In the summer of 1989, while working full-time as a waiter, I began working toward my teaching certification. The previous summer, I'd survived the stupidest thing I've ever done-- that's grist for another post-- and had decided to start planning for an eventual non-slacker lifestyle.
The program I was in at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago was for people who had college degrees already and wanted to add an Illinois Teaching Certificate onto that.
There were interruptions in my schedule-- I'd take classes when I could afford them. It didn't help that every time I signed up for classes, they had changed the name of the program-- before registering, I'd first have to find out the current name of the program. I remember that one year it was the 2207 program, named for Illinois House Bill 2207. When I finally finished, it had become the CE, or Continuing Education, program.
My struggles were not helped by the person running the Education Department, Jan B. She was the quintessential incompetent petty bureaucrat. She'd have mandatory meetings for Education majors in which she would blather on self-importantly repeating things that were in the course catalog, or share with us heart-warming little slogans and poems, oblivious to the fact that all of us had jobs, many of us had kids and her stupid, pointless meetings played hell with our schedules.
The fact that she bore more than a passing resemblance to the "Church Lady" character Dana Carvey played on Saturday Night Live did not make it any easier to take her seriously.
In the meantime, the school was attritting down positions-- not replacing people who retired or quit-- in order to reduce the budget. It became more difficult each semester to get required classes. And on top of it all, more and more of the classes were scheduled in the daytime, despite the fact that it was an entirely commuter school.
In the middle of all of this, I was dealing with a divorce from one woman and a custody fight with another. I was not in a mood for b.s. I soon realized that there were two things that worked in getting what I needed. First was to go to Bureacrat Extraordinaire Ray Z., who was an enigma-- a cooperative, competent bureaucrat. He'd been recommended by someone early on in the program. Whenever I had a problem, I'd go to him, and he'd either fix the problem on the spot, or tell me who could fix it. He was amazing. Even after he was promoted to another position in another department, I could go to him and he'd tell me how to make everything better. I came to think of him as my version of "Mr. Wolf," Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction.
The other solution, when "Mr. Wolf" couldn't fix it, was to go in and get ugly with someone. I didn't enjoy doing it, but sometimes anger is the only force that overcomes bureaucratic enertia. Time and time again, I'd have to go in and start getting nasty when someone was being idiotic. In my last semester, while I was student-teaching, I'd had to do it to get into a required health class, which they'd refused to admit me to semester after semester, with the bizarre rationalization that freshman and every other undergraduate had priority over someone who was in the Continuing Education program. In otherwords, that people who had to schedule around jobs and kids, and in my case was not going to graduate without the class, had the lowest priority.
After angrily making the rounds of the administrators, a professor personally added me to the class over the head of an administator. It was an afternoon class, and my "cooperating teacher," the teacher I did my student teaching with, was understanding and let me leave early one day a week to attend the class.
The real pisser was that it was pretty much a high school level health class. It was amusing that one of the things we studied was reproduction, and a couple of times I'd had to bring my son to class when I couldn't get a babysitter. I think I'd had the reproduction part down well before I took the class.
I finally finished, and all that was left was to wait for the little card they sent that you signed and sent to Springfield, Illinois in order to recieve your actual physical teaching certicate. Someone had told me that you could go to the Education Department office and pick it up yourself.
In January of 1998, I went to the office, told them who I was and what I was there for, and suddenly one lady's eyes widened and she said "Johnny Yen? Wait-- I have that right here."
It was sitting right on top of her desk. As I walked out of the office, I chuckled. I realized that I'd become such a pain in the ass to them, that they couldn't wait to give me the card and get me out of their lives.
A few months later, things were calmer. I'd been evicted from the apartment Adam and I had lived in while I was student-teaching, which was fine with me. The apartment was in a gang-infested neighborhood-- every couple of nights I'd hear gunfire near there. I hated my kid being exposed to that. I moved into a nicer apartment in a nicer neighborhood. I'd gotten my old job at the Smokehouse, a legendary Chicago rib joint, back. My son's mother and I settled joint custody arrangements, and I signed off on my divorce. And best of all I'd gotten a job that summer teaching a science class for gifted kids in Evanston-- a real teacher job, finally.
As things began to settle down in my life, I finally had a welcome moment of uproarious laughter one morning. As my 3rd and 4th graders, a wonderful group, worked on their various science projects, I turned on the radio and tuned it to WXRT, the local progressive rock station. A while later, Semisonic's "Closing Time," a huge hit that summer, came on. A couple of the kids started singing along. Suddenly, when the chorus came along, the entire class erupted, singing in near-perfect harmony:
"I know who will want to take me home
I know who will want to take me home
I know who will want to take me home..."
It was probably a catharsis, the relief of a couple of years of constant stress finally melting away, but the sight and sound of a bunch of eight and nine year old kids bellowing that out was just too much-- I laughed nearly 'til I cried.