The back-up plan

Earns Wal Mart I’ve been thinking about Edward lately.  He and I were students together in McGill’s teacher training program back in 1994 (Edward isn’t his real name, but I’m calling him that to protect his privacy).  There were two things about him I remember most vividly.  The first is that he was an incredibly passionate, enthusiastic English teacher who was not even remotely disillusioned by our rather stressful first student teaching assignment in a large Montreal public school.  The second thing about him I remember is that he was a thorough pessimist about his future; he was not convinced that he would be able to land a full-time teaching job, and even if he did, he was not convinced that he would be able to hang on to it.  Something, he insisted, would surely go wrong.  So unlike most of us who were graduating with our teaching degrees with unashamed optimism, Edward had a back-up plan. His back-up plan was simple.  He was convinced that there was at least one kind of job he could always get, no matter how down on his luck he became: he could always work for minimum wage.

Walmart was in the news a lot back then; in 1994 it bought out Canada’s ailing Woolco line of stores (remember them?) and officially established a Canadian division (called Walmart Canada, but you knew that) in Mississauga, Ontario. The newly-minted Walmart Canada was promising a flood of jobs at its soon-to-be-opened stores.  Edward one day said to me, “I could do that.”  Unlike a teaching job–or any job requiring professional credentials and a university degree–Edward was confident that he could, indeed, work at Walmart without fear of losing his job. He had done the math.  Apparently (according to him, at least) he could live comfortably, if frugally, on a minimum wage job if he (a) abandoned any hope of one day owning his own home, (b) limited himself to public transportation and sold his car, and (c) budgeted carefully.  Happiness, he said, is a state of mind.  On minimum wage in Canada you can still live like a king relative to most countries in the world.

It was all true enough yet I always wondered if he really meant it.  Perhaps he was trying to convince himself.  At any rate, it never occurred to me that he would have to invoke his back-up plan, since he was an excellent teacher.  Although teaching jobs, especially in the humanities, were hard to find, he managed to get hired right after graduation.  His future seemed bright.

He and I lost touch after that; he moved to rural Manitoba for his first teaching job; I moved to Abbotsford, British Columbia for mine.

Seven years later, around the time my wife and I moved to Kelowna, I heard from a mutual acquaintance that Edward had retired from teaching at age 29.  Apparently he had completely broken down from clinical depression and couldn’t teach, couldn’t even set foot, literally, in the school.  All told, his teaching career had lasted five years.  Adding somewhat to the tragic element of the story was the fact that he was an incredible teacher, by all accounts.  Apparently he even won a district award for teaching excellence.  The last our mutual friend had heard Edward was working in a used book store in Winnipeg for–you guessed it–minimum wage.
Is this a sad story? I’m not sure.  I suppose that would largely depend on how Edward is doing today (it’s been over ten years since he retired from teaching and took a job at the used book store) as well as how he feels about his situation as a whole.  Perhaps he is at peace working at the used book store (or wherever else he has landed).  Perhaps he is now happily married to a wealthy neurosurgeon who moonlights as a Victoria’s Secret model.  On the other hand, perhaps things have gone from bad to worse in those past ten years.  Who knows?  (I’ll admit that I tried looking Edward up on Google and Facebook, but came up with nothing.  Even if I could locate him, it’s been a long time and I never really knew him that well to begin with.  What would I say?)

Anyway, I share the story of Edward to make the following point.  As parents and teachers (and most teachers are parents, and thus have to approach this issue from both sides) we are used to telling our kids and our students to strive for their dreams, and we tend to think quite optimistically that things will somehow work out.  Sometimes they do.  Some of my former students are philanthropists, business people, and engineers.  At least one I know of is a surgeon, and another is a scientist.  But I also suspect that for many others, their career and vocational dreams did not work out as they had hoped.  Did their schooling help prepare them for that?

It reminds me of something Scott Feschuck of Macleans wrote in his superb essay Follow Your Heart? Get Real. Responding to Steve Jobs’ vacuous 2005 convocation speech (which went madly viral after Jobs’ death), Feschuck lamented the unrealistic advice so often given to high school and university graduates: Reach for the stars! Take a leap of faith! Don’t ever settle for second best! etc.  Feschuck instead suggests: “But far more interesting and useful would be to explore how best to settle. That’s the real challenge of becoming a grown-up—learning to manage the clash of personal and professional goals with life’s obligations and responsibilities. Trying to balance desire and duty. Understanding that work can be tolerable and perhaps even fulfilling, even if it falls short of inspiring.”
Manual Labor