TBT: April Fool’s Day: A Retrospective

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of my unceremonious lay-off/non-renewal of my teaching contract.  It was the height of the Great Recession, and jobs were lean on the ground.  “Entry-level” positions called four a four-year degree and two-year’s (minimum) experience, yet holding an advanced degree was considered “overeducated” and could potentially disqualify an applicant for work.

It was the worst of all situations for a young man barely out of graduate school and just one year into his teaching career.  I was lucky, though, to have a good dad with a background in human resources and local government, who helped me find a decent job with the City of Sumter.  I was only out of work maybe three months, and had parents who were able and willing to support me during that period.

Even then, I was anxious to get out on my own again, not because I was chafing under my parents, but because I was keenly aware I was not being a man.  Instead of earning my own way in the world at twenty-four, I was living off the generosity of my parents.  That’s one of the myriad ways in which an economic downturn can take a spiritual toll on a young man.

Now it appears we’re on the precipice of another major economic catastrophe, this time thanks to the coronavirus and the stringent public health measures taken to slow its inexorable spread.  Things were really started to rev up again.  Even though the economic recovery began even as early as 2009, it didn’t feel like we were in a recovery until around 2017.  Trump’s election didn’t just buoy the stock market; it brought a sense of renewal, hope, and optimism to the United States.

Americans, especially younger Americans, don’t remember how bad the Great Recession was.  I feel for young college students who are just about to enter the workforce—I was there, too, not long ago.  I wish you could have enjoyed at least a few years of the good life.

On the plus side, we will get through this downturn, although I suspect it’s going to be far worse than the Great Recession.  We’ve never tried shutting off the entire economy before, then plugging it back in two weeks—or maybe a month, or three months—later.  Two weeks we may have seen things roaring back; maybe we will after a month.

But I can’t conceive of a rapid return to normality if it stretches much longer than that.  Small businesses are going to go under once they burn through their cash reserves.  The restaurant industry, along with the hundreds of thousands of waiters, cooks, busboys, hostesses, etc., it employs, is going to be changed for a long time.  That’s just one example among many.

I’m already feeling the effects on my private lesson business, which was booming before The Virus (although it was down a bit from its 2019 peak).  Right before The Virus hit, I had six consistent students at $30 per lesson, per week.  That’s not bad for supplemental income (at my peak, I had ten students, one for a $45 lesson, though I was only charging $25/lesson at that point).  Most of those cancellations are for the duration of The Virus, but once the plague has passed, the damaged economy will remain.  Some of those students will resume, but belt-tightening budgets are going to eliminate piano lessons fairly quickly, if I had to guess.

That said, I am blessed to have a steady job now, and will hopefully avoid any repeats of 1 April 2019.  The Great Recession left a mark on me, and it’s made me more prepared for this next downturn.

With that, here is 2019’s “April Fool’s Day: A Retrospective“:

Today is April 1, 2019, popularly known as April Fool’s Day.  It’s a day for good-natured pranking and mirthful fun, a bit like a poor man’s Halloween.

This April Fool’s Day holds a particular resonance for me, however.  It was ten years ago today that, in the midst of the Great Recession, I lost my job.

Technically, my teaching contract was not renewed.  I still had an obligation to finish out the year, which I did as best I could, but I would not be coming back.

I remember it vividly:  my school’s former headmaster told me he wanted to speak with me.  I went into his office, and he told me a few things:  the school was consolidating my classes into fewer sections; the school desperately needed money (the enrollment was around ninety-five kids, and things were so tight they needed the $28,000 going towards my salary); and the economy was not conducive to private school fundraising and tuition.

He told me that, as I’d studied history (he, too, was a history teacher), I knew how these kinds of economic downturns went.  I thought he was mentioning this as a bit of cold comfort, a sort of, “don’t worry, it won’t last long, a[nd] you’ll be okay.”  Instead, he continued, saying, “this thing could last an entire decade!”  Yikes!  Way to kick a man when he’s down.

