Teaching is full of unexpected surprises

One billion years ago, I taught a third grader named Kaity to multiply. 

Last night, as Elysha and I were leaving for a Moth StorySLAM in Somerville, I asked Kaity, now an adult and frequent babysitter to our children, to help my third grade daughter with her multiplication homework. 

It was surreal. 

No one ever told me that so many of my former students would remain in my life as they have, and I could never predicted that when I was teaching Kaity to multiply all those years ago, I was also investing in my daughter's future.

Being a teacher is full of surprises. 

When we arrived at The Moth a couple hours later, we discovered that four of my former storytelling students were at the show, their names already in the bag, hoping to tell their stories. For all but one, it was their first time at The Moth.

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I wasn't called to the stage last night, but three of my four students were called. They all performed brilliantly, and one of them, Tom Ouimet, won the slam!   

It was quite a night for a storytelling teacher, listening to stories that I had helped to develop, told on stage so well by storytellers who I've spent lots of time with honing their craft.

As a teacher, you can never know where the lessons you teach might take root and grow. And it's impossible to predict where the fruits of that labor will flourish. 

It would've been nice to take the stage and perform last night, but as a teacher, I found a far greater reward than the applause of a audience and the opportunity to come out on top.

Sometimes a job is more than a job.

I have been teaching at the same elementary school in West Hartford, CT since the fall of 1999. The way that this school and its people have become intertwined in my life astounds me.  

Just over the course of the Columbus Day weekend:

  1. I went to a Moth StorySLAM in Boston with a former colleague.
  2. I went apple picking with two colleagues and their children.
  3. I played golf with two former colleagues and the parent of former students.
  4. I exchanged a lengthy set of amusing text messages with the parent of former students. 
  5. I had lunch with two colleagues. 
  6. One of my former students babysat my children, as she does quite often. 
  7. I spent a great deal of time with my wife, who is also a former colleague. 

Eleven different people in all over the course of four days.

Sometimes a job is just a job. You come and go. Make a friend, perhaps. Eat lunch with coworkers. Share cake in break rooms to celebrate birthdays. You might go home and tell your spouse about so-and-so at work, but the relationships rarely extend beyond the walls of the workplace.  

But sometimes a job becomes a part of you. The people who you work with become a part of your life and your soul. They become embedded in all that you do. 

They are some of the most important people in your life.

I'm not sure if it's the nature of teaching or the length of time that I have spent in one place or simply the extraordinary people with whom I have worked and whose children I have taught, but many of the most important people in my life were met under the roof of my school.

Teachers. Parents. Students.

I often marvel at how different my life would be today had I not been hired for a teaching job at my school on a morning in May almost 20 years ago. 

Working hard for the money: 2014 update

A few years ago, I posted a list of all the jobs I have held in my life in chronological order. 

It was an interesting exercise that I highly recommend.

Things have changed since I first posted the list, so here is my updated list:

1. Farm laborer, Blackstone, MA: When I was 12-years old, I began working for Jesse Deacon, an aging farmer in need of some help. Every Saturday, I would spend 4-6 hours loading hay onto trailers, mucking stalls, repairing fence lines, and other typical farm chores. I earned $50 a day for the work and was happy to get it.

2. McDonald’s restaurants, Milford, Norwood, Brockton, Hanson, Bourne, MA: My illustrious and rather sordid career with McDonald’s began when I turned 16-years old. My friend, Danny Pollock, heard that the McDonald’s in Milford, MA was hiring, so even though Milford was more than 30 minutes from my hometown of Blackstone, Danny and I drove out there for interviews and were hired on the spot. We started out just above minimum wage, $4.65 per hour. Danny didn’t last long and eventually became a dishwasher across the street, but I stuck, eventually being promoted to manager when I was 17-years old. I can still remember sitting in history class with my professional development binder from McDonald’s, studying for my management exam when I was supposed to be reading about the Great Depression. I stayed with McDonald’s after graduation (college was not an option for me after high school), eventually moving to Norwood with my store manager and later to Brockton, Hanson (where I opened a new store), and Bourne, where I was eventually fired after being arrested for grand larceny.

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3. Cobra Marketing, Foxwood, MA: After being fired from McDonald’s, I was hired by Cobra Marketing, a company that marketed consumer products to employees at a variety of businesses throughout the state. I began as a salesman, dropping off samples to businesses early in the week and then returning for orders at the end of the week and earning my salary strictly through commission. I worked in the book division, which meant that the samples I was dropping off to businesses were all books. Eventually I was promoted and was placed in charge of a sales team.

4. Cobra Marketing, Washington, DC: Following my promotion, I was sent to Washington, DC for four months to establish a new office for the company. A team of eight people from Connecticut spent the summer of 1993 living in a two-bedroom apartment in College Park, Maryland. During this time we hired, trained, and put the systems in place that would allow the business to function on its own once we returned to Massachusetts. Having lost the coin toss for one of the two beds in the apartment, I spent the four months sleeping on an air mattress in a walk-in closet with a girl named Kim. It was during this time in Washington that I met Ted Kennedy, shook Cal Ripken’s hand, and was mugged at knife point.

