Some time ago, in the midst of one of my many (many) existential crises, I happened upon a series of books called The School of Life. The premise of all these books is that sometimes the things we aren’t overtly taught via the many institutions to which we belong by choice, default or force, could really use some basic instruction. Some titles include How To Connect with Nature, and How To Be Alone, as well as News: A User’s Manual. One of the books proffered is How To Find Fulfilling Work, and whilst I have been engaged throughout much of my adult life in fulfilling work, at the time I found that book, I very much was not fulfillingly employed.
This, unfortunately, remains the case.
You see, whilst I do love language, and I do love teaching, I do not so much love teaching language. I never envisaged teaching English; teaching English was something I never foresaw falling back on, and that happened to save my arse when I did indeed fall.
A brief recap for those of you who are new here (or who may have forgotten): Both C and I were fulfillingly employed in the UK, but London neither fulfilled us nor was ever intended to do so – that is, we always knew we’d be leaving, and the time came to leave and so we left. We embarked with all of our savings on a voyage to the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines where we spent a year volunteering, largely because we wanted to be able to throw ourselves entirely into volunteer work, since our London-based volunteer work always seemed to beckon, and yet we never felt like we had enough time. That went relatively swimmingly, and we were satisfied that working in development was definitely something we wanted to continue doing.
But at the end of the year and our savings, we realised that, if we did pursue this line of work, in the event we needed to “go home,” we would be in a bit of a bind since no such place as yet existed for us. While that may have ostensibly posed a very tricky question, for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, it was actually quite easy for us to decide upon C’s hometown as our point de chute, our pieds-à-terre…our home. So we came to Le Puy, rented a flat, and devised a plan to make a few investments so that we would have the necessary income to pay for necessities and needful things in the event that paychecks were not forthcoming (e.g., illness, old age, long bouts of volunteering, etc.).
And that is what we’ve done. Which is all well and good.
But we’ve been here for just over three years now. I don’t care how old I get – I will forever underestimate just how long things are going to take. For the first year I scrambled to “become a writer,” because that was how I planned to finance my end of our globetrotting. Oh, the naivety! That never really clicked and so I found myself teaching by year two. I have since taught one-to-one, in a Catholic middle school, and a state high school, at two types of technical colleges, and in a prison. And while I still don’t want to teach English, I recognise that there are far worse jobs I could have found myself forced to do under these circumstances. I don’t wish to be ungrateful. But I do wish to be fulfilled by my career. Which brings me back to that book.
So it is an excellent book, and the author, Roman Krznaric, really calls upon his readers to participate in an interactive sort of way with his writing. I kept a journal with notes and responses to his prompts for introspection (it is long). As instructed I reached out to friends for their thoughts as to what I’d be best at. Lo and behold, after tons of to-ing and fro-ing, I came to the realisation that I was, in fact, on the right track all along.
The best way I can describe what I want to do – what I feel like I have already successfully done – is to support those working with very vulnerable people to do their work in the most efficient, constructive way, so that as much of their precious effort as possible can be directed to the people who need it most – the people they support. In jargon, this comes down to capacity building, coaching and mentoring, strengthening monitoring and evaluation devices and internal and external policies and procedures, facilitating relationships, and so on.
Ergo, since April, I have been working very hard to try and land such a job. At first, I said: Right – I’ve done my time. I’ve got the experience and I can definitely get a paid position. But that didn’t happen. After several applications were met with deadening silence (you’re strongly discouraged from calling to follow up applications in this field, incidentally), I explored subsidised voluntary roles. That simply means that expenses are paid and a stipend is offered, but there’s not an actually salary involved. I nearly got a job I’d have loved…but didn’t. And since then I’ve been applying and applying and applying some more…
So I’m still teaching English. And because I’m a substitute teacher in a small town, everyone I know knows I’m looking for work abroad, and so every time I go out into the world, I’m forced to concede that no, I still haven’t found it yet…just gotta keep trying! It’s true I’m a bit thin-skinned about these things, but it’s also true that it can be humiliating. Perhaps even more frustrating is that people have more recently sort of stopped asking.
When David Bowie sang, “Turn and face the strange,” he was of course talking about finding the courage to face big changes head-on. But sometimes the change we need to accept is that the change we wanted isn’t going to happen – at least not when or how we intended. I know I have to keep trying, but after six months of nothing, I’m taking a step back. So since working toward this big change just doesn’t seem to be working, I’ve decided to put a bit more effort into being where I am, and doing what I can to feel good about the life I’m living.
(And although all of what I’m about to write was already in progress at the time of writing, I think I only really articulated that last bit internally after writing all of the above. That’s a bit of an epiphany.)
Effort number 1: Many years ago, before I ever left for England, I fancied myself nearly-fluent in Spanish, and I always planned to move to Latin America eventually to do this work. But after 5 years in the UK, a year in the Philippines and 3 years in France, I have come out the other end fluent in French but useless in Spanish. So I’m back to studying the old Español, muchachos. ¿Qué tal?
Effort number 2: At the risk of sounding unbearably cheesy, I just don’t feel good about my life unless I’m serving others. (I admit there is probably a good bit of my own ego involved in that) There have been many moments over the past few months where I’ve felt very, very sorry for myself, but the single best moments have been right after I finish teaching at the prison. I’m (hopefully) going to find a volunteering gig that matches up with what I’m good at and, well, do that.
Effort number 3: I’m going to keep teaching as well as I can, with all of my heart. Partly because I always liked that part of the “Desiderata” that goes, “Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.” But mostly because I owe it to my students (whether they actually want to learn what I’m teaching or not).
All of which means I’m going to have to accept the fact that my “strange” is actually just a little more of the same, with some bits of new (a new flat, new students, new seasons) thrown in here and there. And I’m going to have to stop running frantically toward the unknown for a minute. Because although it truly does sometimes seem like I can feel my professional relevance slipping through the ever-enlargening pores of my skin, I also realise that deep down I’m a terrible drama queen who is meant to learn nothing in this life if not patience.