I knew (or, at least, I hoped—the day isn’t over yet!) that I’d never have the opportunity, grim as it was, again, so I said, “Wait a minute—this isn’t just some elaborate April Fool’s joke, is it?”  He said, stone-faced, “I wish it were.”

So, there I was, facing imminent unemployment in the worst job market since the Great Depression, with only one year of teaching under my belt and a Master’s degree in United States Trivia.

We forget, living in the wonderful Trump economy, how hard it was back then.  Jobs were not to be found.  Remember going to gas stations, and people would start polishing your hubcaps against your will so they could sell you the cleaner?  That’s how bad it was—people were hawking hubcap polisher at rural gas stations to try to make ends meet.  “Entry level” jobs required two years of experience, at minimum, which no one fresh out of college plausibly had (unless they’d wisely done some kind of internship or work study).

Fortunately, with some help and coaching from my dad, I landed a job at the City of Sumter, after only three months of formal joblessness.  I was quite fortunate.  I managed the Sumter Opera House, where I learned to run live lights and sound.  I also met some interesting people, including the comedian Gallagher (that used to be an impressive anecdote, but now few people under thirty know who Gallagher is; it’s a shame).  He was an odd bird, which isn’t that surprising, given he made a career out of smashing fruits with a sledgehammer.

That job turned into a grind—remember, if you had a job, you had to do pretty much anything your employer demanded, lest you face termination—but I learned a great deal, and it landed me back at my old teaching gig, under a new headmaster, in 2011.

That experience—being jobless in the Great Recession—left an enduring mark on me.  My first year teaching, I definitely phoned it in.  I worked hard on lectures, of course, but beyond a little club for musicians, I didn’t do much extra.

My first year back in the classroom, in 2011, was completely different.  I was teaching World History, Government, Economics, History of American Popular Music (a course I created), and AP US History.  I had to do prep for all of them.

I was astonished how much American history I’d forgotten since high school and college (a pro-tip:  studying American history in graduate school is more about reading overly-detailed monographs about obscure bits of the story of America; when I took my exams to finish my Master’s, I essentially used information I learned in my eleventh-grade AP US History class).  I would spend hours on Sunday afternoons at the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina writing up lesson plans.

Then, I became the de facto sound guy for school events after a talented tech kid graduated (I named an award after him, which I give to students who assist with our concerts and plays on the tech end).  It’s the ultimate in job security—no one else knows how to do it—but it’s also a major obligation—no one else knows how to do it.

Since then, I’ve grown a decent side hustle teaching private music lessons.  I also teach courses at a local technical college, mostly online, but some face-to-face.  In 2014, I taught Monday-Wednesday evenings, first from 6-7:15, then from 9-10:15 PM.  I’d come home, exhausted, and fall asleep in my recliner.  Thursdays felt like Saturdays because, even though I still had two days at the high school, it was the longest possible point before a grueling sixteen hour Monday rolled around.

I save constantly for retirement—I make the legal annual maximum contributions to my IRA, 403(b), and HSA—and spend very little money.  I still drive the same Dodge Caravan that I’ve had since 2006.  I will occasionally splurge and buy digital piano, but my saxophones are falling apart (literally—my pawn shop alto sax has a key falling off).  I occasionally worry that, on that glorious day when I do retire, I won’t know what to do with myself if I’m not working.

All that said, I have done everything possible to position myself against another recession, bad labor market, etc.  April 1, 2009, seems now like a distant memory, but it could all come back.  I’m reminded of The Simpsons episode where some repo men are repossessing property from a failed Dot Com start-up.  One of them says, “It’s a golden age for the repo business—one which will never end!” as he lights a cigar with a $100 bill.

It’s easy to fall into that mindset.  I’m optimistic for the future, but I’ll never take prosperity or security for granted again.  Constant hustling—booking new gigs, picking up more students, getting more classes, working maintenance on the weekends, leading summer camps, collecting songwriter and publishing royalties—is what it takes.

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