Yeah, that was my time – 1960’s B.T. (Before technology.)
The books I favored the most featured a lot of word searches and brain teasers and word puzzles. But even though they were the easiest pages in the book, I always had a thing for connect-the-dot pictures. Most of the time you could figure out what the picture was before you placed pencil on paper going from black-spot to black-spot to black-spot on easily torn newsprint, but oftentimes I was surprised at what the resulting picture turned out to be. Especially while cruising some highway in the backseat of my parent’s Oldsmobile station wagon with my grandpa sitting next to me, this was not always the cut-and-dried, simple activity it may have appeared on the gas station magazine rack.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about connecting the dots of my life. It is not a linear, algebraic equation.
At present, I am a fully certified high school English teacher in what has been historically, one of the poorest performing states (by most educational measures) in the country, Louisiana. My wife and I came here five years ago as part of an influx of educational reform and general societal and infrastructure rebuilding, after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the area. I have seen some notable improvements in my five years here, I have also encountered a huge number of folks who are here for many of the same reasons.
Starting with a year of technical college at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis following my high school graduation from Denver (Colorado) South High School there are lots of dots I can connect that round out a picture logically leading to the front of a New Orleans classroom. To be sure, the picture turns out more Salvador Dali than Norman Rockwell. To the naked eye, sans connecting lines, the picture dots would not come into focus at all.
I may need to sharpen an extra pencil.
There are two big things going on here. With one son entering his senior year of high school, and looking ahead to college, getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and beyond has become a conversational focal point around here; it has also sparked some discussion as to how we even got to this stage in life as a family. And as a relative newcomer to the teaching field and to New Orleans, I get asked to explain my story a lot, especially when speaking with other educators.
Eyebrows frequently become cocked and locked.
So, for family and friends, colleagues and the curious, children, grandchildren and whomever else, I’ll give this a Readers Digest shot, working backwards from now to whenever. Starting at the end was much the same approach I used so many years ago with those puzzle books in the backseat of the family Oldsmobile, so why not?
Teaching high school English, in New Orleans isn’t all that much of a stretch in some regards. I first came here in 2006 as a corporate trainer, helping the company I worked for in Minnesota get their Louisiana operations back on track following Katrina’s onslaught in August of 2005. I enjoyed training folks and helping them succeed, traveling all over Louisiana. My wife and I had long discussed getting out of the corporate rat race and doing something more meaningful with our lives, so when sitting in an IHOP Restaurant in Alexandria, Louisiana one night, reading a newspaper article about the TeachNOLA program recruiting folks to come to New Orleans to help rebuild the city’s long-distressed school system, it was a sign that my wife and I both took seriously.
So much so that we both applied, and were accepted for the 2008 TeachNOLA cohort.
I was dramatically changing locales and going from training adults to teaching inner-city teenagers. Seems logical. But how had I become a corporate trainer? That had never been a goal of mine. I had only been at it since 2005, after I was laid off from my position as a job search trainer and employment counselor for the state of Minnesota. I had begun that endeavor in 2001, when the state WorkForce center I was working at in Minneapolis hired me away from my county position as a financial-aid (AFDC, food stamps, medical assistance) case worker and job coach. I wasn’t actually doing any actual training in my county gig, but working with and coaching job seekers and others needing assistance. (Dot, dot, dot.)
I had come to the county job just a few years before that, just after having spent a year working for a millionaire philanthropist/newspaper columnist named Percy Ross as a sales manager for a syndicated radio broadcast he had in which he gave away money to folks in need. A logical stretch from that job to case management, when you think about it; helping people. (More dots linked!)
Mr. Ross had hired me after the children’s radio network I had been working for as an assistant business manager went out of business. I had been hired at the network after being out of the radio biz for a few years by my good friend Mike, who had originally hired me to work for him at a small radio station in rural, southwestern Minnesota a decade before. (Two more dots, light touch on the pencil.)
The network was a good stop for me as I was at the end of a ten-year run in the hotel and hospitality business, which I had grown weary of only due to the twenty-four/seven nature of the beast…which was why I had originally phased out of the radio biz. But that’s another story.
My last hotel gig was at a four-star hotel in St. Paul where I was hired as a security guard and assisted the night manager. One night, a situation required me to remove an intoxicated gentleman from our crowded lobby. As a rather exclusive property, our management wanted such things handled unobtrusively. Jeff, our restaurant manager, was so impressed with my subtlety and tact in getting the guy out without notice, he wrote it in his nightly report. That prompted the hotel general manager instruct my boss the night manager to have me train new security personnel in how to handle delicate situations without confrontation. (Direct-line dot to the corporate trainer gig.)
Among the other abilities I possessed, the skill of low-key, tactful, drunk-removal-with-dignity I had learned from Dennis, our night manager at the Holiday Inn I worked at just off the University of Minnesota campus. I had started working there as a bellman and van driver, but as I always had a knack for explaining things easily to others, my boss soon put me in charge of training new comers to the department (Dot!). Then Dennis hired me to fill in on his security team, and as a night manager. (These big dots are directly connected to eventually training new security folks in St. Paul, but what I learned from Dennis also helped me greatly in working with the county and then the state.)
I had begun my hotel career after ending (so I thought) my professional radio work, moving back to Minneapolis and deciding to go to college for the first time at the age of thirty. My three years at the University of Minnesota didn’t result in a degree, but by the end of my freshman year, I had been hired as a teaching assistant, thanks to one of my professors, Dr. Yahnke. Via that gig, I also did some work as a tutor in the computer lab of the U of M’s General College. You can draw a direct line (with heavy lead) from those dots directly to today.
My first stint as a college student came on the heels of a dozen years of bouncing around small-market radio in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota – not often a financially lucrative career. That was why I became quite adept at supplementing my income with side jobs. Through the years, I moved pianos and did construction. I had stints as a convenience store clerk, racetrack security guard and census taker, to name a few.
Before getting into the hotel biz, I was a data courier – daily picking up and dropping off huge reels of computer tape for transcription and storage – for a company that, when I applied, asked if I had ever had a security clearance. As I had been working in radio in Iowa during the presidential primary season of 1980, I had gotten Secret Service clearance, which turned out to be an important dot to the data folks, as they had contracts with big name defense contractors and other security-minded firms. I not only got the job, but the higher paying, preferred security routes. Dot, dot, dot…
This came in handy later during my hotel days in St. Paul, where we hosted a number of V.I.P’s some of whom required staff to get security clearance, which I got very quickly as I was already on file, which got me preferred shifts and duty assignments at the hotel. Someday, I’ll need to get a copy of my file under the Freedom of Information Act.
All of those dots represent a number of different things; professional and personal experience, new skills, different perspectives, increased understanding of and empathy with folks covering a wide spectrum of socioeconomic America. Which is why I feel pretty comfortable and confident in standing in front of a high school classroom of inner city New Orleans kids as their English teacher, trying to get them prepared on some level to take on the world, trying to relate to them all how what you do today has an impact on everything you do tomorrow in some way.