Seventeen years ago this week (check the calendar – the days and dates coincide with the week of May 12-18, ’97) was perhaps one of the most euphoric and bitterly disappointing weeks in my entire adult life. It was such a strange week that it forced me into second guessing myself and my path in life for many years afterward.
But it didn’t start out that way. On Monday, May 12th, I did my very first post-doctoral interview, for an assistant professor position at Teachers College (Columbia’s school of education) in Morningside Heights (West Harlem, really). I’d flown in from Pittsburgh the evening before, and stayed at the Hotel Beacon at Teachers College’s expense, because Monday was going to be a very long day. It was loud that Sunday night, as there was some event at the Beacon Theater. But somehow, I had just enough discipline and memories of New York’s smells and sounds to fall asleep comfortably.
My day started at 8:30 am, so of course, I was up before seven. I put on my one and only suit — at least, the only suit I owned that fit my six-three, 215-pound frame — went over my job talk on multiculturalism, and went on my pensive way to the 72nd Street Subway entrance on Broadway. It was a meat-packed ride to 125th Street, where I had to get off (I had forgotten to walk down to 66th Street to catch the local 1 instead of the express 2 train) and walk the six or so blocks to Teachers College.
After that, my day was an eight-hour blur, meeting with faculty, grad students and deans. Making sure not to eat too much while being grilled with questions over lunch. Giving my job talk and making sure to tell jokes, to bring up facts relevant to this history of education job, and, of course, to smile. Talking with grad students about how I finished my 505-page dissertation in twenty-seven months, about my teaching style and about growing up in Mount Vernon. It was as intense a process as I had expected it to be, but I felt at the end that I’d done everything possible to get the job.
I knew that I was one out of only five candidates invited to interview, out of over 500 applicants. I even had the chair of the History Department, Steve Schlossman, lobby on my behalf for the job, prior to my interview. And, despite my former advisor in Joe Trotter, I’d managed to put together a group of letters from folks that should’ve passed muster. All I could do after the interview was wait.
But life didn’t wait to intervene. After leaving the interview for the hotel, I changed into my more casual clothing, jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt, and went off to Tower Records and Barnes & Noble on 66th and Broadway, and later, Haagan Dazs (that last one was a big gastrointestinal mistake!).
From the moment I walked in the door at Barnes & Noble until I left a half-hour later, a Latino security guard tailed me as I perused books in the African American nonfiction, Cultural Studies and Music sections of the store, across three floors. As I walked out, I walked up to the guard and said
“While you were stalking me, you probably let half a dozen White folks slip out of here with books and CDs. Did you learn anything while you were watching me?”
“I was just doing my job,” the dumb-ass security guard said in response.
“Well, if following a Black guy around for thirty minutes is part of your job, you deserve to lose your job,” I said to him as I walked out.
It was a bit of a harbinger of things to come. I was more pissed off about these everyday slights — or, rather, microaggressions — than I’d been before Trotter and my doctorate. And I was less patient about waiting for what I wanted than I’d been as a grad student.
Three weeks later, I received a reimbursement check for my travel and other expenses, and within twenty-four hours, a call from the search committee chair. I’d finished second for the job. Second! To whom, I still don’t know. The chair kept telling me, “you didn’t do anything wrong…you did a very good set of interviews,” as if those compliments would pay my rent next month. I was disappointed, hopeful, but disappointed. It was my first shot, my best shot, and I’d given my best effort. “What now?,” I thought.
It’s a question that I still must ask seventeen years, two books and two careers later. I’ve long since realized that the question of what my life would’ve been like if I’d gotten the Teachers College job was moot, because my issues were about more than finding work. I still would’ve been unhappy, with a New York-esque rage to go with it.
So I counted my blessings, and I count them still. Not getting this particular job bought me the time and energy I needed. I needed that time, to see myself as the writer I also wanted to be, not just the educator and thinker I already knew I was. A better, more personable, more revealing and feeling writer than the cold and metallic one that grad school and Trotter helped turn me into by the end of ’96.