Teachers boast about years teaching a certain subject, a certain grade, or for a certain school system. Seniority keeps the kids under control, sometimes, as long as you look older and carry yourself with the no-nonsense authority students secretly crave.
During my first student teaching gig in the trailer-turned classroom behind the over-crowded school building in southern Georgia my cooperating teacher had to take an unexpected and extended absence. The students who normally sat stone faced in immaculate rows saw their opportunity for freedom with each new substitute while I cowered in the back row and took notes. Their fiesta continued until the day a teacher came in, found her place on a stool at the front of the room, and announced that she’d taught for longer than anyone in the classroom, including me, had been alive. “I eat middle graders for breakfast,” she said before doling out the day’s worksheets. Pencils appeared, heads bowed, order was restored.
Working in retail is not quite the same.
I spent four years working for Barnes and Noble in the years immediately after high school. Most of my colleagues were either working on a degree or book lovers whose wardrobe consisted of Little House on the Prairie dresses and elastic-waisted pants.
Barnes and Noble honored employee’s seniority with pins in five year increments. The manager on duty would call a five-minute meeting before opening or after closing on the anniversary shifts. We would all flutter to the center of the store from our various positions restocking, receiving, and rearranging displays. After the usual sales specific rally cries, the senior employee would be asked to step forward. The pin presentation happened twice in my four years and each time I hoped that it wouldn’t someday be me.
The first employee I saw honored was, like me, an English major. She stuck the pin on her ID lanyard and made jokes about it whenever anyone noticed. The second time it went to a woman who I’d pegged as a lifer. When customers didn’t want to buy a membership card from her she got angry and slammed her register drawer sending change jangling. She took her job seriously and affixed the pin proudly, pointed it out to customers and employees alike until new management brought on her abrupt end months later.
But despite the pins and five-second accolades, seniority never really meant anything. Customers didn’t treat you any different even when you carried the title of manager around with your name and colleagues who took the job as a transition between college and career didn’t exactly hold lifers at high regard.
After graduation I gave my two weeks notice and promised myself never to return to retail. I still believed a degree granted me some sort of amnesty.
Ten years, a master’s degree, and an abandoned career later, I celebrated my one year anniversary at a small town independent bookstore where I spend my days.
Friends of my family recently passed through the town I’ve come to call home. As we strolled down Main Street the wife asked me if I’d ever go back to teaching. I answered “No” as forcefully as I did when people asked me if I wanted to be a teacher when I was first majoring in English. “This is okay for now,” she said meaning my bookstore life, “but you need a career.”
One day last week I had the fleeting thought that I might be wasting my life away. I’m not entirely sure what it could mean, but I have the notion that it might have something to do with pins, anniversaries passed in silence, and six years of seniority for a career I’ve since left.
For the past year any time someone has asked me why I moved to North Carolina from Massachusetts I’ve said, “To start my life over.” I was chasing happiness, wanting to find work that could sustain me and all the other interests that had been suspended during my years as a teacher.
And after a year of swift-shifts, sailing on the winds of inspiration, wanting to start my own business one day and study theology the next, I can’t imagine it any other way. I don’t know if I’ll be around to celebrate five years in the bookstore I’ve grown to love or if I’ll someday have a cushioned savings to retire with, but I do know that each day feels important even if the sum of all my scattered parts don’t quite add up to anything society would use to measure success.