I loved this movie and anticipate watching it again. The whole idea of Doris finally embracing her own weirdness and living the life she wants probably resonates with everyone.
Over the last few years, there have been plenty of stories of adjunct and other contingent faculty dying in poverty. Sometimes, it's just the persona that dies, though, thankfully.
I had a dream awhile back where I’m sitting in a bar when the bartender slides the local paper toward me, open to the obits. He says, “Sorry to hear about your recent demise, Doris. Shame they left the ‘c’ out of Schittlebaum, ain’t it?” I realize I’ve been masquerading as Doris Schittlebaum, while the real Doris—the one who spells her last name without a “c” was living her real life.
Doris is who I would pretend to be if I had to be in the world all of the time and likely to run into my online students. For instance, I often shopped at the Kroger in the town where my (former) campus is. I always made sure I was not wearing anything with the college’s insignia when I went in, lest my cashier or someone in the frozen foods aisle recognize me. In recent years, I included my image in my email and students saw me in videos I posted in class, but I still felt more comfort not wearing an identifying label while I shop for groceries I’ll likely eat in my hotel room alone.
A few days before the dream I told my boss I needed an exit plan. After over 20 years in various forms of academia, I was done. I left because I can’t keep pretending that’s who I am. I’ve seen that dance before—where creatives try to toe the lie of being academics. And some of them died. Either their hearts gave out or they had strokes or aneurisms. A few years ago, after I had gone full-time as a faculty member at the school and cut out my other part-time jobs (and lowering my income), I sat next to a colleague at the bar during one of our faculty retreats.
“You probably don’t remember me,” she says. “But you’re Angel. I remember you.”
I smile nervously, wondering if I had made her life hell in a training or otherwise caused her irritation. “OK, I hope you remember me fondly, but if not, I’m sorry.”
“Right after your dad died, I remember you said you’d come to the point where you realized there are things more important than money and you quit teaching so much.” She looks at me and smiles. “I remembered what you said when I had a stroke last year.” She then talks about a planned trip to Jamaica with her sister. On departure day, she developed a horrible headache and lost sight in one eye. Thinking she was simply suffering from a migraine, she tried to shrug it off. Her sister, realizing the seriousness of the situation, refused to go to the airport and drove her to the ER instead.
I put my hand on her arm. “I’m so sorry to hear about your stroke—thank goodness for your sister. I assume you’ve cut back some?”
She laughs at me. “No. I still teach too much. The money is too good.” She takes a drink and nods. “I still remember what you said, though. Someday I’ll cut back.”
So many of us operate on the idea of a magical someday; and while I sat next to her in the bar I wondered what drove her to keep pushing, even after a stroke. I struggled with the idea of quitting is my job because it was my identity. It’s scary to not have that to hold on to—at least it is scary until your job is killing you.
Over a year ago, I had a game plan. After working full-time and seeing my wife through medical school and residency, it was going to be my turn. My quitting was the plan back in 2005 or so when Dani decided to go back to school. She watched me split my time between what I really wanted to do and what paid the bills. She wanted this for me as much as I wanted it. I started the count down and realized I’d be fully vested in the pension plan right as she started her first job after residency.
All of this is not to say I didn’t enjoy teaching. I did. But, I’d come to a happy place where I could let go.
And, then, after years of refusing to allow me to apply for other positions because I work remotely, after years of hiring underqualified warm bodies who happen to live near a campus and putting them in positions of power over me, the school called and asked if I would step up into the position as a program director. I agreed and stayed another year. I knew when I took it I would still likely leave in 2017, but then they dangled another carrot; an upcoming promotion which would make me even a more important part of the team and put more faculty under my direction and mentorship. I told myself, my wife, and our financial planner staying until at least the end of the 2017-2018 academic year would be a good thing. In the chaos of a move and a new medical practice opening the job would give us stability through familiarity.
I told myself I stayed because I wanted to help make the vision I’d been holding on to, the hallucination of helping and of making online education legitimate, a reality. And, I thought that’s what we were doing. Yet, even after working for online schools for 13 years or more, I still cringed every time someone asked me what I did for a living. I dreaded the question because it revealed an identity I was not comfortable owning.
“I’m an English instructor.”
“Oh, where? X college?”
Me, squirming inside: “No, I work for a non-profit online school.” This is the point they start to glaze over. I know they are already counting me out, assuming I don’t have “real” credentials, even though I have a Ph.D. from a real, on-ground university.
Back in 2004 when I met my wife’s aunt Sherry, a K-12 teacher, asked upon hearing where I worked: “What, you can’t get a real teaching job?”
It’s a punch to the gut, that assumption.
Yet, I know where it comes from. For instance, they chose a person with literally the minimum number of hours required to teach 100 level Composition courses as the English Chair for the entire system. The other system administrator does have an MA in “writing” but controls all of the literature curriculum, despite multiple faculty with PhDs in actual areas of literature. Those system administrators determine how mere faculty with publications, teaching experience at top-notch educational institutions, and far better credentials do their jobs.
These developments killed Doris Schittlebaum.
When I told one of my friends I my plans to leave, she asked, “who will you say you are now?”
It is easier to tell people I’m a writer and ‘fess up: I write a silly lesbian vampire series.
And maybe the woman from the bar will find this and stop killing herself for something that doesn’t matter.
Rest in peace, Doris.