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Gap Year FAQ

What is unemployment? If no one tells you that you’ve lost your job, are you really unemployed?

Generally speaking, the cessation of payment is a strong indicator that one’s job has been terminated.

Notification is a different story. I, for example, notified myself of my own impending unemployment. In February 2017, my husband, a full-time boarding school teacher, did not receive a renewal contract, so I, a part-time teacher and his partner, by extension did not either. My supervisor (the administrator responsible for contract renewals) did not discuss the matter with me, in person, in writing, or via email. I officially found out well after my peers did, in an email sent from the school’s business manager, who attributed the dissolution of my job to a lack of/low enrollment in the 7th and 8th grade student body. He intended, I think, to soften the blow: It’s economics, Jules. It’s not personal.

My employee evaluations were solid, and I completed every task asked of me (even the uncompensated ones), surpassing the requirements expected of part-time staff. I believed that my supervisor and I were on amicable terms, and, for several weeks, my confidence bolstered by favorable comments from the school’s higher ups, I reserved hope that I could continue working at the school in another capacity – potentially allowing my family to remain situated in the same house and community – until the time came when I realized that would not be the case. It felt intensely personal. People have disappeared from my life before, but for an employer to do so was a novel first.

 

I heard you moved. Where are you now?

In the fourth quarter, the school administration raced to disassociate from my family, and we reciprocated, vacating the faculty house in which we’d spent that last nine years, cleaning and preparing it for its new tenants within 36 lightning-quick hours. I documented the process on social media, using captions such as The Purge, The Big Move, Good Riddance, and, on a particularly bad day, Our Former Employer is Satan.

We took the carport and the trampoline, which we’d purchased, and dismantled the monkey bars we’d built, giving away the wood to friends for tinder. We left no trace of ourselves. Many coworkers – those with whom we’d worked and laughed, and broken bread, and raised our kids – didn’t blink or say goodbye. They avoided eye contact in shared workspaces. They drove by our house, and they watched us mop sweat from our faces as we carried load after load of pieces of our life to the ever-growing dumpster. They heard us cry on our front porch and try to diplomatically rationalize the school’s motivations to our children, who responded with greater maturity than we could have imagined.

It took several weeks to secure a rental property, during which time I slept little and fought nightmares. Ultimately, a neighbor took pity on us and agreed to rent us his house. Half a dozen school families, whose students my husband and I had taught successively, pledged to help us on moving day. When that day came, two of twelve “definites” showed up.

 

What is the hardest part about being unemployed?

This question has no single answer. Answers vary widely depending on experience and circumstance. My biggest challenge has been the shunning from former “friends” because it bleeds into so many different aspects of daily life: basic social courtesy, traditions, the definition of a functioning community. Our discontinued status at the school renders us invisible to our peers. Even today, when I encounter a former coworker at the library or the grocery store, most wince and/or avert their gaze, stumbling backwards to increase the physical distance between us. I offer them a smile and a greeting while seething inside. I used to think of myself as part of a great community, but it was only a construct of my imagination.

 

Why take a gap year, at your age?

Though we aren’t high school students trying to find ourselves before committing to a college path, the spirit of a gap year suits our current situation: we wanted to find out what to do next. My husband and I considered ourselves “lifers” at our former school. We were committed to the school’s mission and hoped both to teach our own children and to see them learn with esteemed coworkers. We dreamed our kids would matriculate from the school. The school did not return our loyalty. My husband and I found ourselves in middle age, rootless and directionless, reevaluating what we wanted from the next chapter of our lives.

Of the five major life stressors that jeopardize the stability of individuals and families, leaving the school confronted us with two: moving and starting a new job. (The other three stressors are the birth of a child, marriage, and death.) We didn’t want to act out of desperation: take last minute jobs in a random city that we might end up despising, only to job search and uproot again the following year. A hasty move compounded by a second hasty move seemed like a fast track to a lot of bad juju, and a costly one at that, so we made the decision that best supported our family’s needs. We have yet to discover whether we made right choice or not.

 

How can you afford a gap year?

My husband and I have been continuously employed since we were teenagers. In the last decade, I’ve held multiple jobs at once, concurrently freelancing, tutoring, and teaching to maximize my revenue. We agreed early on about the necessity of long-term financial planning and we’ve been aggressively saving and investing ever since. Rather than acquire additional debt, we subsidize unemployment payments by cannibalizing our retirement fund, playing a game of risk with our security net.

 

What are the benefits of taking a gap year?

If money was of no concern, my husband might never return to teaching, because he relishes his newfound liberty. He sleeps in late and stays up until the earliest morning hours playing video games and reading. He speaks his mind and eschews shaving. Sometimes he doesn’t leave the house. And he’s okay with it.

I have also benefited from a certain freedom. My former self, who I’ll call Teacher Julia, used to do battle on weekdays – nag the kids to move quickly so I could drop them off at school, rush to the dining hall to inhale reconstituted eggs for breakfast, and hustle to the classroom for a precious hour of prep before the teaching day began. I graded student work feverishly, my eyes attuned to when the clock struck 3:00. My children came home and the battle continued: urging them to do their homework while I finished gathering materials for the following day’s lessons, losing patience when they had questions and needed help. Did I ever stop to say thanks that my children had returned home safely one more time, or take a break from working long enough to hug them and breathe in their warm, syrupy hair?

While my husband’s drive for intellectual inquiry will eventually propel him back into the classroom, this Gap Year has shown me that I don’t want to go back to being Teacher Julia. She was not a happy person or an attentive mother.

 

So, um… What do you do every day?

Until one (preferably both) of us finds a suitable job, we carry on as usual, accomplishing much the same daily chores and obligations we used to, albeit with much less stress. I send the kids off with kisses every morning and wait eagerly to see their bright eyes as they come home in the afternoons.

