The Wonderful World of Work

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The Wonderful World of Work
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Wednesday Mar 9, 2011

Back from Europe, I’d pounded the pavement looking for a job in publishing. I thought that, with a degree in English, I’d be in demand, but I ended up a secretary at MIT. I didn’t even know how to type! I worked for a man who was obsessed with running, and part of my job was running around returning books to other runners-Run Run Run, Run to the Top and Run for Your Life.

I answered an ad for volunteers at Jonathan Kozol’s Store Front Learning Center on West Brookline Street. Jonathan was famous, a hero after being fired from the Boston Public Schools for reading a Langston Hughes poem to black children. I was disappointed when Mary, my landlady, instead of being impressed, said his Death at an Early Age didn’t hold her interest.

It turned out I wasn’t going to be teaching children, as I’d hoped, but typing for the Center’s Director of Education. (Men were always impressed with my ability to type, once I learned.) He promised me I’d soon be hired and should go ahead and quit my job at MIT, but Jonathan abruptly informed me I wasn’t the kind of person he thought should work around young children. I was devastated. Did it have something to do with telling him I’d joined Female Liberation? I remembered how he’d said, dryly, "So you’re one of those."

I was unemployed at a time when gaps in a résumé were highly suspect. I put on a grown-up dress and went down to the School Department where, following in Jonathan’s footsteps, I signed up as a substitute teacher. After getting a chest x-ray at the Health Unit on East Concord Street, I went to the library and took out What I’m Going To Do, I Think.

Substitute teaching-at the veritable fortune of $24 a day-was a lot more interesting than office temping, which I also signed up for, although most days I was asked to teach subjects I knew nothing about, like cooking and Spanish. It was hard enough to teach anything because of the noise and lack of books. My landlady was surprised at the turn things had taken in education, but top-floor tenant Noah, a Jehovah’s Witness, said it was predicted in the Bible.

Luckily, I wasn’t a substitute long before being offered a "permanent sub" position teaching adults working toward their high school equivalency diploma or GED. The classes were held on the top floor of an old building on Boylston Street in the Combat Zone. Five "permanent subs" worked well together, but, after one of us was dismissed for coming in late, we got radical. We left our classrooms to sit in at school committee headquarters-adult students needed continuity!-and were fired as a result. Fired without ever being hired. We weren’t the kind of teachers wanted in the schools.

Modeling ourselves after the Oakland Seven, Chicago Eight, and New Haven Nine, we mobilized as the Boylston Street Five. Teachers and students gathered at my place, sat on my sagging gray couch in my pink-walled apartment, and talked strategy. Sometimes we met at Carol’s in Roxbury, where I admired the Black Panther and women’s liberation posters on her walls. I put up the poster of Huey P. Newton in a fan chair holding a rifle, and when my landlady came upstairs one day, she squinted at it suspiciously and asked, "Huey P. who?" Increasingly militant, the Boylston Street Five, now Four-the fired teacher lost interest-made a pilgrimage to New Haven for a rally in support of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins.

I would have died a thousand deaths if any of the group had dropped by and found my neighbor, Police Sgt. O’Sullivan, sitting in my lumpy armchair. Ever since he’d seen me putting out the garbage in a sundress, he was at the door asking for help with English Composition; he was studying criminal justice. He invited me to the policeman’s ball, but I said I couldn’t dance and had nothing to wear. He said I’d look beautiful in anything. I told him I didn’t agree with his politics, but he claimed to have no idea that the Sixties had changed anyone’s opinion about anything and assured me no one would be talking politics at the ball. "Well, they should be!" I said. "Don’t you ever just relax and have fun?" he asked. "That’s what’s wrong with the world," I told him. "You can never not be principled."

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