Unemployed

I lost my job yesterday.

It’s not a huge job, mind you.  I’ve been working on and off at our local children’s art studio for five years.  Jill and I started working together after she allowed me to host a Kyle Vincent concert at her studio in late 2006.  I didn’t know her then; a friend I’d met at my son’s preschool did, though, and when I wondered if all of my girlfriends would fit into my small roomed house for such a “living room show”, she suggested Jill’s studio close by.  By the end of the event Jill was talking to Kyle about business, and he mentioned that I did his website and graphic design.  A few weeks later, she approved my mock up for her site, and we’ve been working together ever since.

Jill put me to work doing anything my skill set allowed.  First the website, then her accounting and some clerical work, and finally, some teaching of the classes she offered to the children of our town.  It was extremely part time, but perfect for my busy life that didn’t allow me to work outside of my childrens’ school hours and sometimes required me to be available even then to meet all of their needs.  It was my first foray outside of my home since I’d moved to Connecticut, and it was just enough to make me feel like I wasn’t allowing my skills to evaporate while tending to my children’s lives so fully.

Working for Jill introduced me to other business owners in town too, and before long I had a small roster of website design clients.  With Jill’s studio being popular and well known in town, all I had to do was drop her name and jobs came my way with very little effort.  It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to feel like I was doing something meaningful in my off hours.

Unfortunately, since I did Jill’s books for her, I could see that the economic crash of 2008 took a huge toll on Jill’s business.  Children’s art classes were a pricey luxury that most parents were easily able to slash out of their budgets.  Jill responded as any shrewd business person would by cutting her own costs.  One by one I saw most of the seasoned teachers leave.  Jill taught everything she could herself, and when she couldn’t, she hired cheaper college and high school students to fill in.

And for a while, that was enough to stay afloat.  I marveled at how her summer camps and her birthday party businesses kept her in the black.  She bought a kiln and added paint your own pottery aspect to her studio, which brought income in during the long stretches between semesters when the bank account often grew thin.  But she also quietly put the property up for sale, waiting to see if anyone would be interested in buying the business.

No one was.  After two years on the market and over $100,000 in reductions of the price, she made the hard decision to close the studio.  I was unprepared, when I went in for my usual Thursday perusal of receipts and tasks that this would be the last time I would be asked to come in.  I knew it was coming, of course, but didn’t realize it was happening now instead of later.  This was it.  Five years and what seems like a lifetime of growth and change later, Jill and I are parting ways.

I’ve always called my job a “little job”.  But today, in its absence, it feels much bigger than it ever was.  And I will miss it.  Very much.

Time to Get Serious

I think my father felt a little guilty about leaving.  Which is likely why he’d apparently talked to his partner about helping me find a job.

I’d scoured the elementary schools and middle schools on the east side of town looking for a full time position.  I wasn’t picky.  I’d take anything at all K-8, even half an hour or forty five minutes from home.  I had been watching my bank account balance dwindle each month, despite by best efforts to scrimp and save.  Some of my mother’s estate holdings had been liquidated, but this had been just enough for me to buy a serviceable used car outright so that I wouldn’t have to add to my monthly expenses.  I could wait a few months, maybe, and continue substituting combined with waitressing, but not a whole school year.   I needed health insurance for my son and I; ours had been cancelled when my mother had passed away.  The uncertainty of all of it made me nervous.  It would be one thing if it was just me, but I had a four year old son, who was a walking bundle of clumsy.  I needed to have a real job.

My father’s partner was an administrator in one of the large, urban school districts in our area.  I had never asked him for help before because I was sure a year of substitute teaching combined with my stellar student teaching experience would naturally lead to a full time job.  But the suburban districts were still absorbing budget cuts due to the recession; no one was hiring.

And so it was that one Sunday afternoon, my father invited me to bring Zachary over to the house he shared with his partner.  While my dad and Zach went out to cut the grass, Keith asked me about my grades, my student teaching, my major and minor, my interests and my goals.

“There are definitely jobs available if you’re willing to come teach in the city.  I can probably help you find one in a safer neighborhood, at least.  The job itself will likely still be hard; the schools are chronically underfunded and understaffed.  But it will be a job, something to put on your resume, and hopefully it will be something to tide you over until you find something closer to home.”

I wasn’t worried.  I’d taught in the city for my student teaching experience.  Part of me actually was excited about the idea; if I truly wanted to make a difference as a teacher, teaching in the city was a good way to do it.  “Well, I’d like to work in the lower grades if at all possible…maybe something between grades 2-4?  That way the kids aren’t too jaded yet, and still kind of excited about learning.  I did middle school in the ‘burbs;  it wasn’t my favorite.”

