Privilege for $200

It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on my experiences in my MFA program. One very significant figure, whom I’ve discussed in previous posts, was Professor Joseph K, who served as my early mentor, friend, boss, and later silent tormentor. This post is Part 21 of If You Want To Go To Grad School.

We’re at a party early on for the University’s MFA program and I mention working with Professor Joseph K. You ask me what he’s like and I’ll try to give you a sound byte answer. After all, this is a party, and the conversation’s not supposed to be too deep. So, here’s what I say: Joe’s a good guy and I work very well with him. I also enjoy his workshops a lot.

My answer would change much later, as I was only one year into my academic and professional relationship with Professor K. Being his secretary didn’t pay much, but I liked it better than working in the supermarket. There, I was paid better and I had benefits, but with Joe, I had keys to the mail room and his office, and I had a code for the English Department copier. I had a place to hang my coat, to read, to study, and even to write. I even had my own desk so I wouldn’t use his. What I had lost in practical terms, I gained in privilege. Which is essentially the case with anyone who goes into something arts or humanities related. I also harbored great hopes that my association with Joe would benefit me in the future. Perhaps I would become an editor or a professor, or even an editor-professor like Joe.

In other jobs where I was at an entry level and the boss were professional mentors, they were often happy to help someone like me move on to another job. They recognized that these jobs weren’t meant to last forever. They knew these jobs were starting points for a long term career track. For example, when I tutored for the English Center at the East County college, the professor who coordinated the program was happy to serve as a reference when I got an interview for a tutoring position for the University. She was definitely a good example of a healthy mentor.

Joe, on the other hand, was not. During the second summer I worked for Joe, the TA’ship that formally was my professor’s secretary job only paid $200 a month and I didn’t get paid after the spring semester was finished, so I tried to find a job. I went high and low. Not surprisingly, I could not get arrested for applying to Target, Trader Joe’s or even Borders. Perhaps I was overqualified with my bachelor’s degree. I sent my resume to a local subsidiary of a an international publishing company and I got an interview. My $200 a month assistant editor job qualified me for a job that paid at least ten times as much, even if it mean losing a title, privilege, and perks. My ability to abuse copier codes might vanish. However, being able to pay my rent and the bills would have been more secure if I got the job. Only, I didn’t tell Joe and he found out from someone else.

Rosalyn was someone I became good friends with in the course of program and she was also one of Joe’s acolytes. I helped train her to do some things for the avant-garde literary journal, including dealing with PageMaker, and I told her the news out of excitement. She then told Joe, who sent me a restrained, but nasty e-mail telling me I couldn’t work at this company and his university press enterprise at the same time. E-mail is often strictly text and it can be difficult to gage the tone. However, he seemed genuinely offended that I wanted to move on to something better.

I did go to the interview. The local publishing house’s subsidiary was located in a downtown high-rise and I even got to see my apartment building from my interviewer’s office. Looking back, I was unnaturally stiff in my shirt, tie, and suit. In this Southern California city, dressing up isn’t natural at all, even though the protocol applies to job interviews. I did not get the job.

I still had my $200 a month job, but the end was coming soon. My personal, academic, and professional relationship with Professor Joseph K had been strained since the middle of the spring semester, my second in the program. I had known him for two and a half years, and he had treated me like a son for most of that time. I looked to him as a paternal figure in my life, mainly because my own relationship with my father was strained. There was a dark side to all this. At one point after Easter, Joe summoned me to his home for an intervention. I became less diligent in my duties as his secretary/assistant editor, and he called me on my flaking out on some tasks. Fair enough. Then he said I had no loyalty to him.* Intuitively, I knew there was something wrong with that statement, even though I wanted to salvage the relationship. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue being his gopher, but I just didn’t want to quit. I have learned since then when it’s time to quit, I should definitely do so. To continue is to make things worse, which was the shape of things to come.

Also, he was supposed to chair my thesis. I hadn’t asked him yet, but working with Joe seemed to be the direction by default. There was that other guy, his rival in the MFA program, but I wasn’t sure about him. Joe has said enough to taint my views of someone I didn’t even know. If he was possessive of me on a professional level to the point where it was better for me to work for $200 a month rather than get a job with professional pay, then workshopping with other creative writing teachers was definitely anathema. There was a popular visiting professor and I wanted to take a workshop with her. Oh, I should have known that was the beginning of the end. Of course, I did know.

*As someone who got involved in a Christian fundamentalist cult in my mid-twenties, this raised a red flag. Intuitively, I knew there was something wrong with it, even if I couldn’t rationally defend it as valid. It was only later when I met with a counselor did I find my instinct about Joe’s loyalty remarks validated.

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