McDonald’s received some bad press in the weeks before Christmas for the callous way it treats its minimum-wage employees. First, workers reported that McDonald’s handed out brochures advertising a financial counseling “hotline” that connected callers not with a human being to help them with financial matters but a recording explaining to them how to apply for food stamps. Next, full-time workers were angry because a similar brochure advised them that they were encouraged to apply for second job to offset their low income at McDonald’s. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, McDonald’s published a holiday-season financial guide for its employees that included a section about holiday tipping etiquette for housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, and massage therapists. This idea is familiar to me, as I’ve seen similar articles in the December issues of any number of magazines – Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, The Oprah Magazine and the like. These guidelines usually recommend giving full-time nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic employees a week’s wages as a holiday gift, and employers are encouraged to give even more to long-term employees who have showed considerable loyalty and dedication. McDonald’s employees – as well as a large percentage of other workers in a variety of fields – cannot typically afford the services listed in the article, and many workers were justifiably upset that an employer that admits its full-time employees will need second jobs just to make ends meet was simultaneously warning them against the faux-pas of underpaying the help.
About a week ago, I was watching a CNN broadcast on this subject and I stopped short. I realized something startling – that it was possible that I might receive a Christmas bonus from my employers this year. From that moment until my last day of work before the holiday, I felt like a little kid dutifully opening one window of an Advent calendar each morning and longing for the night of the milk and cookies and struggling to fall asleep in anticipation of Christmas morning’s big reveal. I was a little embarrassed by how excited I was. But holy crap! Money! A whole week’s pay! I pictured myself leaving work with a wad of cash in my pocket, hurrying home to tell Tiny Tim that this year we’re going to have mutton and fruitcake for Christmas dinner – and a little thimble full of sherry! A crass thing to get excited about, I know.
For most of my adult life I have been a teacher in independent boarding schools. Teachers get sneered at if they talk too much about money. Family members, colleagues, friends, and strangers all think it’s perfectly appropriate to remind teachers that they didn’t choose their profession for the money – and of course in some ways they are right. Teaching is full of intrinsic rewards. Teenagers are hilarious. They run around all excited for no reason at all. When we bring doughnuts to class, they snatch them up hungrily and tell us in all earnestness that they love us. They are astonished when they learn things, and they hug us and invite us to be their Facebook friends. Teachers get competitive about these things, you know: how many students have friended you? Do they follow you on Twitter? Do they come to your classroom after school and tell you all their problems? Popularity and validation: these are what teachers get in lieu of Christmas bonuses.
In all my years of teaching, I have never received a cash bonus – at Christmas or at any other time. I’ve received annual raises (some of which were so meager as to be almost trivial), and I’ve received stipends for doing extra work – but never a bonus. I’ve received Dunkin Donuts gift cards and buffet lunches organized by the Parents’ Association, and I’ve received gift cards and candy and other tokens of appreciation from students and their parents. One school actually gave every employee a turkey on the last day of school before Christmas. We received an email a week or so in advance telling us to drop by the dining hall within a certain window of time to pick up a turkey (or a tofurkey – the needs of vegetarians were considered). I felt a little Bob Cratchit-like when I went to pick up my turkey, but I did accept the gift and eventually cooked it and ate it, though usually not on Christmas day. A friend of mine, though, became enraged every time the turkey delivery truck pulled up behind the dining hall. “Come on, blue-collar workers!” he would rant. “Step right up and get your Christmas turkey before you go drink away another paycheck!” And he had a point – handing out turkeys to a faculty that included a number of Ph.D’s was a little on the condescending side.
At some point during my last week of work – when I dreamed about that wad of cash day and night – I remembered a scene in a Toni Morrison novel. In chapter nine of Song of Solomon, the protagonist’s sister Corinthians gets a job as a maid for the state poet laureate, Michael-Mary Graham. Corinthians and her siblings were raised to expect deference and luxury, but increasingly Corinthians resented the way her liberal-arts education served as a barrier between her and the rest of the world: “Bryn Mawr had done what a four-year dose of liberal education was designed to do: unfit her for eighty percent of the useful work of the world. First, by training her for leisure time, enrichments, and domestic mindlessness. Second, by a clear implication that she was too good to work” (189). Her employer – the poet – is thrilled and feels almost privileged to have an educated maid: “Miss Graham was delighted with Corinthians’ dress and with her slightly uppity manners. It gave her house the foreign air she liked to affect, for she was the core, the very heartbeat, of the city’s literary world… It was also a pleasure and a relief to have a maid who read and who seemed to be acquainted with some of the great masters of literature. So nice to give the maid a copy of Walden for Christmas rather than that dreary envelope, and to be able to say so to her friends” (190). When I taught this novel, one of my quiz questions was always “What did Michael-Mary Graham give Corinthians for Christmas?” and my students usually got a kick out of this moment. My students had read Walden earlier that year, and in some cases they had loathed it, while in other cases they found it intriguing and thought-provoking and even brilliant (which it is) but also deserving of some laughter and mockery (which it also is). For years I passed this reference off as a ha-ha moment in a great novel, without thinking about the connections between Walden and Corinthians’ situation – until this week, that is. This past week this connection was on my mind almost all the time.
