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What is your heart's desire now?

October 21, 2008 | 12 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,
I am a double-dipped English major (B.A. and M.A.) who has worked as an adjunct college instructor and private school English teacher for the past 17 years. I now find myself 44, unable to find full-time employment, with an 18 year old philosophy major/music minor daughter in college, a 16 year old who is looking to go in 2 years, and 5 and 6 year old boys. They are all very fond of eating. I have always been a great supporter of the liberal arts, and encouraged my students to follow their bliss. Having followed mine, I am a bit jealous of my peers who did not follow the road less traveled, and who enjoy the benefits of a steady income. In today's economy, I am afraid private school tuition is one of the first expenses to be cut. It is likely to get worse before it gets better, and the number of interviews I've gone on where I've been told "We love you! But we are having to cut staff" is very disspiriting. I actually would like to try my hand at something other than education, but with two daughters looking to me for support in their educations I do not have the means to go to law school, or train for a medical field. I do not expect you to be able to offer concrete career advice (although I do have a background in drama — if you ever have an opening in the Royal Academy of Radio Acting ... ), but I would welcome some encouragement in this, the winter of MY discontent. Should I have sold my soul and become a business major? Have I doomed my daughter to a life of financial hardship by telling her the important thing was to get a good education and be able to think?

Christine B.
Katy, TX

No, you did the right things, Christine. Don't look back and chew yourself to pieces over what you might've done instead. That gets you nowhere but deep in the blues. Four of the things you did right are those children and now you are focused on what you can do for them in this discouraging economy, given your wherewithal. You're right, I can't give you concrete career advice that would make sense, not knowing you or what's going on in Texas, but I do believe that a teacher with 17 years experience is a deeply competent person and that, if you feel discouraged about private education now, your deep competence is a basic fact about you and gives you traction in other fields. Think of the thousands thrown out of work in banks and insurance companies whose experience has been so specialized — a man who knows everything about credit default swaps is at a steep disadvantage compared to you. In your situation, you should look to family and friends for help and you should consider picking up and moving elsewhere. Somewhere somebody is looking for someone just like you and it may not be in your town. But it's important to keep your morale strong, for your kids' sake. Discouraged people tend to make bad decisions. So you should do some soul-searching — what is the heart of your competence, aside from your knowledge of literature and language? What is your heart's desire now, at 44? What might you do for money that would give you great pleasure? Law school? Health care? You shouldn't dive into a field just because it seems like the practical thing to do. You need to make yourself happy, too. For the children's sake, if for no other reason.


Dear Christine,
Oh please don't give up!
We need teachers, not lawyers.
I know what you mean about education --
my husband teaches English, and
has a PhD (was at the University of
California as what they
call a "Lecturer" -- adjunct) but found
a full-time job a few months ago at a community college at, get this, age 60! Why was he hired?
His experience! Now he will work until
at least age 70 with full benefits.
He's teaching writing and Humanities,
and is happy with his job.He also
has the opportunity to tutor ESL students
(lots here in California).
I'm a pre-school teacher who also works
"part time" so benefits don't have
to be paid. I'm 58 years old and won't
have my Bachelor's degree for three
more semesters (it's taken ten years
get my state certification) -- I'll
be 60! I already know I will qualify for
some higher level jobs.
I also have five children, and four
of them helped put themselves through
schools like UCLA, Berkeley and Cal
State University. We couldn't pay the
whole cost, and I truly believe they
appreciate their educations even more
because they had to work so hard to
get them.
I suppose what I'm saying is maybe
you ought to come on out to California,
the land of opportunity?
My heart goes out to you. Our children
are all grown, but I remember the days
of worrying and wondering.
Best wishes,
San Clemente

Maybe go over your resume and make sure you haven't made mistakes in your English.

"I now find myself 44, unable to find full-time employment, with an 18 year old philosophy major/music minor daughter in college, a 16 year old who is looking to go in 2 years, and 5 and 6 year old boys."

You mean: 18-year-old, 16-year-old, and 5- and 6-year-old boys. These are compound adjectives, and are thus joined by hyphens into one word.

"Having followed mine, I am a bit jealous of my peers who did not follow the road less traveled, and who enjoy the benefits of a steady income."

You mean you are 'envious.' Envy is sadness or resentment because someone has something you do not have. Jealousy is possessiveness of what you DO have. (I won't say an English major should feel shame at getting this wrong. I've caught out theologians who can't make this very simple distinction, and replace one of the seven deadly sins - envy - with an attribute of God: jealousy.)

