Monday, August 26, 2013

Then Again, Maybe You CAN Leave!

This is my last reference to the Hotel California. Really.

Amy and I did not arrive in the Rogue Valley together. She drove down with Alex and Sarah, who were concerned that I was not in the car, and were fearfully wondering that something had happened to our relationship. She straightened them out, and now I shall do the same for you.

The phone call came Saturday. We'd been driving all day, had stopped at the QFC for some groceries, and were about to drive the final mile back to the house, when I realized I had missed a call while we were shopping. I didn't recognize the number, but a voice mail had been left, so I pulled into a parking space and listened as a principal asked if I was still interested in a full-time elementary music position in the Reynolds School District. Needless to say, I called her right back and set up an interview for the earliest time she had available: 4:15 on Monday, well past the time we had hoped to be on our way down to Southern Oregon for our final summer vacation.

Now for some background: I've been half-time for two years in Banks. For the year before that, I was 0.10-time in Portland. The year before that, I was on unemployment. Banks is a hard-hit school district: since laying me off in 2009, they've seen elementary class sizes of 40, all the way down to the second grade. Our superintendent likes to say, with pride, that in Banks we "do more with less" than any other district in the state. He's probably right, and the pride is justified. But it sucks.

When I was full-time in Banks, I purchased $10,000 of Orff instruments that have now been stored for four years, and will stay stored for at least one more, probably two or three. There just isn't any money for elementary music. What money there is has to be prioritized to reducing class sizes by hiring more classroom teachers.

Now back to me: I'm 52. It's been four years since I made any full-time contributions to my pension. That's the financial side of it. Professionally, I've continued with my training, picking up full Orff-certification, but with no classroom to practice it in, I worry that those skills are slipping away. And I miss working with young children.

Before you consider me miserable in Banks, please understand I love my students. They're great kids, hard workers, and almost every day in the band room I came away feeling tired by refreshed, knowing they'd made some good music with me, that they loved what they were doing, and fulfilling my youthful conducting fantasies.

As much as I love rehearsing and conducting an ensemble, I love teaching more, and ever since my first exposure to an elementary classroom, during student teaching, I've known that's where I belong. I was fortunate in 2003 to be hired to a temporary job at an elementary school, and I happily built a career on that for six years before the layoff hit.

Now back to this summer: knowing it was unlikely Banks would expand my current job in the near future, let alone restore the elementary position, and encouraged by the superintendent to look for a full-time gig, I got busy. I daily searched every teacher recruitment site serving districts within fifty miles of Bethany, which has to remain my home base as long as Sarah is in school. I applied for anything that was greater than half-time and elementary. And I got interviews: Hillsboro, a different position in Reynolds. We took a detour on our way to Idaho so I could interview in Oregon City. On our way up to the Tetons, we parked for an hour so I could do a phone interview with Camas. Again and again, though, I didn't quite make the cut, even though every one of those interviews went well. It was beginning to seem that Banks was where I was going to finish my career, limping along at half-time for as long as it took for music to finally get to the top of the out basket.

Here was one last chance, uncomfortably late in the summer, but the principal sounded like she really wanted to talk to me, that she'd actually been turned down by some candidates who didn't like the thought of working in a gymnasium. So I took that 4:15 interview, and bought a Greyhound ticket, then went to work figuring out where I could leave my car. (I parked it at the ComedySportz arena, and got a ride to the bus station from Herb Spice.) Monday arrived, Amy headed off to pick up the kids and continue on to southern Oregon, and chaos descended.

It was as if the cosmos was out to get me. I had a lesson to teach before I headed into town, and arrived at it twenty minutes late--and without my bus ticket. I rescheduled the lesson, drove back to the house, retrieved the ticket, and headed into Portland--and gridlock on I-84 from a Government Island wildfire and a stalled vehicle. It took me well over an hour to get to Margaret Scott Elementary School. There I found Mychael Irwin, the principal, herself feeling thoroughly frazzled as she tried to get her house in order for a new position, with hirings coming far too late for comfort.