 

What are your goals/objectives for life after the Gap Year?

  1. Obtain meaningful employment
  2. Relocate to an affordable home in a new town
  3. Start over

Simple, right?

 

Have you reached a place of acceptance?

Friends have likened leaving the school to escaping from a destructive relationship: you don’t know how bad it was until you get away from it. In our last year of teaching, the school’s motto seemed to be The beatings will continue until morale improves, or, as Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge says: “A good thrashing is what’s needed in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.” We saw (and experienced) countless random outbursts and rash, demoralizing criticisms. A change to the administrative roster caused ripple effects – thrashing upon thrashing – that led to roughly one-third of the school’s faculty being let go or voluntarily opting to seek employment elsewhere for the 2017-2018 academic year. In hindsight, it was time to walk away from a rapidly souring romance. We weren’t the only ones who did.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Thanks especially to MO, FM, and RD for the kindnesses you showed us when kindness seemed in short supply; and to all the friends, near and far, who stood by us during the painful transition. We are very grateful for your support!

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For The Birds

The sky over Banderas Bay is still heavy with gray clouds from the previous day’s storms when my friends and I embark on our last adventure in Puerto Vallarta. Cool air greets us, a respite from late summer’s humidity; the ocean murmurs behind us. We climb cobbled streets to meet our guide, Fernando, at a nearby OXXO, a convenience store chain with ubiquitous presence all over the country. Early morning traffic whirs along the road. Fernando waits for us next to his air-conditioned touring van. He dispenses warm hugs and hellos. We board the van, eager to leave the city for a morning with the birds. “Let’s go, girls!” says Fernando, blue eyes smiling.

The drive to El Tuito follows coastal Manzanillo highway 200 and veers southward and inland at Boca de Tomatlan, climbing from sea level into oak and pine country. Fernando inquires about our lives and professions, while providing little windows into his path from Mexico City to cetacean studies and Puerto Vallarta. We are all educators, so we describe boarding school life and offer statistics about demographics. (I don’t mention that I am a newly-minted former educator because the wounds to my ego are still fresh. My friends kindly uphold my omission.)

We spend all morning in the temperate mountain region, relishing the clearing cloud cover and a break from the heat. At over a thousand feet above sea level, the air hums with sound: the buzzing, chirping, and chittering of creatures that thrive in tropics. Fernando spots birds from barely perceptible movements in the abundant, green canopy, and he shuffles our bodies and our lines of vision to accommodate seeing what he sees. Within minutes, we’ve spotted nearly a dozen different birds, among them a male blue-black grassquit, small and, appropriately, bluish-black with white spots in the crook of its wings. Fernando, who warned us at the outset that he was a serious “bird nerd,” puffs with joy. “Look at him!” he says. “Watch… He will jump to announce his territory.” Sure enough, the grassquit bounces in place, a single spindly branch propelling him upward: Here I am! Look at me!

In the distance, a black-bellied whistling duck alights on a tree. Fernando says: “Quick! Two o’clock!” The group pivots as one, binoculars at the ready. The duck has large, ringed eyes that give it an inquisitive appearance, and long legs that match its bright coral bill. It is cuter than the average dinosaur’s descendant.

We drive further inland to Rancho Primavera, a destination known for its birding opportunities. Heavy blushing mangoes dangle from grove trees. Unseen birds entice us with birdsong. The caretaker’s dun-colored dogs follow our trek through the grass. Fernando whistles a series of staccato pygmy owl toots and, in turn, flushes out a cinnamon hummingbird, which we track as it zips through undergrowth. As if on cue, Fernando points to a blue-capped motmot resting on a low branch. It fixes us with its red gaze. We coo.

A male elegant trogon, resplendent with a brilliant red breast and shimmering green body, flits through high branches near the lagoon. It holds a moth in its beak; the moth’s wings flap wildly. The trogon divides its attention between us and the insistent call of a nearby female, reluctant to reveal the location of its nest. We turn to leave, and the trogon disappears from sight.

Photo Credit: (Who else but) Fernando

Fernando walks several steps ahead, his short brown ponytail swishing. He waves his arms: “Come on, girls!” We fall into a single line on the moist terrain, four birds in tow.

The tour concludes at a family-run El Tuito restaurant. Fernando confers with our young server, the proprietor’s daughter, whose shy smile betrays amusement over our group’s limited grasp of the Spanish language. We order beef machaca with eggs with tortillas, salsa, and Pacifico beers all around. Fernando chooses eggs with locally made panela cheese. We raise our eyebrows at the lack of peppers in his dish. He laughs. “I know,” he says, smiling ruefully into his plate. “I’m a weird Mexican.”

Thank you, Restaurante El Mariachi!

Fernando teases us all the way back into the city, no longer a guide but a friend. We exchange contact information while saying goodbye. He has an evening tour to run before going home to his beagle, Leia.

Later that evening, we lounge in the pool. Our eyes savor the sunset; our limbs bob in the cool water. We are, for a short moment, unburdened. Soon, my friends will return to their jobs at the school where we met. They’re girding themselves for three weeks of in-service; I know, because I used to attend the compulsory monotony, too. As we twirl and weave through gentle waves, recollecting the day, laughing, and singing along to ABBA’s “Fernando,” I find myself wishing that this year will bring them to new heights in the areas of their lives that truly bring them joy: their creativity, their pride and rewards of work, their connections with high school learners.

I choose not to think about the fact that I won’t be returning to teaching with my friends. Instead, I’m reminded for the hundredth time of Emily Dickinson, my gap year muse: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul / and sings the tune without the words / and never stops – at all.”  Relaxing in the pool, still warm from memories of the day, I feel like I’ve just stepped into the sun after a long spell in the dark; my cells and spirit reunite, a small bird on wing.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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