Archive for May, 2012

The next Game was The Personal Interview, in which a single judge (mine a tired, pink woman in cloisonne bracelets with matching earrings and a crocheted vest) asked a single candidate telling questions, carefully documenting the answers.  Highlights from mine:

Judge  (eagerly) – “How do you feel about a class size of 27 or more?”

Me – “Even if the students’ first language weren’t Spanish, which it is, fifteen is tops for a writing class. Trying to teach English Comp to twenty-seven people whose only English has been learned from old Law and Order re-runs would be cruel and unusual.  Like the death penalty.”

Judge scowls, writes.

Judge – “You know you are expected to be available to students by phone, eight hours a day, seven days a week.”  She smiles proudly.  “I like to be available by six a.m.!”

Me (joking) – “You’ve got to be kidding.  Call me at six in the morning and I’ll have a contract out on you by noon.”

Judge’s smile is not amused as she writes.  I’ve just committed suicide and feel expansive and righteous, wondering if this was the experience of all those biblical martyrs.  But the judge isn’t Caligula, probably just a morning type who goes to bed at eight-thirty and will get up at five even if nobody ever calls to discuss citation formats. I’m dead meat, but we chat animatedly about the charm of small desert towns for a few more minutes until she can dismiss me in time to edge my interview form in black.

Back in home room (large corporate cafeteria) I grab a tuna sandwich and a Coke and join four total strangers at one of the round tables where the fifty people who are not off being individually interviewed are pretending to talk to each other.  It’s already eight o’clock at night and many have driven hours in brutal traffic to get here, but all conversation is bright, intense and focused exclusively on education.  We are communally deranged in our fascination with all things educational even though we have no idea what we’re talking about.

We are enthusiastic in our agreement that there’s confusing duplication in spreadsheet software applications, whatever they are, and all have passionate opinions about the role of autonomous learning in the digital classroom, whatever that is.  I confabulate along with my strangers, but have no idea why we’re doing this until I notice that ten or twelve judges are moving languidly among the tables.  One sits, smiles and listens for five minutes, then stands, smiles and vanishes.  I watch as one after another listens to talk, then drifts to a long table at the back to makes notes.  Aha.  We aren’t merely casually waiting for the next game; this is the next game, and I wonder how many fatal wounds I incurred by speaking ill of programmed curricula.

The Stealth Conversation Game goes on for a half hour and suddenly it’s over.  A yellowish electric charge surges through the room as the Head Judge, a businessy but seemingly intelligent woman whose scarf I envy, announces the Final Game.  In groups of twelve we’re ushered to conference tables in more cold, neon rooms.  We’re given a list of fifteen items – all aspects of “teaching” – that we must communally rank order.  A quick perusal of the list reveals its nature, a split between systemic conformity and more gooily worded inclinations toward “helping” behavior.  There are no items indicating that a fondness for the subject matter we’ve presumably spent years studying has any merit at all.

This Game has an unusual rule; anyone may veto any of the group’s decisions, item by item, throwing everyone back into chaos since a change in any rank-ordered item of necessity changes all of them.  When I’m not teaching English I teach Social Psychology, so I’m vaguely aware that this is some terribly significant aspect of some highly predictive “group dynamic” test, although I can’t imagine what it predicts.  “Vetoers are strong, independent thinkers destined for leadership,” or “Vetoers are troublemaking misfits who should be taken to the parking lot and shot.”

The Ranking Game drags on and on as I wait to see if anybody will veto anything.  Nobody does.  We are growing pale and dizzy with the effort to pretend interest in the equivalent of a bread label.  “Rank the following in order of importance: wheat gluten, calcium sulfate, ascorbic acid, etc.”  So as a lifesaving gesture I do it; I veto something.  And the spell is broken.

The judges, three men and a woman this time, take palpable note.  The other candidates are transparently torn between pitying censure, ambivalent envy and the desire to end this farce any way possible because it’s late and they still have a two-hour drive to get home.  A man says of me, “She’s little but she’s tough,” announcing the group’s hope that I may have done whatever was necessary to get this over with.  And apparently I did.

