The Recession's Bravest: I Was an English Major Who Taught Your Children Math

by Mary Shyne


When my manager at the test prep company called me to teach a summer school program, I jumped on the opportunity. I was six months out of New York University, and I was determined to stay in New York to become a writer. The only obstacle was New York’s price of living, and the impending deluge of student debt.

The summer school gig meant consistent work at a tantalizing $20 an hour. Conveniently, the school was located a five-minute walk from my house, and it got even better: “The hours are eight to one,” he said, “so you’ll have the rest of the day to yourself.” Visions of productivity danced in my head. Freelance work! Blog exposure! Agent pitches for a novel! And all while teaching no-brainer subjects like high school-level grammar.

The letdown came at our first meeting for the program. Since the program was sponsored by the test prep company, four classes were offered: one SAT comprehensive class, and three classes for PSAT-Math, Writing and Critical Reading. Two out of four of the subjects had already been assigned. My coworker and I had to choose between PSAT English and Math.

I spoke up immediately. “Look, I just graduated from college as an English major,” I said. “I really don’t think I’m cut out to teach math.”

“I really don’t think that’s appropriate,” my coworker said, pursing her lips. “I’m a trained English teacher, and it doesn’t make sense.”

I turned to her with Excorcist-like slowness. I always try not to hate on other women, but one look at her told me everything I needed to know. After four years of working at a college gym, I could tell a classic Yoga Addict when I saw one: the kind that’s always obliviously smacking you on the train with their yoga mat, or wearing yoga pants in the most bizarre situations-a garment I call “Sweatpants for Sluts.”

But being a peacekeeper/pushover (and desperate for work), I conceded. After three years of letting my TI-83 calculator gather dust, I was about to be a math teacher in a Brooklyn public high school.

* * *

At first, it was the students that intimidated me. Suddenly I was fifteen again, about to give a solo presentation to my peers. Doing my first bit of number crunching in eons, I calculated that I was only five years older than my students, making me closer in age to them than my coworkers.

Mercifully, the kids were great. The most troubling thing about them was their obsession with GPA. We bonded over our worship of Nicki Minaj. I could reference Internet memes without getting the cow-like stares I received from my coworkers. I got a chronic case of warm-fuzzies when I heard one of the grindcore kids say to her friend in the hallway that “I actually learned math today!”

If anything troubled me, it was my coworkers. I tried to set aside my reservations toward the Yoga Addict for the sake of workplace peace, but in addition to being bossy, she was something worse-boring. The Yoga Addict made me believe you are what you eat: she had the personality of her plain yogurt and unflavored rice cakes.

My second coworker described himself as a Professional Enthusiast, which should’ve been a warning sign. He had the attitude of someone who’d OD’d on Mr. Holland’s Opus. His go-get-’em attitude made us non-career teachers look like the jaded waged workers we were. When he started playing chess with the kids at lunch instead of commiserating with his fellow teachers, Adrian nicknamed him “Make a Wish Foundation.”

Adrian, by the way, was the one coworker I hadn’t nicknamed. He was neighborhood local as well, and as soon as I saw his vintage Nike running shoes and tortoise-shell glasses, I knew I’d found an ally. Our only issue was age. We lived blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, but we inhabited different generations. When we walked home together, he told me that on September 11th, he went to a job interview in Chelsea, and found himself watching the towers fall with his would-be employers. Every 9/11 story deserves another: “I was in my first period class,” I said, “in eighth grade.”

Although I liked Adrian-he was the grown-up version of the “Mom-Friendly Prom Date”-he made me nervous. He was thirty-plus and engaged. He was an artist, but the teaching gig sapped his energy. He told me that instead of going home and creating cartoons or sculptures, he would collapse.

The lines under his eyes read like the rings of a tree, only instead of counting years they counted compromises. I baited him at lunch, a 40-minute period in an already stuffy room made stuffier by one hundred adolescent bodies, talking about Brooklyn neighborhoods. “I can’t stand Park Slope,” I said, eyes a-rolling. “I feel like I’m going to trample a baby.”

“It’s not that bad,” he said. “It’s a family crowd.”

“Well, I guess that’s the direction you’re headed in,” I said, giving him the ol’ laser eyes. We spent the next ten minutes staring at Make a Wish Foundation’s chess game with a student, which got interesting when the kid’s pawn made it to the other side and became a Queen.

* * *

But my comparative youth ended up only serving as a temporary shield from the Harsh Reality of Teaching. Since teaching is the standard fallback of English majors-even grad school is a glorified teaching gig-I’d figured how hard could it be?

Oh. Well.

Did you know teaching is hard? While I was only actively teaching for five hours, I went home exhausted, knowing I had to plan the next day’s lesson and slog my way through half a dozen math questions. I yearned to go back in time to my own high school teachers, and shower them with gifts for their unseen dedication. Not only did the job drain me, it turned out three years of not taking math didn’t make me better at doing math. I routinely fumbled questions on the board, apologizing with a flippant “well, I fucked that one up.” (Which the kids loved! Turns out teenagers love it when teachers swear.)