“Alright then; so I will go through everything at work tomorrow and see if I can find any open positions on the eastern side of town, below grade 5.  Sound good?”

I swallowed.  Not ideal, not good, but necessary.  “Sounds good,” I responded.

Job Hunting

“How’s it looking out there these days?”  Mr. H Dennis asked me over a glass of white zinfandel at our favorite meeting place.

“No luck, so far,” I said glumly.  “It’s so frustrating to invest all of this time and there’s just no way of knowing if I’m missing anything.  You really do seem to have to know someone to get your foot in the door.  I don’t suppose you have any pull to get someone to retire at the last minute?”

I couldn’t believe there were no jobs.  But what I had been forgetting all the while as I went through the motions this spring was that there was a recession on.  School districts had tight budgets and weren’t replacing everyone who put in for retirement this year.  There were no elementary positions opening up at all in the school district I worked in, and so I had to make a decision as to how far to widen my job search.

“I wish I knew someone who was, I do, but unfortunately, we are a pretty young district, teaching population wise,” Dennis countered, offering me some of his plate of fries.  “I came in with a pretty big glut of people and none of us are any where near ready to go.  Where else are you looking?”

“Everywhere,” I answered, taking the proffered fries.  Unfortunately it’s insanely hard to find out even if there are positions open.  I had no idea it would be this hard.”

In those days before the internet, where one could spend a tidy afternoon on Google assembling research, a job hunt was much more like finding a needle in a haystack.  I had my list of human resource phone numbers that I’d gotten from the university job office, and hunting for a job meant calling desirable school districts every few days asking if there were any active postings.  If I was lucky enough to find a posting that my certification qualified me for, it meant then printing my resume and cover letter on the computer that Dawn and Todd had bequeathed to me and getting the letters in the mail, pronto.  I kept a notebook with lists of where I’d sent letters, and when, and then called a few days after I was sure they’d received my information to see if there was any chance of an interview.

“What are you going to do?”  Dennis took a swig of his beer and placed the glass back down on the table.

“I think I’m going to substitute this year and try and wait out the teacher glut,” I responded.  “I don’t want to go down and teach in the city, which seems to be the only place I could find a job in this economy.  If I substitute here and in one or two other districts, I”ll not only work pretty steadily, but I will also get to know more schools and people and hopefully put myself in a better position should something open up next year in one of those places.”

“That sounds like a good idea,”  he answered, nodding, smiling in approval.

I took a sip of my wine.   I could feel it hitting me just a bit, my cheeks suddenly feeling red.  It was so surreal, sitting here with my high school teacher, drinking wine, both of us adults.  I was glad we were talking about work and not about Tom, or my mother.  I honestly couldn’t wait for school to begin in a week, so that I would be more distracted from the endless loop of doomsday predictions I had for both scenarios.

“I can’t wait for school to start.  I’m ready to go.  Subbing isn’t ideal, but maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get some long term positions, or get requested a lot like my friend Michelle does.  Tell everyone you know to request me,” I laughed.

“Too bad I don’t know more people down at the elementary level.  But still, I’ll try to spread the word.  Not too loudly though.  We don’t want Kathy’s stories to get repeated too much,” he laughed.

“Why?  What have you heard?”  Now my cheeks had to be bordering on purple.

“Oh, apparently there’s quite a bit of talk about how interesting it is that we’re friends,” he said, the corners of his mouth turning upward underneath his moustache.

“You can’t be serious!”

“Oh, I’m very serious.”  He put his beer down and looked at me squarely.  I could feel the sweat beads start to prickle on my forehead.  “Your elementary teacher friends like to talk, and some of them are friends with some of some of the middle school people who are in the English department.”

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry!  Is that bad?  Is that bad for you?”  I was mortified.  I hoped he wasn’t upset with me.  I hadn’t done anything, said anything to make anyone think there was anything going on between us.  He was married, for heaven’s sake.  Plus I’d had a boyfriend all winter.

“No, I think it’s funny, actually.  Imagine if they all knew that we were out to dinner together drinking and telling each other the stories of our lives?”  He smiled at me, still with that square gaze.

I breathed a sigh of relief.  I didn’t need gossipy drama on top of everything else going on right now.

 

Darkest Before the Dawn

I liked hanging out at Dawn’s house.  She liked hanging out at mine.  We started spending a lot of time together.

