Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Sub: Part 1

After puzzling for years ‘til my puzzler was sore over how to pursue gainful employment – without pawning my kids off on a patchwork of friends, neighbors and sitters and relegating the family to countless convenience meals – I’m thinking of becoming a teacher.

I do it with mixed feelings, wondering, wondering, wondering…

Will I be any good?

Will I get those Oscar-winning moments of illuminating young minds?

Will it be as family-friendly as I hope?

Will the household fall to pieces and our lives get infinitely more difficult if I go back to work full time?

I’ve struggled for years to figure out how to return to journalism. I heard once that if you can’t support yourself with something, then it’s a hobby. Considering that I’ve written a maximum of six or eight articles annually for the past nine years, making no more than $4,000 a year, that makes journalism a hobby in my world.

Ever since I wandered into the offices of my college newspaper more than 20 years ago, I have considered myself a newspaper reporter. Sure, I worked for a news website in the 90s and was a wire service copy editor for four years, but I’m a reporter. I gather and sift information. (When a reporter told me, as an editor, that I sounded like his 8th grade English teacher, I realized I’m probably a better editor than a reporter, but I don’t change gears easily. And whether I pursue editing versus reporting gets a little much for nonjournalists.) The most confusing part is that in the past decade, the journalism industry has crumbled and changed without me.

When we moved to Baltimore in 2004, and I became an at-home dad, I expected an eventual return to full-time newspapering. To keep my hand in, I wrote freelance articles for trade rags, newspapers, magazines, websites and whoever would pay me. A Baltimore Sun editor once told me that given my limited reporting experience (two years in the late 90s at New Jersey newspaper that’s now a shell of its former self), I would need to log a year or two at one of the newspapers an hour away from Baltimore.

She was right.

My weekly fantasy reading comes in the form of trolling for work on journalismjobs.com. But with the fantasy comes the cold reality – reporter hours stink, and editor hours are worse. (The pay isn’t so hot, either.) One copy editor job is 60 miles away, and the shift is from 4 p.m. to midnight. I’d never see my family, and the commute alone would kill me.

A neighborhood friend with kids the same ages as mine confirmed my fears when we had coffee a few weeks ago. She reported for The Sun for about four years before she became an at-home parent, about the same time I did. Now she’s returning as a features editor – they get a known quantity, and she gets a day shift. She and I agreed that the only path for me to get to where she is was to take the faraway job with the tough hours and enormous strain on the family.

"You think your becoming a teacher will put the nail in the coffin of newspaper journalism, kid? How many Pulitzers ya got, huh?"

“You think your becoming a teacher will put the nail in the coffin of journalism, kid? How many Pulitzers ya got, huh?”

Twenty-two years after I wrote my first news story, I’m starting to think that maybe I’m not, in fact, going to be a newspaper reporter forever. I want a healthy-happy family more. But I feel like I will personally be responsible for kicking the journalism industry into its death spiral – like in “A Christmas Story” when Santa boots Ralphie down the department-store slide. I feel like I’m giving up on journalism. And then there’s that nasty saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I feel like it means I can’t cut it as a journalist, and my resume doesn’t even give me the street cred to teach journalism. Then again, I know more about journalism basics than a number of other people who might teach journalism to high schoolers.

One thing that points me toward teaching is that people I know keep telling me they think I’d be good at it.

WSB poster

Just because I laminate hand-drawn posters of a school bus with feet, that means I should be a teacher?

Even a stranger in Staples the other day when I was laminating a poster to help encourage walking to school in my neighborhood.  “Are you a teacher?” she asked.

Huh.

The biggest inspiration is that a number of my children’s elementary school teachers have either been knock-it-out-of-the-park outstanding or so disappointing that I’m sure I can do better.

When I had my annual quandary over what to do with my life a few months ago, my Lovely Bride gave me a pep talk about why she holds the job she does. She went to law school to learn to write international peace treaties. Instead, she matches up philanthropists with doctors and scientists doing groundbreaking research.

She (usually) likes the work because:

  1. It gives her a paycheck.
  2. It does more good than evil.
  3. It keeps her brain happy.

I talked it over one day with my daughter’s teacher – just before I helped her Chinese student who speaks hardly any English – and she said I wouldn’t be turning my back on an expensive education. I’d be applying it in different ways, given how important writing skills are. She trained as an ESOL teacher, and now she’s in a first-grade classroom. Things change in life, she said, so why not give it a try? Later that morning when I spread an arc of paper piles on the floor in the hall so I could collate a bunch of workbooks, one of my son’s teachers walked past and sing-songed “You look like a teacher…!” (That teacher, in fact, was an inspiring long-term substitute filling in for a woeful, sad sack of a teacher who has ruined science and social studies for the entire fourth grade at my kids’ school.)

I started thinking about this when I came up with Fun Camp two years ago. It was the last week of summer, and my children needed something for the dead part of the afternoon when there’s simply nothing to do. The kids are tired of the pool and the library, and it’s too hot to do anything else. So I threw together some ideas, and Fun Camp was born. I invited a dozen neighbor kids, and one day we had Laptop Lane. We borrowed a half-dozen laptops and tablets and drew websites out of a hat from a list of county schools-approved sites. Another day, we used a pile of giant sticks to construct whatever the kids wanted – space ships, sling shots, mouse houses, whatever. (This flopped; glue dries slooooowwwwwlyyyy.) We did science experiments, culminating in the diet-coke-and-mentos geyser in the back yard. And the fourth day, we chucked my plan to do home-made musical instruments (toilet-paper-roll-and-wax-paper-kazoo, anyone?) and went to a tiny amusement park.

At the end, my friend Sandra asked, “So, are you ready to get certified?”

“Oh wait, or might that make you certifiable?” she quipped.

So maybe I ought to dip my toe in the water by becoming a substitute teacher.

Stay tuned.

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