My Strange Vocation, Part 8
At Xavier University I finally found my place in life. Every morning I sprang out of bed eager to teach that day’s lessons, and throughout the day I’d say, “Two hours ’til showtime… one hour ’til showtime…” I loved everything about college-level teaching, and I now had developed and taught an impressive list of courses: History of Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, Major Questions, Ethics, Engineering Ethics, History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Religion, Theory of Knowledge, and Symbolic Logic. I published academic papers and spoke at philosophical conferences. I especially enjoyed presenting a paper on “Conceptual Change in Science and Religion” at Ohio State University’s Conference on Religion and Science in 1999.
During the second year of my two-year contract, a tenure-track position did indeed open up, and I was one of the candidates seriously considered for the job. But to everyone’s amazement, the caliber of applicants was far above anything a small college was accustomed to getting. “The job market must really be bad,” a member of the faculty told me later. When it was all over, I was number three on their list. I truly believe it came as a surprise to them all. Even more surprisingly, their number one choice accepted the position. “We didn’t think he’d want the job,” my source admitted later. But he did, and my department chair gave me the bad news.
I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t get the offer, but I was totally unprepared for what he told me next. He said that the department was making some other big changes, and one of them had to do with the use of part-time faculty. They believed it was unethical to keep stringing people along, giving them part-time work when there was no possibility of advancement to full-time. I sat thunderstruck as he told me what this meant for me: in a few months, I would not be teaching at Xavier at all.
I hadn’t seen that coming. Although it was late in the school year, I tried to find another position for the fall. My heart leapt when I was flown out to a day of interviews at a small Christian college in Nebraska. Surely this was what God had in mind after all… But that position, also, went to another candidate.
Summer came and I tried my hand at corporate training. I joined the staff of a computer software training company. They seemed delighted to have me, but I couldn’t sleep at night. It was terrifying standing in front of an audience of paying customers and knowing that I would be teaching them for an entire day on a subject I didn’t know anything about. We had a script to follow, but real students always deviate from the lesson plan, and I didn’t know how to answer any questions that weren’t part of the script. I think the company would’ve kept me and worked with me, but the job was way too far outside my comfort level. I quit after a month.
Now I had a serious problem. We had a small child (1-1/2 years old), and my wife only worked part-time. We had no insurance. When Nancy stubbed her toe and actually broke it, I realized I had to do something drastic. I applied for any kind of work I could get—even secretarial and data entry. The agency that was helping told me frankly: employers were concerned about my education and about the fact that I had been a manager. They weren’t willing to offer me an entry-level job.
I went to an Open House for call center customer service reps and told them, “I can give you one year. I hope to have a teaching position lined up by next fall, but I’ll give you a year.” They knew as well as I did what that meant. Call centers have a high turnover rate. I was promising them a solid year’s commitment, which was more than a lot of applicants would offer. To my relief, they took me up on it. I was offered a position as an entry-level customer service rep.
Just before I started the job, I visited our Associate Pastor. She was a caring person and I knew I could talk to her but she didn’t understand what I needed. She kept suggesting that I talk to other men in the congregation who had lost their jobs, because they could empathize better than she could. She was a caring person, but she totally misinterpreted my situation. I wasn’t just a male coming to terms with being underemployed. My problem was entirely spiritual. “This spoils everything,” I told her. “My story has made sense up until now. From here onward, I don’t get what God is doing. I don’t understand where the story can possibly go from here. I don’t need to talk out my feelings. I need help interpreting where the story’s going.”
I began working at the call center, and it was a nightmare. “How did I end up here?” I asked myself. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was now very close to understanding the meaning of my life. . .