The judges beam.  We stagger back to “home room” for a last speech in which we are told that there are many more of us than there are jobs, and that a failure to be selected does not mean we’re not great.  It just means that we’re not “a good fit” with the corporation.  A crescendo of cognitive dissonance swells through the crowd.  Not one soul in that room wants to be “a good fit” with a corporation.  But everyone in that room except me needs a job.

In the parking lot I fight the urge to curl up in the back seat and go to sleep.  I am  exhausted from acting for four solid hours, but also from the stress of being in that context, among those beleaguered people.  They are all teachers, even the judges, and thus dear to me.  And what has just been done to them isn’t okay.   My mother was a teacher, her friends were all teachers.  I grew up with teachers and became one, thus indefinitely extending my connection to teachers.  I know and like the sorts of people who teach.

They are a ragtag bunch, not pretty unless you look past the taped glasses frames and chalk-stained sleeves, the ponderous jargon and propensity to hold forth on topics from a dissertation written before there were cell phones.  They fume over trivia, drink too much at parties and understand the world with brilliance and eccentricity.  They are the lodestone of every culture, the magnetic center of all constructed reality.  They cannot be forced into corporate cubicles.  It won’t work; it can’t be done.

I drive away from the place secure in that belief.  Away from a place where there was no chalk, no teacher’s lounge, no coffee machine.  No messy bulletin boards with flyers about a balalaika concert in protest against, or in solidarity with, anything.  The place with no students.  A place where there was not a single book.

But I know some of those sixty-five people will have faked their way through the Hunger Games and gotten jobs.  They’ll wind up in classrooms far from corporate headquarters.  And because they’re teachers, they’ll teach.  Every word, every idea, every example and quotation they offer will erode the profit-based structure in which both teacher and taught are trapped.  The Hunger Game cannot kill ideas; its system, rational and avaricious, is incompatible with ideas.  In the end, those who distribute ideas like seeds flung from a basket, will win.


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I read The Hunger Games several years ago when a member of my writer’s group, Carolyn Marsden, said, “Read it.”  Carolyn writes very sophisticated and evocative YA novels and tracks hot spots in the publishing world like a blue tick hound after possum in a bayou.  So we all read The Hunger Games and I thought, “Okay, this is the cri de Coeur of the young, the perennial outrage at whatever system happens to be in control.”  In this case it’s the diseased corporate “government” currently in power.  All systems relentlessly crush autonomy, even spirit.  It isn’t necessary to be young to recognize and hate that, although railing against it is the province of the young.  The rest of us realized long ago that survival lies in a combination of deft camouflage and feigned disinterest while quietly sabotaging what we can.

Recently I also saw The Hunger Games movie just because everybody else did.  It was so faithful to the book that there was nothing to complain about and I shelved the whole Hunger Game thing with “interesting but fleeting literary/cultural artifacts.”  It didn’t touch me, I thought.  But that was all about to change.

It was all about to change because at some point in there it dawned on me that I’m not dead.  I’d always assumed I would be by now, gone in a flaming car crash with Bach blasting from the radio a la Anthony Perkins in Phaedra.  I really, honestly thought some dramatic event with a terrific soundtrack would occur whenever it was supposed to, transporting me to whatever comes next.  My only concern has always been the music.  But a few months into The Hunger Games frenzy, I realized that my Bach-filled car crash not only hadn’t happened but probably wouldn’t.  I mean, surely it would have happened by now, right?  Rats.  If I was going to live indefinitely I was going to need a job.  Enter The Hunger Games.

I applied for two famously underpaid adjunct professor-type positions and was hired by one. When the second scheduled its “interview and candidate assessment” I already knew I couldn’t take the job even if they offered it.  I was employed elsewhere with the job that is now devouring my life so that I have no time to write.  But I’d already provided enough documentation for Job 2 to qualify for top secret clearance with the CIA, an effort I saw no point in wasting.  I’d go to their assessment.  Why not?  Facing an unanticipated future in which the price of haircuts and Kettle Corn will rise inexorably, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have Job 2 as a backup for later.  So I dressed up in my famously underpaid adjunct professor costume (turtleneck, long skirt, artsy scarf and earrings) and went, although I wasn’t serious about it.  I didn’t care, and from that perspective I would be able to see what no one else could.  I would see that I had become a participant in a hunger game.

