by Emily Van Duyne
Last week, as I flipped through applications for summer student tutors with my unofficial boss in the Writing Center at Stockton, my student popped in to get his graded essay. He’s a really nice kid– tall, handsome, ebullient, smart. A capable, if not gifted, writer. He mentioned to my “boss” that I had asked my students from this particular course to pen a personal manifesto for their final essays. The course is Argument & Persuasion for the Arts & Humanities; we had read parts of the Communist Manifesto, Tzara’s famous Dada Manifesto from 1918, and I linked to (with a disclaimer that I neither endorsed nor agreed with its ideas in any way, and was merely sporting the form for their example) Valerie Solanis’s S.C.U.M. Manifesto.
My boss raised her eyebrows, as only she can do. “A manifesto, eh? You sure you want that out in the world? Isn’t that like, crazy talk? Admission of crazy?”
My student laughed heartily, and I admitted that, yes, besides Marx and Engels, the third person I most immediately associate with manifestos is The Unibomber. My boss smiled snarkily at me. “You know, when I go on Facebook,” she said slyly, “I mostly just talk about my dogs.” She paused for effect. “But Professor Van Duyne?” She pointed at me. “MA-NI-FES-TOOOO. ALL manifesto, all the time.” I burst into laughter. This is, of course, an accurate description of my social media presence, or personality. I’ve never been any good at keeping my mouth shut, and teaching courses on argument and rhetoric has not helped the situation. I probably lost my job at one community college by posting a strongly worded complaint to their Facebook page, having exhausted my strongly worded complaints to my department head, who, pardon the frankness, couldn’t administer her way out of a paper bag. I was cooly offered no summer or fall courses for noting that there was no water in the water fountains, chalk for the chalkboards, milk for the coffee (that I paid for, in the cafeteria), nurse or medical station for the injured (a student came to class with a busted, skinned knee and elbow, bleeding pretty badly, having tripped in the parking lot; I realized all I could do was send her home), or general camaraderie amongst the staff. I once went an entire semester without speaking to another teacher, despite being on campus four days a week. Recently, I resubmitted my CV to the new department chair, thinking that, as the old one had stepped down, I might be able to pick up another course. He emailed me back that they were full for the summer, but he’d like to meet me sometime to talk about future courses. I thought to myself, You taught in the classroom before me in fall ’09, and after me in the fall of 2010. You never once stopped to introduce yourself to me, in all that time, but scooted awkwardly from the room with that, “Oh no, another adjunct who thinks she might get hired, better fly” look in your eyes. I know your name, your position, the courses you teach, and where you got your MA; you wouldn’t know me if you tripped on me. And you wouldn’t have a place to get a band-aid, either.
Perhaps I have made some progress, as I did not send a reply with this information contained therein, and instead wrote back politely that I would be happy to meet with him, anytime.
In any case, I’m sick, at the moment. Not sick in my soul, although I am wandering through the world with my usual healthy dose of scrappy joie de vivre intact. No, folks, I have what I thought was the spring flu, but which turned out to be a nasty case of bronchitis, complete with a high fever and chills, body aches, a wretched cough, and a sore throat so painful, I literally seize up when I swallow. I know for sure I have bronchitis and not the flu because I finally gave in and went to Urgent Care yesterday, where I saw a strange old doctor who, after looking at my Triage report (I had a fever of 100.8 even with three ibuprofen in me) said, “I know what you got! I’ve seen twenty cases today, kid! You won’t get a fever, so don’t worry–”
“I have a fever, I’ve had one since Friday night,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?” He looked at my chart. “Hey, you do. Let me listen to your lungs.” He did so; I mouth breathed, deeply. “Hm. I think we need a chest X-ray. And a strep culture.”
“Ok,” I said, weakly.
Shortly thereafter, the patient care advocate (that’s what her name tag read, anyway) came in to see me. She was a very nice woman. “You don’t have insurance, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“But it says here you work at Stockton?”
“I do,” I replied. She looked at me, questioningly.
And here we go again, I thought. The part where I have to explain that even though I’m a college professor, and have been since 2009, I’m “not really” a college professor. That I work “part-time” at one college and “part-time” at another– that’s as courses many as I can grab in the fall, and the spring, and especially the summer, desperate for the compressed paychecks those sections bring– but not “full-time” anywhere. That I’m never, that none of us are ever, guaranteed work for more than a semester at a time. That none of this amounts to more than, if I’m very lucky with the summer sections, about $25K/year. Sometimes, going into this, even the very truncated version, I feel like Tobias from Arrested Development when it’s discovered he’s a “never nude”– “There are dozens of us!” I want to yell in a moment of self-righteous liberation. Except, of course, that there are more like hundreds of thousands of us, all over the nation, and maybe more than that. Sometimes, I want to say, “Remind me how this is any of your business.” Yesterday, in the doctor’s office, I said, patiently, “I teach part-time at two different colleges; I don’t get benefits at either.”
“You’re an adjunct?!” she said with a fascinating combination of legitimate horror and sympathy.
“I am,” I said.