Of all of my friends, she was the one who seemed to understand the strange fear I had about my life.  My mother was unemployed.  Her mother didn’t work at all; she had a hip condition that wouldn’t allow her to stand for more than a few minutes at a time.  Her father worked construction, which meant during the dark days of 1982, there were many days when he was sitting at home when we walked to her house to do homework together after school.

Most of the rest of our friends were worried about which pair of Jordache jeans to put on in the morning or whether or not there was a stain on their new mini skirt.  Dawn and I were worried about whether or not the phone would still be operational when we needed to call each other over the weekends.

Dawn’s mother would shop for the new school year in the spring by putting her clothes in layaway at KMart and paying for them in installments.  Their family didn’t have credit cards.  My mother, alternatively, put everything on her credit cards and worried about paying whatever she could pay at the end of the month.  My sister got an after school job at Wendy’s to help pay for the things she needed, like gas and car insurance.

What I liked about Dawn was that she didn’t care; she didn’t care what other kids at school were saying about her.  You either liked her or you didn’t, and she didn’t have time for you if you didn’t.  I was far more of a people pleaser, wanting desperately for approval in the form of peer acceptance.  I put Sun In in my hair to make it blonder, I found the cheapest pair of legwarmers I could find just so I could join the crowd.   Dawn didn’t.   And the more she didn’t, the more I felt comfortable being myself around her.

Dawn was at my house when my brother started beating on my door to get something he wanted; she was nonplussed when I asked her to help me keep it closed.  When his fist punched through the door, she was calm.  I was at her house when her mother tried to calm down her father’s anger over what had been eaten out of the fridge, or when he got mad about money.  He’d never hit her, but sometimes, a few times, he’d hit her mother.

Our eyes locked over the shared fear we had for those who were supposed to love us.  We both knew that family wasn’t quite supposed to be like this, and we were glad that someone else out there understood exactly what that felt like.

That there was a lot more to the world than what you were wearing.  That there could be worse things than not having the latest designer pair of jeans or shoes.  That there were worse things that what the kids at school could say about you.  There was someone out there that knew what darkness was, and how close it could come.  There was someone out there who could help keep the darkness at bay, or at least at arm’s length.

That sometimes friends really are the family you get to choose for yourself.

Working Hard or Hardly Working…

The year was 1982.

The news all around us was bad; there was a recession on, and people were losing their jobs everywhere.  On the news we saw auto plants being shut down, steel plants being shut down, the beginnings of the rust belt were starting to form in the Midwest.

I knew, theoretically, that we were not well off financially.   There was a lot of “we can’t afford that” when it came time to say, honor my wish for the designer jeans with the signature on the back pocket that were popular.  Or the expensive tennis shoes.  Or any number of things that were officially on the Things You Want But Cannot Have list.  Still, we had clothes when we needed them, there was food in the fridge, my mother and sister both had driveable cars, and I had braces on my teeth.   I would have labeled us decidedly middle class.

Then, one day out of the blue, my mother came home early.  As a lawyer, she was never home early.  One time we counted where she’d worked forty consecutive days, including Sundays.  Every.  Single.  Day.   Her showing up at home in time for dinner meant that something was going on.  And something was.

The law firm where my mother worked had suffered the loss of one of their legal partners a year and a half prior.   Just after we had moved into our condominium, my mother’s boss was shot on the steps of the law office building where they all worked.   He was shot by a disgruntled client, everyone assumed, though no one really knew for sure.   It was my mother who discovered him, she having come into work early in the morning to get ready to go to court.

After the partner died, the law firm struggled to find its footing.  And a year later, they came to the hard realization that they were going to have to downsize.  Since my mother had been the last lawyer hired, she was the one who would lose her job.   And so she came home one afternoon in the spring of 1982 and told us that she was unemployed.

My mother didn’t sugar coat her fear; she was very worried about what losing the job that paid for nearly everything in our lives would mean.  My father had already been to court to reduce his share of financial support for us, and so we were already making due with less.  Now, it would be a lot less.   She talked to us about the program that would extend our health insurance benefits, COBRA, but announced that it was too expensive for us to pay for.  For the short term, she would have us transferred onto my father’s health insurance;  she would go without until she found another job.

It wasn’t long before an acquaintance of hers from the law community offered her an office in his suite so that she could pick up small cases on a freelance basis.  The work wasn’t much, but it made her and us feel like there was some semblance of normalcy going on;  she was getting up and going somewhere every day, and talking about law with lawyers.

She went to the unemployment office every week to prove that she was still looking for a job so that she could get benefits as long as she was allotted to do so.   Our world felt cold and bleak.   The recession was real, and it found its way into our home…and stayed.

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