5. South Shore Bank, Stoughton, MA: After returning to Massachusetts and resuming the sales routine, I decided to move on and was hired to work as a teller by South Shore Bank (later Bank of Boston), the same bank that would later testify against me during my grand larceny trial.

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6. McDonald’s, Brockton, MA: Needing to pay for my legal defense, I also went to work for a privately-owned McDonald’s restaurant in Brockton, across town from the company-owned store where I had worked years before. My girlfriend at the time was working in the company-owned store, as were the Jehovah Witnesses with whom I was living. I would work at the bank from 7 AM- 4 PM and would then manage the closing shift at McDonald’s, working from 5 PM until 1:00 AM. I did this for eighteen very long months until my trial concluded and I was found not guilty. It was while managing this restaurant that I was robbed at gunpoint.

7. Legal Copy Service, Hartford, CT: Having been found not guilty at my trial, I was free to leave the state, so I moved to Connecticut, chasing a girl and my best friend. I landed my first job at a legal copy service in downtown Hartford. Beginning as a machine operator but unable to stand the monotony of the work, I eventually managed the company’s delivery service until finally quitting after less than four months on the job.

8. The Bank of Hartford, West Hartford, CT: Needing to earn more money, I went back into banking, landing a job at the now defunct Bank of Hartford on Park Road in West Hartford. I was eventually promoted from teller to customer service representative but left after a year when I decided to go to college and was in need of a more flexible schedule.

9. McDonald’s, Hartford, CT: Negotiating a decent salary and a flexible schedule because of my experience and expertise, I went back to work for McDonald’s, this time managing a company owned store on Prospect Avenue in Hartford. I would work from 5 AM- 1PM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, plus ten hours a day on Saturday and Sunday while going to school, first at Manchester Community College and later at Trinity College and St. Joseph's College.

10. Trinity College, Hartford, CT: While attending Trinity College, I was hired as a writing tutor in the school’s Writing Center. I would spend about three hours each evening teaching freshmen to write a clear and grammatically correct sentences and helping seniors to edit and revise their thesis papers. My name actually appears in the acknowledgements of several thesis papers in the Trinity College library.

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11. Jam Packed Dance Floor DJ’s: It was while I was attending Trinity and working for McDonald’s that Bengi and I went into the disc jockey business, entertaining at weddings throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. We went from booking three weddings in 1997 to 41 weddings in 1998 and have been going strong ever since.

12. Kindergarten tutor, Wethersfield, CT: When I began student-teaching in the spring of 1999, I left McDonald’s for good in order to accommodate the full-day schedule that student-teaching demanded. To supplement the loss in salary, I began tutoring underprivileged kindergarten students for the town of Wethersfield for a period of about six months. The time that I spent with those kids convinced me that kindergarten was not for me.

13. Substitute teacher, New Britain, CT: Having completed my student teaching in early May, I went to work as a full-time substitute teacher in New Britain, the town in which I had done my student teaching. I worked nearly every day until late June, teaching everything from bi-lingual kindergarten to high school physical education.

14. Teacher: In the summer of 1999, I was hired to teach at my current school. I’ve been there ever since.

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15. Minister: After becoming ordained by the Universal Life Church, I began conducting wedding ceremonies and baby naming ceremonies as a minister.  Many of the wedding ceremonies (but not all) have been booked in conjunction with the DJ business, and I have since branched out into other areas of ministerial work as well.  One family actually refers to me as their "family minister". 

16.  In 2007, I sold my first book, Something Missing, to Doubleday Broadway and became a professional author. I had made a little money publishing pieces in newspapers, magazines and professional journals prior to the purchase of my novel, but it had never amounted to much. Since then I have also published Unexpectedly, Milo, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, and the upcoming The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs. Writing has become a full time career for me.

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17.  Life coach: After learning about the existence of life coaches from one of my wife's friends, I decided that I was eminently qualified for the job. I began my career as the pro-bono life coach for a colleague and friend but have since been hired by my first client. 

18. Spean Up: In 2013 my wife and I launched Speak Up, an organization dedicated to the art of storytelling. We produce shows in conjunction with Real Art Ways, teach workshops to people interested in improving their speaking and storytelling abilities, and have recently begun schedule shows at outside venues.

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19. Tutor: I have tutored off and on for several years but have recently been hired by clients on a more long-term, regular basis.

20. Professional speaker: As a storyteller, I am often paid to take the stage and perform. In addition, I am a member of the Macmillan Speaker’s Bureau and have begun to be hired to speak publicly on a number of topics, including education, motivation, and storytelling.

21. Columnist: In the spring of 2013, I was hired as the humor columnist for Seasons magazine.

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There was a time when my blogging brought in a little money each month when I was serving advertising, but nothing has panned out to the point of real profit.

I still have dreams of becoming a professional best man (I have been offered jobs four times but was forced to decline because of distance), a gravesite visitor and a professional double date companion (with my wife). I would also like to earn more money blogging and am currently working on making that happen.

