Last week I finished 39 years of teaching at Paul Smith's College. Since everyone has careers, this hardly amazes me, nor should it. But what DOES amaze me is how fast it's gone by.
I'm now about to scam Social Security, but it seems only a few years ago I was about to teach my first class.
I got my job after an exhaustive job search. The search was exhaustive, but only on my behalf, not Paul Smith's. I'd gotten out of the Navy the previous August and had been looking for a job over half of New York state and all of hell's half acre. But no go.
It was a lousy time to be looking for a teaching job. The Vietnam war and the Baby Boom were almost over, which meant the availability of teaching jobs was disappearing, while the number of job seekers was increasing.
Aside from teaching jobs, just about every other kind of work seemed on the decline. And even if it weren't, it wouldn't have mattered anyway, since my only education was a B.A. in American history, and my only skill was copying Morse code at 20 words a minute. The odds were completely against me.
Amazingly, I ended up beating the odds, but only due to a freakish combination of odd circumstance and dumb luck.
The Brighton telegraph
Here's what happened. Ten days before the start of second semester, and with no notice, three English teachers quit.
One was a married woman who ran off into the sunset with a married man.
Another was a real avant garde type who invested his life savings in a California film colony and decided to head West to live the bohemian cinematic life. (Sadly, the whole thing was a scam, which he only found out AFTER both he and his money ran out there.)
The third was a rich boy who, after two years at PSC, realized there were a lot easier ways to make a living, and one was by lying on the beaches of St. John, sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them, waiting for his monthly trust fund check to arrive.
Right after word got out about those three leaving, my friend Dave Caldwell, who'd worked at Paul Smith's for eons, called up and told me to go out and apply for the job.
"But I don't know anything about teaching, let alone teaching English," I said. "Why would they hire me?"
"In one word?" he said.
"Yeah, sure," I said.
"Total desperation," he said.
"That's two words," I said.
"Look at that," he said, "You're not on the faculty and you've already taught me something."
He laughed, I laughed. Then I thought, "What the hey," and I went out to the ivory tower, resume in hand.
Dealing with the oracle
Back in those halcyon days PSC was run entirely by one man - the college president, Dr. Chester L. Buxton. He did all the hirings and firings PERSONALLY, so it was to his office that I and my resume went.
The interview was a Buxton classic. It lasted maybe eight minutes, during which Dr. B. spoke hardly. He said something about if I wanted to teach college I needed an advanced degree. He also said Professor Allen would speak to me shortly. Then he bid me good day.
I left his office and stood in the lobby, and a few minutes later, Professor Allen, who was the head of the English department, came in and introduced himself. He had a bunch of books with him and he explained what each one was and which course it was used in. He also told about me the faculty lounge coffee, which for all the flavor it lacked, had the kick of a pack mule. After that, we chit-chatted a bit more, then he left. And when he did, he left me more than a tad confused, because at that point neither he nor anyone else had said a word about whether I'd been hired or not.
As I drove home, I thought to myself that it wasn't only the Lord who worked in mysterious ways.
A couple of days passed, with still no word. Then early on the third day - very, VERY early in fact - I was jolted out of a sound sleep by the phone. It was Bill Rutherford. He was one of the PSC old timers. He'd been there almost from the start, and in addition to being the registrar, the head of the forestry department, and a full-time teacher, he was also the Academic Dean. Beyond that, he was as laconic as it got.
I mumbled a befogged hello; he cut right to the chase.
"Say, Seidenstein," he said, "if you had your druthers, would you prefer teaching composition or technical writing."
"Composition," I said, not knowing if this call was real or part of a weird dream.
"Hmm," he said. "Me, I'd rather teach technical writing. Much more cut-n-dried, much more concise."
"I'm sure," I said, "But I don't know anything about technical writing. The only stuff I've been exposed to is essays, really."
"OK," he said. "It's smart to stick with what's familiar."
I nodded, STILL not awake, when suddenly a thought hit me.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Have I actually been hired?"
"Oh, sure," he said. "Didn't you know that?"
"Not really," I said.
"Why not?" he said.
"Because," I said, "no one ever told me."
"Well," he said, "they have now."
With that, he hung up and my teaching career began.