But it wasn’t like I could quit. I’d graduated in January, and though I’d send out hundreds of resumes a week and gone on dozens of interviews, nothing came together. My two-suit “investment” for interviews was beginning to look like a net loss. I knew everyone was having trouble finding work, but I felt like the poster child for the post-collegiate experience: Liberal Arts Major, unemployed. Even though I sucked at teaching math, my mind drew parallels between math and my situation. Life was acting like one giant inequality problem, and I was persistently on the “less than” side of the equation.

After being told during a second interview that I was overqualified, I had a drama-queen moment at lunch. “Is life ever fair?” I moaned.

“You’re already white, in a first world country,” Adrian said. “I’d say your odds are pretty good.” I grumbled consent. Trust an artist to give you perspective (and trust a writer to give you terrible puns).

Unfortunately, my math mix-ups were the least of my woes. Instead of using my spare time to write like I had imagined, I burned all my free time on the Internet, absorbing mindless content, brought to me (ironically?) by algorithms. I had five different unnamed documents opened in Word ranging in creation date from late May to the present, each containing unrelated, unreadable paragraphs. I was beginning to feel Adrian’s pain. Was my writer’s block a product of mind-numbing math and overworking my left brain, or was I not cut out to be a writer, period? I couldn’t calculate the probability of getting a prize in a pink container, but I was pretty sure I could calculate my odds of achieving literary success.

After fudging yet another function in front of the kids, I went to Adrian between classes, feeling hysterical. “Adrian, if people say ‘those who can’t do, teach,’ does that mean we can’t do?”

Adrian looked up from the whiteboard. He put down the dry erase marker in his hand, a marker so worn out his words were was only visible because they made a negative in the board’s grime.

“No,” he said, with all the conviction of parent telling their talentless son that his cover of “Imagine” was ready for the Top Forty.

Then he caught my plural pronoun. His eyes looked over my shoulder, to the hallway. “Probably not.”

* * *

The e-mail came during my afternoon nap, which was more like a fugue state with a soundtrack of Sgt. Pepper. It was an HR person at a publishing company I’d had a phone interview with months earlier. My cousin’s ex-boyfriend was working there, and had forwarded my resume. It seemed too much like a pipedream at the time, and I hadn’t taken our conversation seriously.

My heart pounded just looking at the message preview in my Gmail. I clicked, teeth a-chattering. “Are you still looking for work?” it read.

Clouds parted. Wagner blared. Virgins swooned. It took all my self-control to not hit caps lock as I replied “Yes!”

We finalized during my lunch period the next day. I didn’t even need to duct-tape the lint off of my suit for an interview. I was hired. Overnight I’d gone from wading through a living nightmare made from polygons and the Pythagorean theorum to every English major’s dream: employed at a publishing company in New York City.

I skipped-literally skipped-into the lunchroom. I’m sure my announcement came off as bragging, but my coworkers responded with congratulations.

“You were just complaining about how life was so unfair yesterday,” the Yoga Addict pointed out.

True enough-but even if luck had skewed in my direction this time, it wasn’t like it had been fair. I hadn’t gotten the job through want-ad scouring-I’d had it passed down through a professionally connected family. Worse, Adrian asked if I could see if there were any positions open for him. In what America does a thirty-year-old ask a twenty-year-old to find them a job? Life was still a giant inequality, weighed against the many in favor of the few.

* * *

Two months into my new job and the triple-A batteries of my TI-83 had been moved to a more productive place (in my vibrator). I loved my job. I could afford beer that wasn’t Coors. My blog queue and Microsoft Word documents overflowed.

I kept in touch with Adrian, whose situation at work, in contrast, was deteriorating. I hadn’t been removed from the company mailing list, and I still received daily e-mails, with subjects touting New and Exciting Developments.

“Basically, everyone got fired,” Adrian said, “and has to re-apply for their position.” Only stooges like Make a Wish Foundation were safe.

I was sympathetic, but what could I do? I told myself that while Adrian might struggling career-wise, at least he was in a satisfying relationship. I reasoned that he’d achieved personal happiness, but struggled professionally; I’d remained alone, but had taken one step up the career ladder. In math, that’s an inverse variation equation: as one side gains greater value, the other side shrinks at a constant rate.

But maybe I needed to quit it with the math metaphors. When my new manager asked if I knew anyone looking for work, I asked Adrian for a resume. He sent one within the hour; they hired him within two weeks. Those who can’t do, teach; and those who do teach look constantly for a better job.

It wasn’t fair to my fellow graduates moving back into their parents’ places after a thousand interviews; it wasn’t even necessarily fair to the terminally unemployed and overqualified. Yet justice seemed beyond the point. In what America does a thirty-year-old ask a twenty-year-old to find them a job? This one.

Mary Shyne is a recent NYU graduate, Brooklyn-based writer and an employed person. She blogs here.

Photo by Mikey Angels from Flickr.