Sunday, November 18, 2007

November 18, 2007

Here’s another sure-fire way to give your self-confidence a boost while in Indonesia: take part in a labor walkout. It feels good. Trust me.

Now before you think I’m ready to pick up the hammer and sickle, let me explain.

Many of you know that I worked for a newspaper as a reporter shortly after receiving my English degree. I was one of, like, 3 recent English/writing degree recipients in America using their degree that year. It was an amazing experience – I’m still not sure how I got that job – and that is where I began to learn what true writing is. It’s where I discovered the world outside academia does not use introductory paragraphs or thesis statements or foot/end notes (whatever the latest MLA Handbook’s whim may be). It’s where I learned academic writing, well, isn’t really writing. To borrow a phrase from Truman Capote… it’s just typing.

Anyway, after a year and a half of reporting on the exciting world of Huntington County, Indiana’s county commissioners and county council I decided to take another step to bigger and better things in writing. So I moved to Portland. The plan was to do freelance writing for the many papers there. Well, the writing was very hard to come by and the pay even harder… and then I got divorced a year and a half later. That’s when, before I really knew what was happening, I was managing a Starbuck’s store. I’ll spare all the details, but thus began my almost 11-year career in retail coffee.

I know what you’re thinking. You know where this is going, but let me just preface this by saying there are far worse companies in the world than the Bucks. I got a 401(k) started there – benefits, stock at discounts, a little bit in stock options too. Those are all nice, but still not preferable to having a soul.

There were a few times at Starbuck that really I wanted to walk. One example was when our hours got cut and we were told it was our fault: “Well, if you all would sell more, we’d get more hours.” (The store was doing about 1000 transactions a day, and bringing in about $50,000/wk. and I hadn’t had a pay raise in two years.) Or being told – not asked – that I was in charge of organizing all my store’s volunteer activities (outside work) and not get paid for it. I called it free PR for a $2 billion company. Or how ‘bout when all labor was cut 5%, co-workers were wondering how to make rent (literally), and only to be thanked by Howard Schultz buying his very own NBA basketball team and getting a $1.2 million bonus? Yes. All those are really great memories of a drone. But why did I never walk? Because. I was disposable, of course. It wouldn’t have mattered. They would’ve just replaced me with two 19-year-olds that afternoon… like every American corporation would do.

Now fast-forward to about four weeks ago. We’re finally in our new school building. It looked great, except two problems: all of our teaching materials were still in boxes all over the place and no AC. I’m no meteorologist, but I noticed it’s hotter closer to the equator than it is in Oregon. AC is necessary in Makassar.

So all the teachers got together and went to the school owner. We said, “We have no materials yet and it’s too hot.” He said, “But kids are already arriving. I can’t just send them home. Their parents paid for a certain amount of classes. How will we make up the lessons?” We told him they weren’t going to learn anything today regardless; we’re going home. Now, we did make a couple well-played moves that made it sound like it was his idea, but we were not going to be treated poorly. He’d have no business were it not for us.

Sarah and I went swimming that afternoon. I saw one of my students there at the pool.

I felt for the first time since I worked for the Huntington Herald-Press that I was needed and not just a cog in a vast machine. There was a certain obligation to make me happy and not a sense of “You’re lucky you got a job and work for us. And oh yeah. Before you clock out could you also…”

I don’t regret coffee or retail. (Peet’s was an especially good experience.) It gave me time to work on my writing in a way working in journalism would not have allowed. And living in Portland… Well, I got to work with great authors (Whitney Otto, Charles D’Ambrosio, Kevin Sampsell), go to Tin House magazine workshops and meet and work with other great writers (D.A Powell, Susan Bell, Aimee Bender). Things I could never do in Indiana or working for newspapers. Those years were a turning point, but at times very difficult because I felt of no worth really.

But now I have some real pride in what I do. I don’t know of anyone who thinks being a teacher is unethical or below me. And for that I really do feel lucky to have the job I have. Thank you, English First Makassar!

No comments: