Sometimes timing is everything. This is the last column in this series, so one might urge me to get in my last thoughts about test prep. As luck would have it, last week I resigned from my position with the well-endowed tutoring company. I didn’t do this out of outrage or moral vigor—I did it because two days later I moved cross-country to pursue other things, a college teaching position among them. I didn’t leave out of outrage, but that’s not to say I didn’t leave with a certain amount of relief.
While moving into my new house, I was chatting with one of my housemates. She asked what I’d been doing in my former job, and I explained I’d worked in tutoring, in a company that specialized in standardized tests. “Oh…” she responded with a forced smile. “That’s really interesting.”
“What do you do?” I asked her.
“I’m a middle school teacher. I actually try to get my students to opt out of standardized tests. I don’t really believe in them.”
“Yeah,” I said awkwardly. “Neither do I, really.”
It’s been a funny transition. When people at my company found out I was on my way out, I was met with a lot of support. People wished me luck, took me out to meals, told me they were seriously so happy for me to be pursuing a passion. The overwhelming reaction I received, though, was jealousy. You’re so lucky to be on your way out of here, I heard from almost everyone. You don’t have to worry about any of this anymore.
It’d be one thing if I was a client finishing up my work with them, and other clients were congratulating me. You don’t have to pay them anymore! makes sense as a notion about which to be jealous. It’d make sense if I’d accomplished some goal, passed some test I’d been working so hard to take. But that isn’t the case. This is a company at which we all choose to work, and I simply chose to do something else instead. No one who works for them is dodging the subsistence line; everyone there is doing educated, skilled labor. They could all find other jobs at least as easily as anyone else in this economy. Which is to say, not easily, but feasibly.
“I just don’t know what else I could be doing,” I heard from a lot of former co-workers. This coming from tutors who’d been working there for four years or more, were too accustomed to one student at a time, to curricula they could recite in their sleep, to high pay and low hours. Coming from admin staff who were paid just enough not to look for other, equally frustrating jobs in other Operations departments. Coming from managerial staff using the job to support the art they make in their off hours, too scared and maybe too smart to try and support themselves as dayplayers on film sets or full time yoga instructors. Working there is just too comfortable, just too stable to feel right about leaving.
Until it isn’t. In the last few months, my former employer has seen no fewer than eleven full-time, relatively essential staff members resign. That’s out of a full-time staff of roughly 35. The president of the company is desperate to keep the attrition rate down, and every time someone leaves, he or she is offered a raise to stay. Thus far, I have yet to see anyone take the raise.
So people leave, and they’re congratulated and fawned over for leaving. When one of my administrative coworkers left this past spring, she hung a motivational poster of a kitten on the wall of my office. In large print on the front it reads COMMITMENT. On the back she’d signed her initials, and instructed me and the rest of the managerial staff to sign ours when each of us quit, until everyone who’d seen the back of the poster was gone. Almost a year ago, I made a pact with three coworkers that we’d all be gone in one year. Only one of those people remains employed there currently.
It feels a bit like a prison break. Like we’re getting away with something. But the fact remains that these are cushy desk jobs in the field of education—one that should be rewarding and gratifying to work in. It seems strange and backwards that we act like inmates, as though this work is some kind of quicksand that dirties us but won’t let us go.
But that’s what it does. It feels like dirty work because almost no one there believes in it. I never met anyone on the full-time staff who had received tutoring him or herself, though we employed plenty of former classroom teachers and social workers who were well aware of the problems we were not only not solving, but helping to exacerbate. It may also be worth mentioning that the company has been around just long enough that former students are now applying to tutor with us, and in my experience they have been among the least motivated, least capable staff members we employ. We haven’t taught them to do anything themselves. We’ve taught them only how to score points.
This is my legacy upon resigning: relief, guilt, and a profound feeling of ambivalence. The day I left I pulled aside a senior staff member who’s been working there for over a decade. “Be honest,” I said. “Is this company evil?”
He responded that no, they were not. That the industry would still exist without us. That maybe the tests were evil, but we didn’t create them. We were just helping students navigate them.
That doesn’t feel like enough, for me. To say that the way you make a living isn’t evil, precisely. And I really love and admire the people with whom I worked at this company, in this industry (for the most part). And I took my paychecks to the bank just like they did. But I think it’s a false notion to blame the monster and not the people feeding it. And I think our clients feed the beast as well, but we enabled them in a way that’s near-narcotic. You don’t say a drug dealer is blameless just because he didn’t invent the vice. You don’t argue that he’s not even a little implicated in the way communities decay, kids slip through the cracks, or wealth disparities emerge. He’s not the cause, but he’s causal. The biggest thing I’ve learned in an industry about collecting points and keeping score, is that winning is a drug.
We pushed it.