that summer.

I got to know the remote corners of the Pacific Northwest very well that summer. Except for one interview in Kent, Washington, all my interviews were in rural, even isolated districts. I traveled to most of them on my own in the 1973 Toyota Celica that was my family’s second car. It tended to overheat, so I was frequently stuck on the side of the road, waiting for the engine to cool. I stayed in $10/night motels, camped in my pup tent, was hosted once by a Methodist minister (thanks to my father’s contacts), and slept on a cold hard church floor (also thanks to Dad). Now having experienced the interview odyssey multiple times, I better understand why I had to travel to Joseph, Enterprise, Forks, North Powder, Wapato, Port Orford, and one other location I can’t remember: urban schools get far more applicants than rural schools, and those applicants have far better resumes and references than does a first-year teacher. Rural districts, by contrast, have to draw from a far less experienced pool of applicants and, pressed for cash, are less likely to hire one who’s already two steps up the scale (thanks to that Master’s degree) than one with just a BA.

I also didn’t interview well. I was uncomfortable, lacked confidence, couldn’t project the enthusiasm I felt for teaching—though to be honest, I mostly was terrified of getting the high school job I wanted and having to teach students just a few years younger than I.

So after eight interviews, I was still jobless. And then North Powder called me back for a second interview. It seems their first choice had turned them down. That should’ve been my first warning. But that’s another story.

That summer was an important watershed for me. I worked hard for those interviews, drove insane distances in a car that could have stranded me on a remote highway, slept in dicey motels, lived on granola bars, saw beautiful remote places and tried to imagine living in them. I also began my first true exercise program, walking for hours at a time. And, at the end of the summer with that job offer finally in place, I bought my first car, then moved into my first apartment.

Other summers have been similarly remarkable. The following summer culminated with a drive to Dallas, Texas, where I started seminary at a place I’d never seen. The summer after that I drove straight through from Dallas to northern New York state to meet my future in-laws, then across Canada to my parents’ home, then, a month later, after introducing my fiancĂ©e to them, back to Dallas with her. In fact, driving has figured prominently in every memorable summer I’ve had.

Things changed once there were children and regular church employment in my life. Church jobs, unlike teaching jobs, are year-round, and while Methodism had a relatively generous vacation policy (four weeks a year), I was in a marriage that did not favor travel for the sake of travel. Once that marriage ended, I discovered that taking road trips with small children could be quite complicated if one did not have a fellow parent along to share the duties with, especially at bedtime. My second marriage briefly alleviated this, but then it ended, along with my career, and now I had to add lack of income to the list of factors precluding extended vacations. So the pattern was in place, and remained so until recently: I might take a week or two to travel, but for the most part, summer was a time to stay at home, squandering opportunities.
That brings me to the summer that is now ending, one of the richest in terms of accomplishments and experiences that I can remember. And that will be Part II.

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