“Oooooh,” she groaned. “That’s rough.”
“It’s ok,” I said. “I love what I do. Something’ll pan out eventually.” This has been my mantra, this year. I’ve been at this now for a while, but I had a kid in between. He’s about two, now. It’s becoming more and more imperative that that “something” “pan[s] out” quick. When I took a break to be a full-time mom during Hank’s first year, he was approved for Medicaid. When I went back last fall, he wasn’t approved. So now I shell out about $500 a month for his healthcare, and I have none. Which all adds up to my little case of bronchitis– the chest x-ray was negative for pneumonia– costing me just under $300, a luxury I truly cannot afford, but which I paid for, nonetheless. Back in the office, the zany doctor offered me two scripts, one for Amoxicilin, one for cough syrup with Codeine.
“Take them to the Shop-Rite, they do free prescription for people without insurance.”
“Ok,” I said. “Thank you. The cough syrup– I have a two-year old, so I’m a bit reluctant to take it. I mean, if he wakes up, will I hear him, or will it knock me out?”
“Oh,” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand, “it’s no big thing. I’d happily take some and then see patients all day.”
“Um… ok, then,” I said, and walked out, shaking my head at absurdities, at systems, at human behavior.
At the Shop-Rite pharmacy, I drop off the scripts, and grab a few essentials– baby wipes, bananas– from the store. I’ll pay with the cash I have left over from one of the tutoring gigs I do for gas money to get from one college to the next, as I get paid from the community college tomorrow– as adjuncts, we’re only paid once a month, on the 30th. By the 29th, I am usually looking at pretty lean numbers in my checking account. I checkout, and return to the pharmacy. When I give the young woman my name, she tallies me up.
“That’ll be $36.74,” she says, perkily, professionally.
“Um.” I close my eyes, and sigh. I hate this. But until tomorrow, I am broke. “They told me at Urgent Care you guys have a program for people without insurance, for free prescriptions.”
“Oh.” She recoils, tucks one long, perfect, squarely French-manicured fingernail into her bleached blond hair. She looks at her screen. “That’s just for antibiotics. They’re free.” Her manner has changed distinctly. She’s looking at me like I’m a slimeball– the uninsured masses! GR-OSS. I may even be unemployed! My nose is completely clogged. I have almost no voice. My throat is doing that disgusting allergic cough thing where you try to breathe normally and it feels like the air gets stuck, and you hack, and your eyes water. I never get sick, pride myself on this, and as such, feel particularly vulnerable, particularly weak. I had to cancel class, today, felt, when I did so, the standard bottoming out of my stomach, the roller coaster ride of zero job security. Are they keeping tabs on me, or do they even notice if I’m gone? Who knows? Not me. In December, I emailed my dean’s secretary (at the community college) that I need to cancel one class in March– I’d been invited by a journal that published a bunch of my work to give a reading at their party at the annual AWP conference in Boston; quite an honor, and certainly a valid reason to cancel one class before the semester even began, or so I thought. At the very least, I thought she’d write me back a congratulatory note. Instead, she sent me back a table with the pay schedule, noting how many hours I could miss without having my salary docked. I went to the conference, anyway.
“I’ll just take the antibiotics, I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” I tell the young woman in my Marlene Dietrich voice.
“It’s fine,” she says, snatching the bag back from me, efficiently dismantling the neat double package and handing the bottle of cough syrup to a hand, attached to a white coated arm, that appears from behind the dividing wall– I never see the body or the face. I sign the electronic checkout, and leave. No need to delve into my “I’m an adjunct, so–” explanation to her. Or ever, I suppose. It’s my own insecurity, after all. I work hard, I do a good job, I’m an efficient and well-liked teacher with a good degree of expertise in her field. Why, then, the overwhelming sense that I’m somehow “not a real teacher”? Illegitimate? Smoke and mirrors? Would doing committee work and having health benefits change this? When did health benefits become so… glamorous? And yet, they are. As I climbed wearily into my car, thinking of all the small shamings we suffer, and heap upon others, from day to day, as human beings, I got a text from a graduating senior who took my Argument & Persuasion course this semester, who I wrote a graduate school recommendation for: “I really had the most fun in this class than any other in my college career. And the most I’ve actually read (I absolutely hate reading). Wish there were more professors like you.” I wanted to cry; I did, a bit. I forwarded it to my two best friends– both adjuncts. Both about to be out of jobs due to budget cuts, or, if not out, then scrambling again to make ends meet, picking up classes at three colleges instead of the usual two. Both over-qualified, published authors in distinguished magazines and journals, with three masters degrees between the two of them, and countless hours of volunteer work for student publications, clubs, or just being a kind ear or a shoulder to cry on. They were both buried in grading papers, which is what, the moment I finish writing this, I’ll be doing, as well. Until I pick up my son from daycare. And when he goes to sleep, I’ll reread “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and try to find a new way to make 60-something kids fall in love with it the way I do, every time. Smoke and mirrors, maybe; but what else makes a “real” teacher? What makes someone deserving of job security, or benefits, or camaraderie?
Remember. There are dozens of us.