In Praise of Profession

Most of us begin our adult lives with some vague optimism about the future. Even if things aren’t ideal in the beginning, we reason, surely the harder we work the better life will be. Growing up we all harbor some deep-seated hope that our jobs, whatever they may be, will in some way influence the world for good. We are told to dream–dream big, dream often, don’t stop–and we begin to believe in ourselves.

The truth is that most of us, upon being launched into adulthood, become satisfied with jobs that pay the bills. World changing? Perhaps not. Life-altering? Yeah, potentially. We trudge through each day, each week, paying the bills and wondering what all that dreaming was for. But a lucky few are able to carve out more than that for themselves. For some of us, reality and occupation are not combatants. Rather they coexist, and we are able to have one without falling prey to the other.

Arguably, no one ever goes into teaching for the money. Education is seldom, if ever, championed as a lucrative career choice. But I would argue that those of us who have chosen this profession have duped the rest of the world. Ours is a secret so delicious it must be told. 

Every day I go into a classroom where I sit with my books. Some of these books have been with me for awhile, since I was a student myself. They are worn; they are tattered and coffee-stained. They are old friends, keepers of solace. I go into a classroom with my books, and there are students there waiting for me, waiting for me to tell them what’s in the books. But instead of dryly delivering information for them to file away and regurgitate later, we have conversations. We talk about theme and plot and symbolism and all the things that make my books tick. And my students begin to know what they’re doing. When my day is finished, I find myself sitting at a desk trying to figure out when the actual work is going to begin.

Being a teacher is like being on the inside of a joke. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly know what I do for my paycheck. Of course they don’t; if they knew how much fun I was having they probably wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I don’t mean to suggest that being a teacher is not without its problems. Anyone who has ever done it or tried to do it before will tell you that it’s tough. The grading and the grade-grubbing and the constant reminders that our work will never be done are, at times, maddening. Then payday roles around, and for one brief moment we all feel like the joke’s on us.

But at the end of the day it is my job, it is my occupation, to go into a classroom and discuss “Jabberwocky.” It is my job to watch my students develop confidence in themselves, my job to watch them come to appreciate and love the very same books that have meant so much to me, my job to help them find their own voice and figure out what to say and how to write with it. And while no job is without its problems, it’s not a bad way to earn a living.

Under the Overpass

There’s an overpass at an intersection in El Paso, Texas that’s just like any other. It’s built the same. It serves the same purpose as all the other overpasses ever built. It’s not made of anything fancy, and it doesn’t help you get to anywhere thrilling or exciting (unless, like me, you think that Target is the happening place to be). But this overpass is special. Different. It has something that makes it unique.

It has the peanut waver.

The peanut waver stands, day and night, on the corner underneath one of the traffic lights. He rests his bicycle, which is missing the rubber on one of its wheels, up against the light pole, and at night he turns on flashing red lights. Whether for the safety of the bike or himself remains unknown. He wears a reflective vest all day everyday and glasses and shorts (more often than pants), and he is relentless.

He waves his bags of peanuts vehemently at passing motorists. Methodically, rhythmically. Swinging his arm back and forth. I wonder sometimes if he would notice if the peanuts were not there. And it’s always peanuts. Except during the summer when, for a few brief weeks anyway, he chooses to wave bottled water instead. Back and forth. Back and forth. He watches as we pass. The look on his face is neither resigned nor passionate but rather vacant, as though he isn’t really looking at us at all. Back and forth. Day in, day out.

One might be tempted to assume this man is homeless. Isn’t that the category into which most people under overpasses are placed? But I can’t help wondering:

What if he isn’t?

What if this peanut-waving man has a home. And a family. What if he’s a retired air traffic controller and has nothing better to do? What if he’s trying to raise money for medical research? Maybe he has a rare disease, and he’s actively seeking donations to pay for an expensive treatment that will make him well again. What if he’s a graduate student at a major university? He could be a student of sociology doing an experiment on human interaction and perceived neediness. Maybe he’s a multi-millionaire killing time while his international corporations rake in the necessary funds for peanuts and bottled water waving. Maybe he’s bored. Or maybe he really is homeless.

The truth of the matter is that we rarely think about the circumstances of other people’s lives until they intersect with our own. People, it seems, like categories. We like labels. We like to know where each person fits in the web of social experience. Very seldom do we ever take the time to try and understand someone else’s situation. We see what we see, and we file it away neatly into a variety of social folders. Our descriptions very rarely overlap, and we don’t know what to do with them when they do. We don’t like ickiness and discord when it comes to social labeling. We like things neat and tidy.

But life isn’t like that. It seldom allows neatness and tidiness free reign. And while these organizational systems of classification seem effective, rarely does a single person fit neatly into one social folder. Human nature is multi-faceted. It doesn’t lend itself well to one-dimensional classification. In filing people away like this, we limit our ability to interact with each other in any more than a superficial way. In filing people away like this, we cannot pretend to know what their lives are like. We cannot pretend to know why they are the way they are, what made them who they have become. We cannot pretend that we have anything in common with them. An isolating idea, no?

Although I’ve never seen anyone actually purchase a bag of peanuts or a bottle of water, I have seen them roll down the window and pass change, money, and a variety of ambiguous food items to the peanut waver for which he seems neither truly grateful nor truly disgusted. He simply grabs another bag of peanuts. Back and forth. Back and forth they swing.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been to El Paso, but I’m sure if I went to the overpass under which the peanut waver makes his stand, he would be there. There’s something to be said for his consistency. It’s more than most people have going for them. And while I’ve never asked him specifically about his background or history (indeed, I’ve never spoken to him at all), it’s reassuring to know that the possibilities are many, that his story is interesting regardless of society’s arbitrary categories.