And here I have to admit that I have been warned not to write about this. Friends have hinted at dire consequences.  “Even if you don’t use the name, everybody will know what you’re talking about.  What if ‘they’ see your blog?  They’re huge.  They can hurt you professionally!”  “Oh for God’s sake, this isn’t a spy novel,” I thought.  At least it isn’t a novel.  It’s reality.  And who’s going to rat me out?  Nobody likely to read my blog, for sure!

So I showed up in a room of sixty or seventy people dressed in interview drag, all warily sipping water from plastic bottles.  I was, I think, the third oldest candidate there, depending on the real age of the guy in dyed hair, pancake makeup and a bright peacock blue dress shirt that strobed in the neon overhead lights.  I remembered Clue and named him Mr. Peacock (in the large corporate cafeteria, with the plastic water bottle).  He was the only interesting character in sight and I hoped he’d get a job so he could stop living in his van in beach parking lots.  There were mountains of shrink-wrapped sandwiches, tiny bags of potato chips, soft-baked cookies, water, soda, coffee and tea.  It was going to be a long night.

Everybody had to stand and introduce themselves, a nightmare of pointless discomfort.  We were there to destroy each other, not to socialize.  In a room full of out-of-work college instructors during an economic recession, the twin odors of desperation and boredom snaked amid scents of tuna salad and Earl Grey tea.  Teachers are not skilled in peer combat and are thus incapable of masking the reluctant but inevitable homicidal ideation that is natural among primates in competition for scarce resources.  As each person stood to fake warmly intelligent quips about their fascination with stateless protocols in web design or a breakthrough in the teaching of English As An Alternative Language, over sixty others smiled brightly while their eyes beamed murderous hope that  the speaker would collapse and die on the spot, freeing a job.  It was then that I realized what was going on.  We were all contestants in a hunger game!

But I wasn’t going to play Katniss because the survival of no fragile little sister, depressive mother or entire starving village awaited my triumph.  Disengaged, I could not be killed. I was going to be the Participant Observer/Stealth Investigative Journalist.  It’s a fun mindset and I was ready for the first Game.

It was The Teaching Demo.  Imagine an empty corporate classroom at dusk.  It’s chilly and the politically correct compact fluorescent lights have just been turned on and are still dim, casting the room in insecure shadows.  At a round table in the back, the shadows hover around three women in those little primary-color business suits with fitted jackets that button all the way up and have a wool ruffle at the neck.  These are the judges of the first game, representatives of the corporation, holding checklists on clipboards.  As they tell the aggregate four of us to begin, I am aware that something’s wrong.

In The Hunger Games, the corporate functionaries are decadent, dressed in bizarre haute couture.  They are a Grand Guignol cast swilling moss green, arugula-flavored vodka between agonizing murders displayed on big screens.  But our judges are not refugees from antique European drama; not one wears theatrical mascara or harlequin gloves.  There is no flavored vodka.  There is only the chill, the weak light and a pervasive exhaustion animated by a soundless whine I recognize as fear.  The candidates are afraid, but so are the judges.  Their eyes are flat as dying ponds and I keep thinking, “This isn’t right; they’re supposed to be shallow and gleeful and evil, but they’re not.  They’re just regular people, half dead in a cold grey space full of shadows.”

I did my demo (Framing in Expository Writing – yawn) with faked gusto to a room of slivery unease.  The other candidates did theirs (Prepositional Phrases,  How To Fill Out a Job Application, and Avoiding Plagiarism).  The judges scratched things on their checklists and told us to go back to “home room” and wait for the next “assessment activity.”  We didn’t talk as we walked back, sworn enemies in a fight to the death.  We wondered which of us had just died.

To Be Continued…

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