Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Changing the World (a comma at a time)

You know what comes after grad school? Grad school loans.

You know what doesn't pay off grad school loans? Writing.

This is true. I didn't graduate with my finished novel, like I'd planned, and while I am so, so happy with the choice I made to work on short stories, it means my loans are going to come due before my book is ready to go out into the world. And now, it's time to put that MFA to work somewhere.

I've been looking at tutoring jobs online. It's a flexible job that allows me to be home for my kids, to choose hours around my own schedule, that allows me the time to still write (unlike teaching, which has all those planning and grading hours not factored in). It doesn't pay great, but it works perfectly for what I need right now.

So this weekend I set out to apply to a few places, and one of them had subject tests as the first part of the application process. I get it. They want to make sure I can actually teach the subject - especially on the fly when a kid, who is paying by the hour, logs in and needs an answer right away.

Then I started thinking about that. Kids, in middle and high school, possibly college, logging in and asking me about stuff I don't know. It's been a decade and a half since I taught middle school, and even then I was sometimes only a step ahead of the kids in the curriculum. If they ask about literature, what if I haven't read the book? No one can possibly read all the books that all the schools in the country are teaching. What if there's some part of speech I've never heard of? What if they need help writing an essay and I don't really know how to write an essay? What if I've been just winging it all these years on a little bit of talent and a lot of gracious teachers?

I had myself so worried I couldn't pass that I avoided that website for a few days before finally taking a deep breath and sitting down to do it.

You can only fail once. I figured if I failed, at least I'd know what the test was like, I could study and retake it.

I chose to start with the middle and high school English. The website said the time limit on the test was one hour. The put a ticking clock in the corner of the screen. You could miss two questions. Go.

I took a breath, looked at the test.... and realized I knew it all. It was grammar, punctuation, diagramming, literary devices... all the things I love. I mean, as I went through the test, I was madly in love with it all. I felt warm fuzzies when it asked me to tell where parts of a sentence would fall on a sentence diagram. When it asked me to finish the analogies, I almost hugged the computer. The questions where you had to identify which sentence was punctuated correctly (and there were semi-colons!!) I nearly did a jig. I love this stuff.

I finished the entire test in about ten minutes. I went back over it to make sure I hadn't been tricked, and submitted it.


I decided to take the essay writing test.


I decided to take the college level writing tutor test. It was billed as a two hour test. Thanks to my recent experience with essay writing and MLA bibliographies and works citing... 20 minutes later - CHA-CHING. Another 100%.

And I realized how much I really love this stuff. This grammar and punctuation and writing organization. Not just because I understand it, but because I really, truly think this stuff is important. I really do think knowing how to write clearly and cleanly makes a difference. That a person that can use words and language well - not just to tell stories but to do anything - has the power to change the world.

Think about the great speeches in history that have swayed public opinion, caused people to rise up and revolt or rise up and come together. Think about the legal contracts and laws that govern your lives. Think about advertising and news, well-written ads and articles that have changed your mind or convinced you of something or opened your eyes to something you didn't know. Think about the poets and journalists and memoirists who have changed the way we see the world - have often changed the course of the world - because of the way they have written.

It was, for the first time in a long time, a realization that I do think what I do is important. That I'm passionate about it because it matters. It doesn't matter to the world in financial terms. Heaven knows even the tutoring websites are clamoring for (and pay more for) physics and calculus and accounting teachers, not English. But it matters equally as much in the scheme of humanity and politics and faith. Maybe more.

This is silly, I know. This whole post. This realization. Most of you probably already feel this way. But I live in a world - the outside DC, triple-income-family world - where people make a lot of money. They buy expensive houses and eat at expensive restaurants and take extravagant vacations. What I do will barely pay the student loans and put away money for my kids' colleges. Doing things like part-time tutoring and struggling with a novel are not real jobs.

I live in a place where there is a lot of pressure to be successful in a way that loving language will never make me. I've felt "less than" for this for a long time. I've felt weird for being passionate about things like proper punctuation and good grammar. It's something  people can laugh at, post memes about on facebook for you, but really is seen as mostly quirky.

But it's not, I've decided. It's more than a quirk. It's the way the world is changed, for the better or the worse. And isn't that something worth being passionate about?


  1. This is not a silly post. This is an awesome post.

    Good for you for acing those tests.


    1. Thanks, Paul. It's good to know teaching all those seventh grade grammar classes stuck. :)

  2. Way to go on those tests. Having seen the work my hubby's students turn in, they are writing at about an 8th grade level entering college. No need to intimidated by college writing at all.

    I know what you mean about the societal pressure to take high paying work. I could be making triple what I do as a part time editor if I were a production manager. But I'd also work 80-hour weeks and never write again. Taking low pressure work is a way of investing in yourself. My motto is this: Don't let other people's capitalist dreams stomp on your creative dreams.

    1. It definitely is a balance finding a job that supports you enough, and one that still allows you to live the kind of life you want. I don't want to work to have to hire someone to watch my kids and eat out because there's not time to cook or shop. Eventually that kind of work offsets the payment! I don't want high stress - I get enough stress as a mom. :) I'm working hard on being content in the financial circumstances we are in. I know many people are much worse off... even around where I live.

  3. I don't think this is a silly post at all. Your passion for the well-written word is amazing and energizing and motivating all at once. And how COOL that you aced those tests. Yay for you! (So did you get the tutoring gig or have you found that out yet?)

    As far as pressure to take high-paying jobs...I live in an area where having a job, no matter what kind, is a good thing. =D And I don't feel pressure to take a high-stress job (because that usually goes along with the high-paying, doesn't it?) because I have no desire to abandon what I most love in the world (writing) just to make money.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. :) I haven't heard from the tutoring places yet. There are a surplus of English and writing teachers, so I'm on a wait list for an opening. I imagine things will open up in late spring to early summer, when the other tutors want to take a break or do something else.

  4. Awesome that you aced those tests! Definitely not a silly post.

    1. Thanks, Ophelia! And thanks for dropping by! I love my friends to the north. :)

  5. I just want to jump up and cheer now!!!!

    KNow what? Having kind of a crappy day today and I'm so glad I decided to check your blog before turning in for the night. I know the feeling of choosing a non-lucrative career path! I know the pressure. I think you're doing the right thing and if you can land this gig it'll help a lot.

    Confession: My understanding of grammar is not strong. I think I glazed over during those classes. I feel like I sort of have the basics but I couldn't diagram a sentence. I don't even remember learning that. Grammar is important and I love it that you're on top of it and can pass on your knowledge!!!

    1. The problem with teaching grammar is that so many teachers (and probably I included, back in the day) teach it like a set of rote rules, like it doesn't really mean anything other than to do these basic stupid exercises. I think grammar, like anything else in school, could be really exciting if teachers would show how relevant and powerful it COULD be.

      Having read your writing, though, I can say that even if you slept through those classes, you have a great grasp on the usage of language and grammar.

      Finances suck. They just do. And I hate even more than being in certain fields makes one more attractive and worth more than others. But that's life.