But for now, I’m pretty happy as a writer, a teacher, a life coach, a DJ and an occasional minister.  

Had you asked the ten-year-old version of me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I would’ve said teacher and writer.  For a long time, I said that I wanted to “write for a living and teach for pleasure.”

I’m not there yet, but it’s not as far away as it used to be, either.

What were the three most important decisions of your life?

A recent Quora question asked, “What were the three most important decisions of your life?”

I’ve been debating this question for almost a month, and I have finally settled on three. While many decisions could have occupied these three spots, I decided to favor the toughest and most unlikely decisions of my life rather than the ones that were easy and obvious.

For example, deciding to marry Elysha is probably the most important decision of my life, but it was barely a decision. Who wouldn’t want to marry Elysha if given the chance? It was a no-brainer.

Instead, I found three extremely important decisions in my life that could have gone either way and changed the course of my life forever.

1. Maintaining my innocence when charged with grand larceny and embezzlement.

While being questioned about a crime that I did not commit, the police almost had me convinced to confess to the crime rather than risk a lengthy prison sentence. I spent a minute in a mop closet pondering that decision and ultimately decided to stick to the truth, but it was a close call. The police can apply a great deal of pressure in these moments, particularly when you are a 19 year-old kid without any parents, any money or an attorney.

The result was a brief period of homelessness, 18 months spent working 80 hours a week at two different jobs in order to pay a $25,000 attorney’s bill, a permanent case of post traumatic stress disorder as a result of an armed robbery, and a trial where I was found not guilty.

Had I confessed and accepted their plea deal, I could not have become a teacher. 

2. Choosing West Hartford Public Schools over Newington Public Schools.

In the summer of 1999, my hometown of Newington, CT had offered me a permanent position as third grade teacher in one of their elementary schools. I was asked for a day to consider their offer, but the wait time was merely perfunctory. I was taking the job.

During that 24 hour period, I received a call from a principal in West Hartford requesting an interview. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I agreed to speak to him that day. Three hours later, he had offered me a one year position covering a second grade teacher on maternity leave.

The permanent position in Newington would have been the wise and sensible choice. It was in my hometown and would provide me with long-term stability in a time when teaching jobs were hard to find. But I was impressed by the principal, his commitment to children, and his support for the arts. After much debate, I decided upon the one year position in West Hartford, and 16 years later, I am still teaching in the same school.

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That decision changed my life. I met my wife while teaching at that school school. I met five of my closest friends while teaching, including the principal, who has since retired but remains one of my closest friends today. I met my son’s and daughter’s god parents while teaching at that school. Many of my former students are my children’s favorite babysitters, and one of my first students is our primary babysitter and like a member of the family.

I was given the freedom to create a classroom environment that placed reading, writing, and theater at its core, and I have developed a teaching philosophy that has led to much success in my field. I was named Teacher of the Year in West Hartford and was a finalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year.

I started playing golf, a game that I love beyond all others, thanks to the friends I met at that school, and ultimately wrote a book about it. 

The school’s community, teachers, students, and parents, have become a second family to me. When my job and my future were threatened several years ago, they rallied around me in ways I could have never expected.

3. Saying yes when my best friend asked me to start a wedding DJ company with him.

In 1997, I was attending Trinity College and Saint Joseph's University fulltime, working on degrees in both English and elementary education. I was also managing a McDonald’s restaurant fulltime and tutoring students part-time at the college’s writing center. I was writing for the college’s newspaper. I was the Treasurer of the Student Senate.

I was busier than I had ever been in my life.

Then Bengi called and asked if I wanted to be a wedding DJ, even though we had no experience or equipment or knowledge of the industry, and I said yes.

Seventeen years later, we remain in business. I have entertained at more than 400 weddings in that time. The DJ company has provided me with much needed income through the lean times of my life.

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I met one of my best friends while working as the DJ at his wedding, and that friendship has led to me becoming a Patriots season ticket holder. That same friend led me back into writing when I had given up hope on ever becoming a novelist and professional writer.

I would not have a writing career today had it not been for him. 

I unknowingly gained 17 years of public speaking experience, which allowed me to step into the world of storytelling and public speaking three years ago with unexpected ease and success. I won my first Moth StorySLAM in large part to the experience I gained as a DJ.

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I have since competed in 24 Moth StorySLAMs in New York and Boston and won 12 of them. I’ve told stories for Main Stage shows and GrandSLAM championships and many other storytelling organizations in New York, Boston and Hartford. I would not be the storyteller and speaker I am today had I not worked for almost two decades as a wedding DJ.

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Telling stories for The Moth led to the founding of Speak Up, the Hartford-based storytelling organization that my wife and I founded last year. In a little over a year, we have produced eight sell out shows, launched a series of storytelling workshops, and have now been approached by outside venues, asking us to take our show on the road.

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The DJ business also led to me becoming ordained as a minister. I have presided over almost 20 weddings, one baptism, and three baby naming ceremonies in that time.

I’d love to hear your three most important decisions if you’re willing to share. Post in the comment sections. Send me an email. Contact me through social media.