This scene is a cliché of the struggling teacher, and it surfaces repeatedly in pop culture - think of Walter White in 'Breaking Bad,' washing the wheels of a student's sports car after a full day teaching high school chemistry. Bumping into a student at the gym can be awkward, but exposing the reality that I, with my master's degree, not only have another job, but must have one, risks destroying the facade of success I present to my students as one of their university mentors.
In class I emphasize the value of a degree as a means to avoid the sort of jobs that I myself go to when those hours in the classroom are over. A colleague in my department labeled these jobs (food and beverage, retail and customer service - the only legal work in abundance in Las Vegas) as "survival jobs." He tells our students they need to learn that survival work will not grant them the economic security of white-collar careers. I never told him that I myself had such a job, that I needed our meeting to end within the next 10 minutes or I'd be late to a seven-hour shift serving drunk, needy tourists, worsening my premature back problem while getting hit on repeatedly.
The line between these two worlds is thinner here in Las Vegas than it might be elsewhere. The majority of my students this semester hold part-time survival jobs, and some of them will remain in those jobs for the rest of their working lives. About 60 percent of the college freshmen I teach will not finish their degree. They will turn 21 and then forgo a bachelor's degree for the instant gratification of a cash-based income, whether parking cars in Vegas hotels, serving in high-end restaurants or dealing cards in the casinos.
In a city like Las Vegas, many customer-service jobs generate far more cash (with fewer work hours) than entry-level, office-dwelling, degree-requiring jobs. It can be hard to convince my 19-year-old students that the latter is more profitable or of greater personal value. My adjunct-teaching colleagues have large course loads and, mostly, graduate-level educations, but live just above the poverty line. In contrast, my part-time work in the Vegas service industry has produced three times more income than my university teaching. (I've passed up the health benefits that come with full-time teaching, a luxury foreign to the majority of adjuncts at other universities, to make time for my blue-collar work.)
Indeed, for a young academic like myself, the job market is bleak. I'm pursuing advanced degrees and a career in the academy despite the lack of employment prospects, because my first and true love is learning. However, it will take earning a doctorate - and thus several more years of work - before I can earn a sustainable income in my chosen pursuit.
Living these two supposedly different lives, I've started to see their similarities. Whenever I'm trying to meet the needs of my more difficult guests ("Do you have any smaller forks?" "You don't carry wheat bread? What kind of restaurant doesn't carry wheat bread?"), I recite, along with my colleagues, the collective restaurant server mantra: "I need a real job." The same thought gets passed among adjuncts in my department: "I need a real teaching position. I need to publish a book."
I know this path takes time, and I'm trying to do it right. So why do I still experience a great feeling of shame when clearing a student's dirty plate? Embarrassment is not an adequate term to describe what I felt when those parents looked at me, clearly stupefied, thinking, "This waitress teaches my child?"
It is a shame I share with many of my blue-collar colleagues, a belief that society deems our work inferior, that we have settled on or chosen these paths because we do not have the skills necessary to acquire something better. It is certainly a belief I held for the majority of my undergraduate experience.
But not all my restaurant co-workers are college dropouts, and none are failures. Many have bachelor's degrees; others have real estate licenses, freelancing projects or extraordinary musical and artistic abilities. Others are nontraditional students, having entered the work force before attending college and making the wise decision not to "find themselves" and come out with $40,000 in debt, at 4.6 percent interest. Most of them are parents who have bought homes, raised children and made financial investments off their modest incomes. They are some of the kindest, hardest-working people I know, and after three years alongside them, I find it difficult to tell my students to avoid being like them.
My perhaps naïve hope is that when I tell students I'm not only an academic, but a "survival" jobholder, I'll make a dent in the artificial, inaccurate division society places between blue-collar work and "intelligent" work. We expect our teachers to teach us, not our servers, although in the current economy, these might be the same people.
If my students can imagine the possibility that choosing to work with their hands does not automatically exclude them from being people who critically examine the world around them, I will feel I've done something worthwhile, not only for those who will earn their degree, but for the majority who will not.