"It is likely to get worse before it gets better, and the number of interviews I've gone on where I've been told "We love you! But we are having to cut staff" is very disspiriting."

You mean to spell it "dispiriting."

I'm also a BA and MA (UC Berkeley, Oxford University, UK) in English. I work in Central Europe teaching in a college, where I earn a few hundred dollars a month. But I can earn my teacher's salary and more as a copy-editor. I combined my ability to use both American and British English with an eye for details and taught myself using reference books like The Chicago Manual of Style. I have never advertised. I got my start reading Ph.D. theses for friends, and they recommended me to others. One of my former students even recommended me to this country's government, and I got a highly lucrative contract to copy-edit a publication for the European Union.

Here's how to drum up business in this field: I have had offers from websites when I've written to them and pointed out mistakes in grammar, spelling or word choice that lead to misunderstanding their message. The first site I contacted about mistakes offered me a job by return e-mail. They trained me to use the intranet (something I had no clue about before) and I worked for them for a couple of years before getting tired of the work. You can easily freelance at copy-editing websites until you find steady work, or you can make that your steady work. As any literate person knows, the Internet is full of the linguistically challenged, and there is a great need for people who can make sloppy users of English look like they have at least a grasp of 8th-grade language arts. A bonus is that very often your employers know so little about correct English usage that they don't catch you when you miss something yourself. You are hired by the ignorant to make them look good. You certainly make them look better, even if you aren't perfect yourself.

I like to think of it as an extension of teaching. Maybe if my students read websites that are written in good English, they will not write 'definately' and put little smiley faces at the ends of their sentences instead of using punctuation.

I was an English major (we capitalize that whenever possible), and have never had a job that fit what I suppose 35 years ago I thought an English major should be. I have 2 kids, one a junior in college the other, well, she tried a couple years and has yet to make up her mind.

I have always respected and envied the talent for teaching. It is the noblest of professions I think. You have a talent for it and you should follow your talents and stop dwelling on the what-ifs, like your 401K balances. You might have to consider moving, which is never pleasant. But Melville and Hemingway did it pretty often and it didn't hurt them. I had a good set of parents and great brothers and a sister who have stood by me and I by them through the many challenges all of us have faced. Family is always important in hard times. And these are hard times and will be harder, still. I should know. I left my home state for Baltimore last year, taking a job with one of the "investment banks" that are now missing the adverb in their title. Mid-50s, too. It was supposed to be an adventure! Well, it has been, but not exactly what I had planned.

Still, this is a great time of life to change and roll with it. Even with children in tow (they never "leave" btw). I have a few regrets but I try not to dwell on them, particularly when most of the kids I work with are 20-30 years younger. I think it's a great time to try something new and challenging. You don't get a second chance in this life, so you have to make those awkward kinds of decisions generally when you are least prepared to make them. If you do decide to change careers, stay away from real estate (talk about an oxymoron), law and medicine. And whatever you choose to finally do with your career, your teaching experience will always be part of you. Which is never a bad thing, is it? Best of luck!

you clearly have writing skills. i would suggest finding a rich husband to take care of the financial burdens (you think i'm joking?)while you try your hand at writing, or doing something that turns you on.
too many of us have prostituted our values for the bucks, and i can say for sure it's not worth it.

Definitely i am not expert on career advice. But i know one thing if you wont mind you could get a job as a school teacher. I live in Brooklyn, New York and in five boroughs of New York they do need a lot of teachers although you have to pass the state licensing exam. Or just like Nel suggested you could look abroad as they always need English Teachers. Good Luck.

Wow, Nel. A woman writes from the depths of her misery, and you want to get out your red pen. People like you give English majors a bad name. Because of the likes of you, when I state my major people say "Oh, an English major. I'm going to have to watch what I say around you!". I always tell them that no, you have to pay me to edit your work.
I am confident Christine has probably edited and re-edited her resume. Her letter to Garrison doesn't strike me as being the result of hours of writing, but instead a spur of the moment cry for help. I would also like to point out that her prose, whether perfect or not, is certainly more interesting than yours. Even professional writers need editors - the phrases "Glass houses . . ." and "Let he who is without sin . . ." come to mind.
I think Garrison has it right - she is "deeply competent", and I'm impressed at anyone who can handle four children AND write anything at all!

