When I was in junior high, I had a curmudgeonly Spanish teacher named Maxwell Topp who wore a velvet slipper on one foot because of a bad case of gout. I, however, was more fascinated with Mr. Topp because of his summer job manning a tollbooth than his sissy slipper. I imagined ***image2***him sitting in that little box, his gimpy foot elevated as he silently collected nickels and dimes from strangers in idling automobiles. Initially, I wondered why a man in his twilight years of teaching would need to be working the type of job I was doing that summer at 14, but now that I'm in the same position as Mr. Topp (sans the house shoe), I understand.
For as long as there have been schools, teachers have been forced to take second jobs, mostly during the summer months. The reasons vary from paying off college loans to the costs of raising a family on a paycheck that is lower than many people's rent. I'm in my 10th year at my current school, and it's only relatively recently that I surpassed the annual income I collected at 22 working in advertising in Manhattan. When I became a part-time and then full-time English teacher a decade ago, I pretty much resigned myself to working during what non-teachers referred to as my "off time." During the summers, I have waited tables, catered, taught summer school and coached soccer. Other poor pedagogues I know serve cocktails, man art galleries, paint houses and bale hay in order to "catch up" with the debt they collected working their asses off from August to June. No teacher left behind in this equation.
Two years ago when Santa Fe was still in the throes of the bark beetle epidemic, my friend and fellow-teacher Tom and I were hired to cut down the hundreds of dead piñon trees that blighted the landscape of a former student's parents' property. I hadn't held a chainsaw in 20 years, ever since I was an indentured servant in my father's house in Connecticut. Even then, my father ruled by pecking order so that meant that my older brother Rich handled the gas-powered equipment, and the other, less desirable, jobs were handed out based on an age/fun ratio. After I signed up for the piñon-paring gig, some of my friends and family questioned why an overeducated pencil pusher like me was spending ***image1***his summer doing the same types of manual labor as his students. I explained to them that after I became a teacher and had children, I grew very humble in terms of the types of work I'd take on. After all, I've met folks with Ph.D.s in Physics and Political Science washing dishes in downtown Santa Fe restaurants. I figured I'd never say never again to anything that paid in real American dollars.
At my tree-cutting job, I usually arrived about an hour before Tom since I get up early, and he still had an infant at home. I'd fetch the chainsaw and gas can from the garage and hike up to the edge of a ridge overlooking a small canyon on the north side of Santa Fe. I could see a few houses nestled in the hillside, almost camouflaged by the dotted landscape. Call me a bastard, but starting up a whining chainsaw at 7 am on a quiet summer morning is a most miraculous feeling. The stuttering of the motor as it chokes up an oil ball, then the revving of the engine as it springs to toothy life. The odor of gas and oil penetrating the crisp mountain air smells, well, a lot like victory. Working with Tom cutting down trees was like seeing a Keanu Reeves movie with a friend. We couldn't talk to each other while we were sawing, but it was nice knowing someone else was there suffering alongside you. We'd fill our chainsaws at the same time and take water breaks when our tree biters ran out of gas. Cutting down trees for six or eight hours is a tedious job even if you are in a picturesque landscape. I thought that after a couple hundred days of sitting in a chalky classroom talking about books by dead people, working with the land would be a welcome change, and it was for the first few hours of each day. After that, it was sap-enrobed hell. So, not unlike some of the more immature students I teach, I started making up names for the different types of trees we needed to remove. If a piñon had a dense dress of needles, I called it Dr. Zaius after the gasbag orangutan in the original Planet of the Apes. If it was thin and spindly, then it was Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. To alleviate the boredom, I begged Tom to sing hillbilly songs he learned growing up in Athens, Ga. Once in a while he'd agree just to shut me up, and I'd listen so intently that I'd step into a cactus patch or barely miss running the chainsaw over my thigh like it was a branch made from human flesh. It was worth the risk, though, just to pass the time. There was a moment during the middle of our tree-cutting tenure where Tom and I both paused to drink water and fill gas tanks the size of a cow's stomach. It was one of those "This is my life?" moments we all have, whether we are in a white office, a dark warehouse or on the side of a hill wishing we had a decent hat to keep the sun off our heads.
"Did you ever think you'd still be doing the same kind of work you did in high school now, 20 years later?" I asked Tom.
He pushed the hair back off his brow and turned away in what I gathered was a movement toward thought. "Yeah," he said, nodding. "In some ways, I guess I did."
"Me too," I confessed and looked up at the pale sky like it was a giant dry erase board waiting for someone to scribble all over it.