How Come I Quit a Perfectly Good Job at Southern Methodist University to
Come to J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.
(One of those silly, tedious stories about Big Stuff in someone's little life.)
Skip the whole story and
get right to the punch line. (Such as it is. You can jump back
here from there.)
When a large manilla envelope arrived from the
SMU English Department, around the middle of June, I felt a thrill because
there were textbook request forms inside. You know what I mean by "thrill"--although
we have only clichés to refer to that kind of experience. An honest-to-god
shiver went up my back and I felt elated, buoyant. Wow! I really AM
going to teach at SMU! But we were in the middle of breakfast, so I
set the envelope on my desk and went back to spooning glop into the baby.
The next morning, I picked up the envelope and Ah,
well, there's no hurry set it down on the other side of the desk.
The third morning, I moved it to the other side of
That went on for several weeks until I What the
hell's going on here? finally couldn't ignore any longer that something
was keeping me from filling out those damn forms.
It wasn't rational, of course. SMU is a good school.
The English Department has a good rep. My interview there was the best
job interview I'd ever had. Arrived around ten thirty and took the limo
directly to the campus in downtown Dallas. Found Pascal Covici, the chair
of English by eleven. Met a few other people. Liked them all--especially
Covici. Looked around at the facilities, with carpeted offices, subdued
lighting, art on the walls. By one o'clock they had made up their minds,
and Covici offered me the job. I accepted on the spot, and he drove me
to the airport. I was on a plane before two. Fantastic!
And so different from another interview I'd had a
few days earlier, at a brand new community college in Virginia, J. Sargeant Reynolds.
On the plane to Richmond I sat next to a middle-aged guy who talked across me most of the time to a friend sitting on the other side of the aisle. They swapped family info for a while, and at one point my seatmate said of his daughter, "She's doing fine. Just finished up at Jay Sargeant Reynolds--it's a wonderful school--the best thing that's ever happened to her--and ... ." Well, at that time I was still a bit uncomfortable about the reputation community colleges had then of being third-rate schools for people who weren't smart enough to get into college, so that conversation was heartening, and for the first time I began looking forward to the interview.
Someone was to meet me at the terminal, and sure enough, just inside the door stood a big guy, smiling and waving. "Jim Brown," he said. "How do you do?" The good will seemed genuine, and I liked him immediately and felt comfortable chatting with him. His car was a beautiful old silver Bentley, and I was feeling really impressed--until discovering that the steering was so worn that the car wove from one shoulder of the expressway to the other. Jim just kept chatting away, but it seemed a very long way to the campus. There Jim introduced me to the division head, Richard Brewer, who turned out to be much younger in person than he'd sounded on the phone. The three of us ate fried clams and talked all evening, and I was feeling good about the college and its staff.
The next morning I was to meet with three members of the English department . I probably should have expected that at a two-year-old college the faculty would be young. But I hadn't. And I hadn't expected that they'd be so innocent of what was going on in their own teaching field, or that they wouldn't have a clue about how to conduct an interview.
I'll have to tell you more about that interview some other time, though--after three people are dead. I'll just say that it was a miserable experience for me (and, I suppose, for them), and I flew back to Missouri feeling just awful.
So you can imagine how astonished I was when Brewer phoned a few days later to offer me the JSRCC job. Despite my unpleasant experience with the English faculty, I accepted. Then Brewer said the offer wouldn't be official until the paperwork went through the state educational bureaucracy, so I was left feeling myself in limbo.
That's another reason why the SMU interview a week later was such a joy, and why I was so tickled to be employed there. And that brings us back to those textbook order forms that I couldn't manage to fill out. When I figured out that intuition, my subconscious mind--something non-rational--wasn't comfortable with SMU, I phoned Richard Brewer. He said the papers were still in the works. The next day I wrote him that he'd have to hurry, or I'd be in Dallas. He wrote back saying to hold on a little longer. Finally, with only about four weeks left before SMU classes began, I mailed Brewer a Xerox of my SMU contract. He sent the JSRCC contract the next day, and that's when I wrote to SMU, asking to be excused from that contract. Pascal Covici was on vacation--I was somewhat relieved--and the assistant chair sent a letter of agreement that taught me the meaning of terse.
We've been living in Richmond ever since, me teaching at Jay Sarge and Carol teaching there part time at first and more recently full time in a state prison. Along the way we've lived in China for a year and spent most of another on an NEH grant in Iowa. At JSRCC I've been able to teach pretty much as I believe one should. (They do insist on course grades, but in most other respects they stay out of the faculty's way--whether through wisdom or ignorance, I couldn't say.) I almost certainly would have been much more restricted at SMU. That spoon-glop baby is grown now, and he and his older brother, both computer whizzes, are out of college.
(Skipped here from the top? All right, here's the punch line, then.)
I've never regretted it for a moment.
Not even when 15% of the faculty got laid off one Thanksgiving, on 60 days notice. Not even when I found out a few
years later that the layoff had been unnecessary.
But that's another story. There are many Jay Sarge stories, a few of them ugly, like the layoff story, but most quite wonderful. I'll tell you some of them another time. Would you like to go
back and read the rest of THIS story now?
For my own amusement more than yours. here's what I looked like--
upon arriving at JSRCC
after 20 years of JSRCC
an intimation of what's to come.
Oh, yeah. Jim Brown runs a wine and cheese shop now, and Richard Brewer is the dean of another campus. I hardly ever see them any more.
Around the end of September that first year, a letter arrived from a university in Algeria, inviting me to teach there, saying we should arrive by the end of August. The letter was mailed in May, and I've wondered more than once how things would have turned out if an Algerian clerk had thought to put air mail postage on the envelope.
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