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Sunday, February 08, 2015

He Chose................Poorly

Rethinking Freshman Orientation

I became an English major as the result of a shrewd career choice I made during college orientation. After I became a teacher, Mrs. King became a full-time Mom. At the time the church discouraged members from sending their children to day care centers simply for their own convenience (like being able to pay for food and electricity), so Mama stayed home and we lived on $600 a month and what she could make babysitting the children of people who did believe it was okay for moms to leave their kids with babysitters while they went to work so they could pay for food and electricity. Sheila was wildly popular with her moms and the extra income did help out, but babysitting wasn't the lucrative sport then that it is now.

We hated the laundromat and didn't have the time or quarters to wash nearly as often as my Sweet Baboo preferred. So, in order to promote her continued mental health, we procured some second hand appliances. I usually bought them just about the time when planned obsolescence was kicking in, so I usually spent Sundays keeping our rattletrap collection of appliances running. I learned my appliance and auto repair skills as I went.

I had become an English major as a result of lenghty deliberations as to my choice of careers during freshman orientation. My high school vocational advisor had helpfully told me I was smart enough to do anything I want - advice that wasn't terribly helpful. I thought I'd figured out what I wanted to do by the time I registered for college. Apparently I hadn't.

When I told my college freshman "advisor" that I was thinking about a career in engineering, he warned me that there was a glut of engineers in America and that there were especially no jobs for newly graduated engineers. There was, however, he explained, a desperate shortage of English teachers. He gleefully described all the many and rewarding careers one could have as an English major. I should have smelled a rat, given that my advisor was head of the English department. Turns out the shortage of English majors was in his English classes.

So, like all English majors, once I was out of college I became an apprentice "making this crap up as I go" appliance and auto repairman. I can't tell you how many deligtful hours I spent under and inside of broken machines, deciphering their innards and replacing bits and pieces until I got them working again. The Internet has made this much easier, but back then it was all seat-of-the-pants mechanickin'. 

I'm still doing it, even at my advanced decripitudinousness. I spent last Sunday taking apart my Maytag dryer to find out what was wrong with it and what parts I was going to have to replace. I reassembled it and next Sunday I'll take it apart again to replace the belts and drive pulleys I have ordered. I also ordered a heating element for our Maytag oven which currently doesn't bake anything.  All this, because as an English major, I still can't afford to pay the $50 an hour it would take to hire a genuine certified appliance repairman. There's a reason why Maytag repairmen are so lonely in those commercials. Too many English majors and none of them can afford to call one.

At any rate, one thing I did learn is that the appliance repair gods require some small sacrifice of blood for every repair project I have ever done. The more complex the job, the more blood it costs me. I once had to take apart the engine of a 2001 Isuzu order to replace the thermostat on the cooling system - a ten minute job on my 1977 Oldsmobile Jetstar 88. Not so with the Rodeo.. There were nuts on that thing that required three extensions and two universal joints just to get the socket to somewhere in the vicinity of the nut holding the bracket you had to remove in order to expose the thermostat. Isuzu, in its wisdom, made it so you had to remove the carburetor, and several layers of covers, hoses and things with touchy springs just to get to the practically unreachable thermostat. I finally figured out that there had to be some special tools like carburetor throttle spring mount wrenches and 2001 Isuzu Rodeo head cover rear mounting screw removal tools that you had to buy in order to do the job. As an English major, I couldn't afford to buy $200 wrenches I'd only use once. After several days, I had the thing apart and put back together with only a few pieces left over and with the loss of somewhere around two pints of blood. Thankfully none of my effusions of blood would need stitches (although the engine head covers and carburetor were liberally streaked with blood by the time I was done and looked like something out of Mad Max: Road Warrior). It's fortunate I didn't get cut up too badly in the process. I was, after all, living on an English major's diminutive salary and not very good with a needle and thread. As it was, I discovered that one fuel hose required that you remove the engine completely in order to reinstall it in it's original configuration. I wound up adding a foot to the hose's length and duct taping the excess to the firewall once I got it hooked it up. 

Good times!

And here's something interesting that freshman college advisors who are heads of English departments don't tell you when you choose an English-communications degree track. Do you know why they pay salaries and give important-sounding titles to English teachers? It's so they don't have to pay overtime and can work them enough hours per week to reduce their average take-home pay to something considerably below minimum wage hoping they won't notice! Sadly it works. Being an "executive director" is apparently worth more than gold to a well-trained wordsmith.

One thing English majors learn to do, however, is to multi-purpose all of life's little experiences. I have since become the author of over 1000 ad-supported how-to blogs on the Internet. It's how we keep the Internet on at our house - barely. My computer is early turn of the century and I built it myself out of leftover parts from my previous Windows 3.1 computer and a shrewd eBay purchase I made of an as-is motherboard screwed to a case that turned out to be proprietary and was the only case the motherboard would fit in. For some computer tasks, I have to take apart the case and swap PCI cards in order to do the job.

I suspect there will be a special reward in the judgment for English Department chairpersons who double as freshmen career advisors. At least I hope so. The day I graduated in 1976, I picked up the paper and scanned the I couldn't find a single job for an English major. Apparently the job market was experiencing a glut of English majors at the time, probably because a lot of kids were advised that there was a shortage of people who spoke the language back in 1972.

I did, however, find two full pages of classified ads for obscenely well-paying jobs for engineers.  To add insult to injury in a spasm of guilt, my Dad, who left Mom and us kids when I was 5 to go off and become an engineer for Brown and Root*, had offered to put me through Rice's engineering school on a Haliburton scholarship. He had become a self-taught engineer and project manager for the company so his kids got a free ride at Texas' premier engineering school if they wanted it. But genius that I was, I turned him down in favor of a degree path that led to my exciting career as an underpaid teacher and later as an underpaid worker in the nonprofit sector, where so many of my fellow English majors wound up after reading far too much Dickens in English lit classes.That, and we were already in line at the food bank anyway when we someone told us how we could work long hours for low pay making the world a better place. Oddly enough, that kind of sales pitch appeals to English majors.

They say our reward is in heaven. It would have to be if you were talked into becoming an English major** in this life.

Tom King © 2014

* This was after Dad did a brief educational stint in Texas's very special state vocational rehabilitation facility (the Huntsville Unit) where he also learned to ride in their rodeo program. 

** This observation could also apply equally to art history, women's studies, political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology and marine biology (at least the kind of marine biology that leads to a well-paying job swimming with dolphins every day).

Dad doing his post-graduate work in engineering

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