“I Know People Well Placed Above You”: Ghosts & Graduation

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For two years in my early twenties, I worked as a nanny for a wealthy family in Sonoma, California. I traveled with them; I spent weeks at a time living alone with their son, while the parents traveled for business, and pleasure. I was supposed to feel like “part of the family,” but that phrase, which we all uttered from time to time, always felt hollow in my mouth. The nature of the relationship between a nanny and the parents she (let’s be honest) works for is strange, at best, hostile, at worst, and problematic by nature.

That time seems far away, now, mostly– I am 37-years old, a university professor at a public, liberal arts school in New Jersey, raising my own family and working toward tenure. For the five years preceding my hire on the tenure-track, I fought tooth and nail to get a full-time teaching job in higher education, working my way through the ranks: freeway flier (four different campuses at three different colleges doing 24 credits a semester? check) to half-time, to “13D” (Stockton parlance for Visiting Assistant Professor) to the tenure-track. I’ve just completed my third year on the tenure-track, during which I also coordinated the First-Year Writing program. In three short years I’ve gone from a nameless adjunct (“the feisty one with the pixie haircut”) to the Great White Hope (“You’re my hero,” an adjunct in our program told me recently, “you have a tenure-track job and you’re not even FORTY”) to closed door meetings with the deans, backchannel conversations with the union exec, and the person in charge of hiring and firing adjuncts.

So for me, it’s a brave new world. Or at least it seems as much, from the outside. In fall 2013, I recall staring at my overdrawn bank account, laying my head on my kitchen counter, and sobbing in actual despair. I would never be a real professor. What the hell was I going to do?

Six months later, I had a contract for a full-time position at the school I fiercely loved.

I was no longer a puppet. I was a real boy. Pinch me and see.

But life is not that simple, and American higher education is, in its current state, a bit of a shit-show. As such, the nine public colleges and universities in New Jersey are now going on two full years without a contract, and negotiations are at a stalemate. The past semester has seen numerous days of action by the unions: teach-ins, sit-ins, occupying Board of Trustees meetings. Our own Stockton Federation of Teachers staged a mock Second-Line New Orleans funeral, with the faculty band playing a Dixieland dirge, and students and faculty alike carrying a coffin festooned with flowers bearing the name “New Jersey Higher Education,” out of which, at an opportune moment, a student popped out, yelling “I’m not dead yet!” We rallied and chanted at the gubernatorial debate– my friend and colleague’s 4-year old daughter was there in her blue t-shirt, chanting “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” and offering unicorn stickers to men in suits. And when it came time for graduation, which was held for the first time ever in Atlantic City’s historic Boardwalk Hall, in recognition of Stockton’s long-running history, and hopeful future with the seaside resort, many of us, myself included, felt we simply could not attend in good faith.

And we said as much, in letters to the president and provost, and in brief, loving statements on social media where we addressed our students. My own note made clear that this graduation was especially hard for me– this spring, the fall 2013 cohort graduated, the group I taught in my last year as an adjunct. The ones who rallied around me in radical love and honesty when I thought I’d never get through teaching 18 courses– yes, 18 courses– in one year. Mariah with her cosplay and her queer theory and her Disney princess t-shirts. Greg with his red hair and his Quidditch, working and reworking an essay until it was right. Kal with her understated, freakishly quick wit, challenging me to be better, smarter, more open. I called them by name there, and I call them by name here. They connected me to that other time in my life, that wild, awful, wonderful time of contingency; Keep writing and thinking hard, I told them. Which they had helped me to do. Then, once again, I put my head on the kitchen counter and cried, feeling stupid and sad and angry and grateful to know them all; grateful to teach at Stockton; grateful to have a steady paycheck, and ready to keep up the fight.

One click, and it posted, and I tied up my sneakers for a run. Five minutes later, Facebook lit up– someone was commenting. Someone was writing a long comment. “Someone is writing a comment,” Facebook told me, with its little gray dots: the ghost of comments yet to come… I had high hopes a student was writing one of those wonderful notes we occasionally get as teachers, reminding us why we do what we do.

But, as it turned out, I would have preferred this ghost remain in the machine. I glanced back at my post– by that point, dozens of students and faculty had “loved” it, the comments topped off with the accompanying red heart. And one woman, a professor at a local community college, had spent two paragraphs telling me everything that was wrong with our decision not to attend graduation. When I responded that I thought it somewhat obnoxious for her to explain things to me that I already knew (much of her “explanation” concerned how our contracts are negotiated), she responded by telling me “I know people well placed above you in your college’s administration” and she didn’t “need this shit,” “especially from someone who should know more about rhetorical arguments and discussion.”

When you’re working as an adjunct, you are haunted by the sense that it’s not the system, it’s you– you are the problem. You are a marked woman. You are the untouchable, the fool at the bottom of the meritocracy. You would be where the others are, if only you could do what the others do.

But they won’t give you a chance to do what the others do, you protest back at yourself.

And whose fault is that? 

That’s the thing about ghosts, especially the ghosts of our former selves, our other lives– they stick around. They come back to haunt you. They know where to hit.

Massive job insecurity because of all those years adjuncting? Check.

Imposter syndrome? Check.

They are often not ghosts at all, but instead alive and well: community college professors who you met long ago, in the California craftsman kitchen of the family you were nannying for– you chatted about poetry and traveling in Thailand while you watched the sun dip lower and lower over the brown hills of Napa, in the distance. You felt nervous. You felt unsure. You were served wine by the mother you now worked for, the mother who had graduated from Stockton, who would go on to become the current chairwoman of its Board of Trustees. She was well placed above you. She told you it was Gruner Veltliner, a word you’d never heard before, a grape from Austria and the Czech Republic. She told you how delicious it was.

You sipped, precariously.

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