And from that moment, everything was great. The interview was wonderful, one of the best I've had. The drive to the arena was clear sailing. Herb hustled me into the van as soon as I'd pulled into the alley, and I was at the bus station with time for supper. I came back from the burrito place where I ate to find a long line waiting to get on the southbound bus--and then was escorted to an express line, a bus that made only three stops, dropping me off a half-hour early.

Now came the waiting game: when would I hear back? Mychael had promised me "Wednesday at the latest." Our cabin was well out of cell-tower range, so I was always eager to come down out of the hills and see if I had any voice mail. Watching Taming of the Shrew, my enjoyment was partially tempered by that part of my brain that kept hoping the phone would vibrate. Driving up to Crater Lake on Wednesday, I again found myself losing coverage, and there was none for the entire time we were up there. All the way back down, I kept checking for coverage, and once we had it, wondered if there'd been a glitch with the voice mail. We again left cell coverage sometime after 7 p.m. Thursday morning, we drove down to Jacksonville--still no voice mail--for breakfast. All the disappointments of every other job I'd applied for, interviewed for, been turned down for, was coming to a head, and I was doubting whether I would ever find work in the Portland area.

That's when I turned to Amy and said, "Maybe I need to look elsewhere."

"What?" she said, shock on her face.

"Not now; but maybe, when Sarah graduates, we should be open to living outside Portland. Someplace like this." (And that is how you know the Rogue Valley had been redeemed for me.)

Amy deflected my defeatist thoughts of abandoning our Portland dream: "Why don't you call them and find out?"

So I did. And learned that they were still very interested in me, but that the other principal--there are two schools in this assignment--wanted to meet me in person, perhaps on Monday. My heart sank at this thought: I was supposed to report to Banks on Monday. But at least it wasn't closed. Buoyed by this knowledge, I felt a burden left from my chest.

Friday I talked Mychael into a Sunday interview--which wound up being at 4:15, meaning there was no way I would be able to make it to the final performance of Trek in the Park's "The Trouble with Tribbles." Sunday afternoon I was a hot mess. I held it together for the two piano lessons I taught, then arrived at the school a half hour early, parking next to a car which, I discovered when I got out of my own, belonged to (gulp) another music teacher: the back seat was loaded with music teaching supplies. So I didn't have it sewn up, despite all the ways Mychael had hinted at this job being mine for the asking. I waited outside the school until 4:35, finally being brought in to learn that the other principal had called in sick, so maybe I didn't need this interview after all--except that I'd prepared a lesson to demonstrate to both of them, even purchased a small djembe drum to use during it. I talked with Mychael for awhile, walked her through the lesson, then got a tour of the facility, and all the while the language was leading me down that path toward the job being mine, and all this being a formality. But she wouldn't know until she checked one more reference: my current junior high principal, who she hadn't been able to reach.

So I did report to Banks this morning. And the first thing I did was to approach Shelley, the BJH principal, and ask her to make the call, which she did. Then I waited all morning for my phone to ring, through hours of talks about benefit packages. Then came a high school staff meeting. Then it was back to the elementary cafeteria for lunch and another training. I'd been on tenterhooks all morning, had no appetite for the pastries that are always served on the first day of inservice. And finally it came. I grabbed the phone, hurried across the gym, answered it.

And got the job.

It's been a long time coming, and I'm deliriously happy. There's a mess that needs cleaning up: coming this late puts Banks at a horrible disadvantage, as well as creating a legal hassle. Teachers are supposed to give 60 days notice to ensure continuity for students; I was giving 9. I might have to start the year in the Banks band room. I will very likely have to lead a pep band at this Friday's pre-season football game. But everyone knows about this, and everyone is working to resolve it as quickly as possible, and I must admit I am relieved to have a chance to say goodbye to these students, most of whom I have known since 2007.

I can be defeatist about things that never seem to go my way: elections, interviews, contests. Winning something, succeeding at something, even though it does happen more often than I admit to myself, is like a wave of grace crashing over my head, telling me once again that I am valued and desired, that my talents and skills are recognized. It is so wonderful to be wanted. And in this way, I finally leave the valleys of my defeats: Emmett, Medford. And yes, they're both in valleys, the Gem and the Rogue, respectively. Despite the hard experiences I had in them, neither was really that bad a place to live.

But the view from up here is glorious.

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