I was lying in a study room in Neihardt Residential Hall.
As with all the study rooms in the building, the furniture was expertly matched. Burnt orange and sage green, in plaids and solids. Both on the chairs, which sat empty, and the plush carpet, on which I lay, gazing at the perfect-blue Nebraska sky dotted with wisps of clouds.
It was the last semester of my undergraduate career.
In my hand was the first cell phone I’d ever owned. While the rest of the world had jumped on the wireless bandwagon a decade ago, I had held back, content to use the wired phones that had come with my dorm room. But now that I had officially begun my adult life, I was the proud (or indifferent) owner of a Samsung A640, chosen because, of the phones that came free with a Sprint plan, it was the shiniest.
I didn’t relish the task in front of me.
I had applied to the Teach for America program, where recent college grads are placed in teaching positions in disadvantaged school districts and given the opportunity to rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic. I possessed no illusions about the thing; I knew it would probably chew me up and spit me out. Still, it seemed appropriate that I should give something back to the community, while I still had nothing to lose.
I had talked about it many times with my wife of just four months. We should do something to contribute while we still can, before we were tied down to kids, jobs, community, and other stuff that boring old people have to deal with. There wasn’t a calling or a lot of deep thought involved; just a desire to do what’s right before we knew any better.
So I had applied. But now that I had passed the initial screening process (which I assume consisted of making sure I had spelled my name right on the application), and it was time for my interview. In line with TFA’s general attitude of you-want-to-work-for-us-and-that’s-your-problem, it was my job to call them at a specific time and wait in a queue.
And it was time.
I held my phone up in the sun, against the perfect endless blue that matched its monochrome screen, and crossed my feet on the red, overstuffed chair. I briefly and sincerely considered not calling at all. Did I really want to do this? But I dismissed that as the last vestige of my introversion, a demon I’d fought to banish throughout all my college years.
I began to push the keys.
It was an 800 number. My thumb felt its way around the keypad, punching in each of the ten digits, dawdling for a moment on the raised bump on the “5” key. It rang once, twice, and then the recording came in:
Thanks for calling Teach for America. A representative will be with you shortly.
And finally a real voice picked up. It was a bad connection and she had a thick Chinese accent. “Teach for America. May I help you?”
“Uh, yeah. I’m calling for my interview?”
“Okay. And your name?”
“Luke Harrington.” And suddenly there was thunder in my ear, a thousand horse hooves pounding through the static of the cell connection.
“Hi Luke, and your college?”
“The University of Nebras –” Thunder again, pounding in on the receiver. “Are you, uh, typing, or something?”
“Well, yeah. I have to type your answers.”
“But it’s just, it’s, like, really loud.”
“I pretty much can’t even think over it.” This was not going well. My hobbies include being awkward on the phone and making people feel horrible for doing their jobs.
I strongly considered just hitting the “hang up” button right then. But something kept me on the phone.
“Anyway, go ahead. You went to the University of Nebraska?”
“At Lincoln, yeah, I — uh — hello?” The line had gone dead.
“Yeah, I’m here.” She was back.
“Oh, sorry, it sounded like you had hung up.”
“No, Luke, I put it on mute.”
“You said the noise from my typing was — ”
“Anyway, it says your major is English and film.”
“Well, I — I, uh — ” And I spent the next 20 minutes babbling into a dead line, trying to explain that I had spent the last four years studying something simply because I wanted to learn more about it, and that, no, I was not terribly ambitious.
“Why Teach for America?”
“What?” I said into a dead mic.
“Why do you want to Teach for America?” she repeated, shamelessly using a proper noun as a verb.
I had been dreading this question, because I knew I didn’t have a particularly impressive answer for it. I wasn’t that guy graduating from Harvard summa cum laude with a thousand ideas for how to change the world. I was just a dude at the end of his career with nothing to do and a desire to give something back, regardless of what that something may be.
Also, I needed a job.
“Well,” I started, “I think I could probably teach. And I’m not graduating with a teaching certificate, so Teach for America seems like a good back door.”
“Wait, what?” her voice and the keystrokes were back.
“Sorry, say that again. I couldn’t type it fast enough.”
“Um, I think what I said was that I didn’t have a teaching certificate, and TFA seemed like a good back door into teaching.”
She forgot to mute it this time, and I heard every pounding keystroke. They said what her voice didn’t say, specifically, That is a terrible, terrible reason.
“Okay,” she said, finally no longer accompanied by the pounding of a keyboard. “Well, have a good day.”
“Yeah, thanks.” And I hung up, feeling emptier and more alone than ever. I watched the sun sink lower until it disappeared behind the back wall of the courtyard, studying the silence.
What had I been expecting? Something like a friendly chat over a couple of beers? Yet another dupe who would moon over my individuality and tell me how awesome I was?
No. Not really. At least, I didn’t think so.
But, for a moment, a new thought entered my mind, for the first time, and embarrassingly late in my life. The world doesn’t give a crap about you.
It wasn’t a deep thought by any means, and it was far from an original one. But the suspicion was creeping over me for the first time, that maybe the world was nothing more than a giant combustion engine, and that it ran on people’s souls, and that the highest-octane souls were the youngest and naïvest.
And at the moment, I had no way of knowing what the next five years had in store for me. I didn’t know that in a couple of weeks I would get a rejection letter from TFA, or that a few weeks after that my wife would be hired to work for a Christian ministry, or that she’d be unceremoniously dumped a year later after her boss was caught in a sex scandal. Or that I would later make friends with a man who had been hired by TFA, or that he would feel much the same she did — ground into dust by the wheels of the Help Everyone Machine. Or that that same man would later leave his wife the second he decided she wasn’t enough for him, and I would see a small loop closed in the cycle of people using other people up and then throwing them away.
I didn’t know about any of that, because how could I? All I had was the rapidly darkening sky and a dying cell phone in my hand. And I lay on the scratchy carpet and watched them both fade away.
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