I’m beginning to believe my mother leads a cult.  A cult whose sole purpose is the answering of one simple question: “So, Nick, what are you doing with your life?”

A question that’s meant to be innocuous, and one she asked me just over four years ago.  I haven’t heard the question escape her lips since then, but it seems every person I meet recounts it with perfect clarity, cadence and tone: as if they had been instructed by another.

I envision my mother commanding her gaggle of avid followers.  She keeps them loyal with homemade food and the QVC purchases she’s apt to make at 11 o’clock at night.  They meet in a dim, candlelit room and talk about the week’s plan in a formal, fascist-styled setting.  She consults a list from her podium, her eyes and features are hidden behind a large cowl, but her chipper voice rings out among the crowd as she runs down the list alphabetically.

“Amanda? Amanda, where are you?”

A woman in a robe that has an uncanny resemblance to a snuggy steps forward and pulls her hood back with a pair of youthful hands.

“This acolyte is here.” She chants.

“Good.”  My mother says curtly, she eyes her notes and looks back to Amanda.  “It says here you’re getting coffee with Nick on Thursday.”

“Yes, Madam.”

“I want you to ask him what his plan is for life within five minutes of sitting.”

“Isn’t that awfully soon, Madam?”

“I’ll let you do the swooning, but for heaven’s sake, Amanda, let me do the thinking.”

“Yes, Mad—”

“And don’t you question me.” My mother scolds.  Amanda’s face reddens, her posture is passive like an injured animal.

My mother continues, “It’s important that it’s early.  We have to throw him off his guard, get him thinking quickly and often.  The little turd graduated five years ago and he still hasn’t figured it out.  And the whole, ‘sit back and wait for him to decide’ strategy isn’t working… Gloria.”  A woman in the crowd bows her head a little deeper.  My mother cranes her neck and looks down upon Amanda.  Her mouth is set in a hard line, eyes that usually smile from behind thick glasses now leer.  She continues,  “Do not fail me, Amanda.”

Amanda swallows hard and bows her head, she turns to walk back to the rest of the crowd when my mother shouts, “Wait! I’m not finished.”

Amanda stops in her tracks, cold sweat sprouts from her forehead.  The robe she wears feels stuffy, as if stitched together with steel wool.  Hands, once dry, are now hopelessly clammy.

“Yes, Madam?”

My mother looks disinterested, then takes a breath to speak…

“I got this extra pair of ice cleats from QVC when I ordered four magic bullets, do you want them?”

“I…” Amanda says, “I live in California, we don’t really have ice there…”

“Suit yourself.” My mother says, throwing a dismissive hand her way.  “Just don’t call me when you get the ice storm of the century and need a little extra traction.  What about this garlic peeler?”

“I’d like that, Madam Blakeslee!” On acolyte chimes from the back of the room.

“Oh, wonderful!  I got six of them when I ordered those off-brand snuggies.” She notes something on a piece of paper then returns her gaze to Amanda.  “You can return to your spot, Amanda.”

She nods and scurries back into the group.  My mother takes the rest of the time to give the same instructions to friends, coworkers, gas station attendants and even gives instructions to Google’s CEO: the directive to have any query I put through their search engine that ends in a question mark would return with the answer: “Get your life together.”

I’m convinced there’s a conspiracy.  I’d wear a tinfoil hat, but I’m afraid it’ll only increase the frequency of such questions.  While my mother hasn’t dropped that particular question on me in years, I have no other explanation for the strangers, friends, family members, coworkers, future employers or first dates in which I’ve had to field that question.  More realistically, I’m uncomfortable with that line of questioning because I have no idea how to answer it, even though I’ve been given an opportunity hundreds of times to come up with an answer that satisfies both me and the questioner.  I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.  I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to do.

A date the other day asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Five years?  I can barely see where I’m going to be in five hours, let alone half a decade.  Did I miss the party where they handed out the gift of prophecy?

So I answer that question, and every variant of “How are you going to find value in your life?” with the same flippant, sarcastic answer:

“Uh, I dunno, probably at home with my cat, eating Goldfish.”

It’s not that my life isn’t exciting, but rather those are the only two things I can be reasonably sure of: I love goldfish crackers and my cat isn’t going anywhere.  The rest is up in the air, so to speak.  You could say it’s undecided.  Metaphorically speaking, that chapter is unwritten.   It would be found in the “Mystery” section of the library if it were a book.  Basically, I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.

Usually, talk of my higher education is brought up.  I have a degree in teaching.  I believe I could be an effective teacher.  I believe there are aspects of teaching that I would really enjoy.  “Why don’t you teach, Nick?” is a question I get as often.  And, like the former question, I have no quick way to answer it despite hundreds of opportunities to do so.

To be brief, I’m not all-in.  Being an effective teacher is one of the more difficult jobs in America.  People aren’t dying, no.  Teachers do not put on a bullet proof vest every morning and maintain societal order from behind a badge.  They certainly don’t strap themselves into a supersonic jet, or go out on patrol through terrorist filled country.  They don’t wade through literal rivers of shit like sewage workers, or work against the clock of blood loss like doctor or ER nurse.  They aren’t keeping track of hundreds of clients at a massive firm, or tackling the issue of crumbling infrastructure in a bankrupt town.

The job isn’t dangerous..  Teachers aren’t fighting for their literal life.   The job should be simple: teach children.  

That’s it.  Educate.  Essentially, teaching can be distilled into the simple directive of giving students the opportunity to information they don’t already obtain.  You could start every class with, “Did you know that…” and expand upon whatever question gave you the most blank stares.

The relaying of that information is where things get difficult because, and this will come as a surprise to politicians, lawmakers and textbook authors, everyone learns differently.