It took me several years to learn how to teach Walden effectively. I always spent some time helping students parse Thoreau’s complicated sentences and make sense of his abstract metaphors – and this kind of discussion is important, of course. But my students never really seemed to get a sense of who Thoreau was a man – of the emotions that drove him to live in a cabin in the woods for two years and write his sometimes-brilliant-sometimes-bombastic account of that time. I did little snatches of research here and there. Thoreau’s father had a pencil business and spent his days in his barn churning out the only pencils in North America that could compete in quality with European models. When he was still quite young, Henry David used his love of scientific experimentation and his knowledge of chemistry to invent a new kind of pencil lead that resisted crumbling and made darker, more permanent marks on paper. In other words, Henry David Thoreau – the same Henry David Thoreau we associate with “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” and other such maxims of individuality – invented the prototype of the number-two pencil. I loved to share this detail with my students at SAT time.
The thing was, Thoreau didn’t want to be a pencil maker. He knew the business and was good at it, yes, but he couldn’t imagine living a life like his father’s. He hobnobbed with Emerson and Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott and the rest of the Transcendentalist bigwigs, but he felt that they overshadowed him. He and his brother John opened a school in Concord, a school devoted exclusively to scientific observation and experimentation. The school was shut down by the town authorities within a year. On Emerson’s recommendation, Thoreau was hired as an in-home tutor for a family in New York; he left that job after a few months under a cloud as well. Then, the year before he moved into the woods near Walden Pond, Thoreau and his brother took a canoe trip through these woods. They stopped, beached their canoes, and caught some fish. Then Thoreau set up some kind of cooking apparatus on an old tree stump and prepared to make some fish chowder – and, long story short, he burned down Walden Woods. When Thoreau decided to build a cabin on Emerson’s land and live in semi-seclusion for two years, he didn’t do it because he hated the world; he did it because he hated himself. It took me a while to grasp this – but once I did, all the barriers and intimidating language and the dense abstractions of the writing seemed to melt away. Thoreau was a kid who thought he could be invisible if he put his head under the covers. Thoreau was like me when I was on medical leave, challenging myself to go four days, five days, six days, or a full week without leaving the house for any reason. I still think this way on the weekends sometimes: I start to head for the door, then catch myself. Do you know what’s out there? My inner voice says. Nine hundred and seventy-six million ways to screw up – THAT’S what’s out there. Now get back on the couch. You’ve got scarves to knit.
Toni Morrison’s use of Walden in Song of Solomon is both funny and deeply ironic. Walden is about many things, but mostly it is a gigantic middle finger to the world – with all the courage and sophomoric bravado that gesture implies. It is about Thoreau’s refusal to accept the second-best of everything, even when the self that he presents to the world is only his second-best self, if that. Thoreau could have had a safe, prosperous life if he had continued to manufacture pencils in his father’s barn. He could have hiked and camped on the weekends, hung out with the Transcendentalists over at Waldo’s place, taken the train to Boston or Cambridge for lectures and poetry readings. This is the life path of most of the privileged world – build a fortress, and then let the fanciful parts of yourself have a few rooms in the castle in which to dance around. Thoreau refused to live in a fortress if his only option was a fortress made of pencils.
Michael-Mary Graham’s gift to Corinthians of a copy of Walden is the plot of Song of Solomon in miniature. Unlike his sisters, protagonist Milkman Dead worked from the time he was in his teens – but always for his father. He worked within a structure that was handed down to him – a structure that he hated. His father’s real estate business is the central core of his world, and in the second part of the novel (the gift of the copy of Walden takes place at the very end of Part I, by the way) his journey south to reconnect with his family’s roots is a parallel to Thoreau’s two years at Walden Pond. On his journey, Milkman is slowly stripped of his possessions: he leaves his luggage at a restaurant for safekeeping, he ruins his good shoes when forced to step into a river, he gives some of his elegant dress shirts away as gifts. Both Walden and Song of Solomon are challenging books to read and to teach, and they are both books I thought I taught well – after several years of stumbling along – but I am astonished that I missed this connection between them.