I completely agree with the last line of GK, which is to find something that you can be happy doing. It is imperative that a general happiness is found to pass along to your children. Obviously a compromise will need to be reached to make sure that everyone has those pesky meals in their bellies and rooves over their heads, but misery of the soul is truly just as miserable as homelessness. It's not as public as homelessness, but just as miserable.

I can't tell if you imply that demand for public school funds will mean that you can no longer send your children, or that's why you find yourself jobless, but if it's the former, then it will be ok to put your kids in public school for a few years. You pay your taxes to fund education anyway. You obviously already know that your involvement will be necessary to ensure that you keep them on the right track, and perhaps when job conditions improve, you can put them back into private. The work required to "catch-up" will be much easier with an encouraging mother.

Re that philosophy major, while it doesn't immediately lead to an obvious *job* (unless pursued to the point of becoming a professor of it), it can be a good sharpening of the mind to enhance some possibly later-acquired skill.

"Francis" wrote (and as Dave Barry would say, "I am not making this up" :o)
i would suggest finding a rich husband to take care of the financial burdens (you think i'm joking?)
too many of us have prostituted our values for the bucks, ...
Wow, all that in just two sentences span! --shouldn't even need a rear-view mirror ...


ps: Nel, "like The Chicago Manual of Style" or "such as 'A Manual of Style' (U.Chicago)" ?!

Thank you, Mr. K and all of you who have so generously given me support. To provide a little more background - I sold my darling little farmhouse in rural Tennessee (at a loss) and moved back home to Texas this summer. I am staying with family, and working as an adjunct at a local college. I am still trying to decide exactly what my next step should be. I must admit that teaching again (I took a break while my boys were young) has reminded me of how much I enjoy teaching. This complicates things. But I am trying to be open to whatever the future holds.
Nel - I assure you my resume is perfect. The use of hypens for compound adjectives is not universal - the newspaper for which I write a weekly column does not use them. The extra "s" was a typo, and the use of "jealous" was just a mistake made in the heat of the moment. Mea culpa. I will admit that I was so afraid of changing my mind about writing the letter that I didn't draft at all. I wrote it and hit send before I could decide not to do it. I'm hoping to retain my membership in POEM. Or is it P.O.E.M.?
Thank you all for the advice. I think my favorite is the idea that I should get a wealthy husband. I fear there are fewer of those around these days!


Ditto on finding your heart's desire. In 2007, I spent my final six months of employment at a liberal arts college overworked, stressed out, and missing out on my children's lives. It didn't matter if I worked smarter OR harder, I was not happy. Losing the job last May was actually a blessing. I made the decision to work for myself: business writing, editing manuscripts by hopeful writers, doing a little voiceover work on the side. Has it been easy? No. A year later, I was ready to throw in the towel on the whole idea (in spite of overwhelming encouragement from my husband) because lack of income was stressing me out and stifling my creativity (in addition to "practical" writing, I have my own stories in progress). But through some strategic financial maneuvering with a dormant 401K, I've bought myself another year to give this a go. I know what I should have done differently, and I'm doing it. I've also learned along the way what I am and am NOT willing to do for the sake of a buck.

My family is happiest when I'm content and enjoying what I do. In the process, we've learned just how much we CAN get by without, we've learned to prioritize, and I've learned what faith (in oneself and a Higher Power) can do for you. From a practical standpoint and based on your insight and creativity, I'm sure your older kids are quite gifted and can land some scholarships on merit, need and/or talent to help along their college careers. Parents feel compelled to give and protect when it comes to their children, no matter what the ages! But I'll bet given the opportunity, your older children will be able to bear more responsibility for their education.

Every now and then, I ask myself, "If time and money were no object, or if you could attempt anything knowing you could not fail, what would you do?"

Find the answer and start there toward your next 30 years. It's really not as impossible as it might seem!

I was going to comment on the confusing advice that Francis gave you about finding the rich husband, and then THAT turned out to be your favorite idea!
If you'll notice, on one hand Francis is telling you to get a rich husband (to support you financially, I assume) not mentioning whether you will be in love with the gentleman; just "find a rich husband to take care of the financial burdens". On the other hand Francis says, "too many of us have prostituted our values for the bucks, and I can say for sure it's not worth it."
Now which is it Francis??? (I'm smiling slyly)


Maybe it's the weather: you may have a chance in New Hampshire, which has a program whereby teachers who aren't certified to teach in public schools can become certified while working.

Good luck,

Tricia H.
Harrisburg, PA

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