I know.  Crazy.  You’d think we were all robots based on our education practices, where knowledge is a series of replicated square pegs to fit in all of our uniform, perfect square holes.  Unfortunately, education is not the filling of a pail.

Education is the lighting of a fire, as William Yeats put it.  It’s the understanding of the unique spark that resides in each individual student and the necessary fuel needed to feed their flame.  Education is a lofty profession.  It’s honorable.  It should be individualized.  It should be more important in our politics.

The issue is why it’s difficult.  For me, I see the difficulty start  with a lack of money; it’s a hard pill to swallow.   I witness first year teachers working twice as hard as I did serving tables making half as much.  I watch friends wake up at 4:30am for swim practice, teach until 3pm, work until 6pm, then travel on weekends, days off and evenings for the swim team they coach.  And still make paltry amounts compared to what other professions with a masters degree make.

I see a systematic issue with the financial compensation for qualified teachers.

The small amount of money rewarded deceases the draw to the profession, it can create a talent vacuum because no one wants to work that hard and make so little.  But perhaps the most compelling argument keeping me from educating, is its turnover.  New teachers burn out often and quickly.  Those that become a teacher—those that obtain their $30,000 master’s degrees, complete their unpaid internship as a student teacher, and get a job—still leave after going through the crucible of education and debt.   One statistic puts teacher burnout as high as  50% within the first five years; making the rate in which teachers divorce their job higher than we divorce each other.  Half of a workforce that spent 10’s of thousands of dollars and years of education are quitting in less than five years.   What does that say about the profession of teaching?

Where there’s no money, there’s little incentive for becoming an educator.  When there’s little incentive, there’s less teachers and therefore larger classes.  Larger classes means less individualized education.  Facts that compound my fear of becoming a teacher. The only people becoming educators are those that are so vehement about the profession, they have excused the small pay, long hours, problematic parents or unsupportive governing bodies.  Truly, they are the martyrs of our society.

Can you imagine what the medical field would be like if doctors quit after five years?  Police officers?  Relief workers? Construction workers, city contractors, architects, graphic artists, copy editors….?  There would be no old knowledge, no expertise.  Sure there’s new blood, but it lacks a certain experience only obtainable by many hours and many years of work.

Of course, the education for doctors is different, it’s much more arduous.  I don’t mean to say that the difficulty in getting the job is the same: it is much easier to enter the teaching profession than it is to enter the medical field.  But perhaps that is the problem.  What would the state of our country be if educators spent years obtaining their degree and were rewarded similarly?

I know I’m on a soap box here, but bear with me.

I haven’t begun teaching because its pay is paltry, the average pay for first year teachers is somewhere around $36,000 for their 60+ hour work weeks.  It’s not uncommon for teachers to spend their own money for school supplies, either.

I haven’t begun teaching because of fun-time guilt.  A teacher may clock out, they may even have the week off, but there’s always something that needs to be done: grading papers, lesson planing, writing tests, etc.  Every teacher I know spends at least one day of their weekend in the classroom planning, on top of a few hours after the school.  And, no, teachers don’t get paid for their breaks.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: teachers don’t get paid for summer, spring, or winter break.  They have a nine month salary distributed over twelve months.  I believe that’s completely fair: they shouldn’t be paid for their days off.  But I believe they should be better reimbursed for their labor and compensated for the work they do “off the clock.”

To expand upon compensation, the first counterpoint I hear when a teacher’s reimbursement is brought up are teacher’s amazing benefits.  Are they good?  Yeah, they’re good.  So are the benefits at tech jobs.  I’m ready to admit they’re great, but they’re not exclusive: anyone with a master’s degree should be able to receive proper retirement, insurance and investment opportunities.

I haven’t begun teaching because our country has made abortion, gun rights, immigration, foreign wars and minimum wage more important in our political debates.  The irony is many of those issues would be addressed if we only focused on education.

To put it simply, I haven’t begun teaching because I’m selfish.  I hate that the profession lacks the recognition I feel it deserves.

I have the education necessary to be a teacher, yet I house resentment for the profession that makes being one impossible.  I know if I signed up for a job and started to teach I would become jaded and upset at all of the fallacies I feel our system has.

Ultimately these are all issues I have to get over.  I can’t expect the world to change overnight based on my own biases towards how I think our society should run.  The world might not even be a better place if we focused on education and I’m sure there are many teachers out there who disagree with me.

The point here is that I can’t share all of that 1,439 word answer to the question, “So, what are you doing with your life?” without alienating someone at coffee or making another late to a doctor’s appointment.

My plans for life after leaving college were as followed:
1. Get a job as a teacher
2. Find happiness
3. Each cheeseburgers as often as possible

When I tripped on the first step, the rest seemed to fall apart as well. Really, the answer to the question is: “That’s a great question.  I’ll let you know when I know.” That’s the best I can give, beyond some smarmy, sarcastic deflective answer involving Button and my love for cheese flavored crackers.

And if you’re part of my mother’s life-goal cult, I’m truly sorry: I haven’t decided what I want to do yet.  You’ll have to continue to wear that steel wool robe and live under the fearful scrutiny of my mother’s wrath.

But, on the bright side, I think you’ve got some good loot coming your way.   I just turned down a QVC docking station that uses ultraviolet light to clean the germs off your phone.  I can only imagine what it came with, perhaps a key chain that keeps track of the amount of times you’ve lost your keys or a some sunglasses that double as a pair of toothpicks.  I’m pretty sure she got a deal for buying them in bulk, so she won’t be running out any time soon.  And last time I spoke with her she was talking about making her world famous Calzones.

You see?  Even being in a cult has its benefits, and you didn’t even need a master’s degree.