Where this essay is heading, of course, is that I am in retreat too. I never really planned the beginning of my teaching career – I applied for a wide variety of jobs, and teaching was the fish that bit first – and I never really planned its end: I just acknowledged it when it came. Teaching is certainly not a glamorous calling, but it’s a respected profession, and it served the same role in my life that the pencil business served for Thoreau and the same role the real estate business served for Milkman Dead. I had to get out, partly to save myself from collapse and partly to prove to myself that I was still strong. It’s hard to walk away from one’s career. Now I work part time as a nanny and family assistant: I drive carpools, I grocery shop and cook, I oversee homework and occasionally organize a cupboard or closet. I do laundry, proofread essays, and make lots and lots of grilled-cheese sandwiches. I’ve taken my share of startled looks when I tell people what I’m doing. Sometimes these looks are difficult to take.
My entire life – from my elementary and secondary education to my most recent teaching job – led me to believe in certain truisms. The first – and the only one I plan to spend time on in this essay – is that a true professional is motivated by the intrinsic rewards of work, not by money. I was once told by a boss that teachers get one day a year when they are allowed to think about money – the day each year’s new contract is signed. On that day we can be as crass and bourgeois as we please, delineating our many virtues and the hidden ways we are essential to the school, and we can make our demands and expectations known and perhaps even have them met. But after that – for the remaining 364 days of each year, “money” is a dirty word. Another early mentor told me my first year of teaching, “Never do the math.” In other words, don’t try to take your base yearly salary and compute how much money you are actually making per hour. I never did the math, but I didn’t need a calculator to tell me that once I factored in the late nights in the dorm, the long hours of coaching, the meetings and the grading and the long phone calls with parents, I was probably making about as much as one of those McDonald’s employees whose employer announced that they might want to think about getting second jobs. Hmmph. At least their employers were honest with them.
I hadn’t been in my new job very long when I recognized that there is something wonderful about being paid by the hour. I hadn’t received hourly pay since my years of babysitting and working in day care centers when I was in high school, college, and grad school. Somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that there was something undignified about being paid an hourly rate. But here’s the thing: my workday in my current job ends at six o’clock, and if my employers think they are going to be back even a minute past six, they call and apologize and let me know that I can leave if I need to (their children are old enough that leaving them at home for short periods of time is not unsafe). Nothing even remotely like this happened when I was teaching. I attended meetings that ran until 11:00 on Sunday nights. I received text messages at night telling me to be at meetings at 7:15 the next morning. On four different occasions I sat all-night suicide watches. I once drove to the airport to pick up a teaching candidate whose flight was late and got in after one in the morning. I drove home and was in my classroom by 7:30. These were not occasional lapses: this was my life – for ten years. When I realized that working by the hour means that when I work more, I will be paid more, I was giddy. I just kept repeating that sentence over and over in my head like Eliza Doolittle finally learning how to talk about the rain in Spain.
In Walden, Thoreau comes to the conclusion that we should only work for ourselves, never for others. If everyone is a generalist, we can each spend some time tending a garden and some time fishing and some time mending clothes or fixing the roof of our cabin or washing clothes – and still have a great deal of time left over for relaxation and leisure. Thoreau is always aware of the little traps in our lives – the way our freedom is compromised by the very privileges we think we want.
I am well aware that I didn’t come to any conclusions in this essay. If I’ve made it sound as if all my problems ended when I left teaching, I’ve misled you quite egregiously. I know that I don’t stand much chance of convincing anyone to distrust salaried employment, to insist that one’s time is innately valuable, not just on contract negotiation day but all year round. In Walden, Thoreau writes, “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behavior” (6). I have felt this way a long time – since before I ever read a word of Thoreau, I think – but the example foremost on my list right now is the very concept of a ‘career.’ I think our world is full of a whole lot of people who are fooling themselves.
I’m about to wrap things up – but there’s one more thing I need to tell you. Remember how I was waiting eagerly to see if I would get a Christmas bonus? Well, I did. I got a week’s pay, just like the chart on the McDonald’s employee brochure specified. And it was great. I was giddy and elated and silly – like a little child seeing a hundred-dollar bill for the first time. And yes, I did feel like Bob Cratchet bursting into his house with a brand-new prosthetic limb for Tiny Tim, but I didn’t care. I felt the way people are supposed to feel at Christmas – for the first time in many, many years.