There were warning signs. Red flags. Flares in the big empty sky. The school was located in a series of strip malls along a highway in a shitty part of town, but close enough to a nice part to appear, on paper, like a good place to go. The parking lot contained a Wendy’s, an abandoned seafood restaurant, and a pawn shop where I would later see a truck full of rednecks speeding through, waving Confederate flags, and shouting at the students, many of whom skateboarded to class from apartment complexes nearby that boasted “great deals for students” (typically with missing letters).
Yes, there were warning signs, but I’d spent six months unemployed and charging my life onto credit cards, cards I’d been so careful with all my life. But there I was at twenty-five with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and no job. After graduating from Florida State University, I had quickly moved to Orlando. In hindsight, this was a terrible idea, but, in the moment, it seemed like fun. Three years of living in quiet Tallahassee had made any slightly larger city seem like a good move, and this one was close by. Perhaps it was my Midwestern upbringing and its frequent summer trips to Florida that gave me the idea that staying in the state would be one extended vacation. It was not.
My boyfriend, Dustin, immediately got a low-paying job at Walt Disney World driving a safari truck through their manufactured African landscape. While this seemed like a nightmare to me, the small, Disney-loving kid in Dustin was excited by the idea. I, on the other hand, was too overeducated and underskilled to get any job in Orlando, where pretty much every job is in hospitality, food, or retail. I’d done none of these.
I spent my first six months with a master’s degree crying, fighting with Dustin, drinking, and lying by my apartment pool. I was mostly angry. Angry that I’d become a cliché. I’d gone straight from high school to a small liberal-arts college, where I got my BA in English literature. From there, I went directly into a good MFA program with a focus on poetry. During grad school, I realized that I loved teaching and figured that would be a good route to take as I continued to progress with my writing. I never intended to be another unemployed English major, and I was suddenly haunted by all the people who had always asked with a know-it-all attitude, “What are you going to do with that?”
There I was, quickly going into debt and failing miserably. I was not used to failing. I’d achieved everything I had put my mind to before, including good grades, awards, scholarships, and publications. I felt like I’d played by the rules, only to discover the rest of the world was playing a different game, one I didn’t know how to play.
During these six months, I went on countless interviews where I was often humiliated. A dog-food company interviewed me to be a secretary, and during the interview a grey-haired lady in her sixties couldn’t get over the fact that I’d never had a job that required me to answer the phone. I explained that I’d answered my own phone for years with no trouble, but she wasn’t impressed. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
In another awkward interview at a for-profit school (there are many in Orlando), the woman interviewing me pointed to a conference presentation listed on my CV that I’d done about being openly gay in the freshmen composition classroom and said, “That’s great, but here we don’t tell students things like that, you understand?” I understood perfectly: I wasn’t getting the job, and she was a bigot. She didn’t care that the presentation was at the largest English-teaching conference in the world and that it’s actually an honor to get to present there. Actual credentials were of no interest.
At this point, I was applying for any and every job I could find. In October, after being unemployed for five months, I got hired part-time at a J. Crew outlet. I think the only reason this happened is because the manager was gay and thought I was cute. Win for Team Gay. There I was with my master’s, folding pastel sweaters and selling khakis to Brazilian tourists.
The saying is all you need is a job to get offered another one. After only two weeks at J. Crew, I was offered a full-time salary position as an online English-composition instructor at a for-profit school in a strip mall.
On my first day, I arrived in dress pants, a button-up striped shirt, and a blue and orange tie with little greyhounds on it (all purchased during my brief stint at J. Crew). My boss’s boss, Ted, greeted me in a Hawaiian print shirt and jeans, looked me up and down, and said, “You got another job interview?” I awkwardly assured him I didn’t. Then in an attempt to make me feel more comfortable after his joke, he glanced at my tie and said, “Go Gators!” Things were off to a great start.
He showed me to my cubicle in the back of a badly lit room. Since all the spaces were converted from a strip mall, there was glass on only the front side of the building, making the backside dark and cave-like. On the coldest days in winter, the front door would fog up and the words “GameStop” appeared.
I spent my first few weeks back in this hole wondering what I’d gotten myself into. They had no work for me to do, because classes had just begun. Their classes, however, were only four weeks long, so it was just a short wait. In the meantime, I was meant to train. Training included a day-long employee orientation where I was driven around the strip malls on a golf cart by a man who said I had a lovely voice and should sing. He took us by the “library,” which was a room with four metal shelves mostly stacked with DVDs. He smiled at us and said, “Who needs all those books?” I wanted to tell him that I did, but kept my mouth shut.
My job also required me to be in my cubicle from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM each day. Having taught at other schools, this confused me. Why would I need to be in a cubicle for forty hours a week? No one seemed to have the answer. My direct supervisor, Noelle, was nice enough, but had little for me to do and thus left me on my own when I wasn’t in a training session.
Part of me truly couldn’t believe I was being paid for this. In those first weeks, I read a David Sedaris book and took in my surroundings. English departments, as a general rule, provide a wide-range of oddities, but this one was a bit extreme. There was Ruth, a woman in her late forties, who wore giant flower-print shirts. I later learned that she used to be overweight, but was now quite thin. I guess she had decided not to buy new clothes. As the months rolled on, I also learned that she was a nudist and once asked my boss if she could write a blog for the English website on nudism. If I’d been in charge, I would have said yes. She survived another two years and then traded in her job for a teaching gig in Saudi Arabia. Just one more warning sign: If middle-aged white female nudists are leaving your company to go work in Saudi Arabia, you might have a problem.
There was also Debbie, who spent more time talking about and doing work for her private company than for ours. During her last week, I was forced to show her how to enter grades into the computer system for her online class that she’d never looked at and didn’t know how to work. I sat and watched as she entered 100s for each and every assignment not reading a single one.
Three weeks into my job, the chair of our department got demoted. Frank was a cute straight man who dressed well, but you could tell on first meeting him that he was an anxious mess. He was put back in an instructor position and was moved from his private office to a cubicle next to me. Awkward. Once he moved next door, I was startled to find that he constantly cursed under his breath, as if he had a whispered form of Tourette’s. All day, I’d hear muttering that I typically couldn’t make out until he’d come to the word “fuck.” He seemed mostly harmless, but like someone I might be interviewed about after some mass shooting: “Now that I think about it, yes, he was weird, unstable even. Kept muttering under his breath.” As things continued to change, he’d move to another department, and I’d move my desk closer to the sunlight.
In my four years at the school, many would come and go through the doors. Some I’d befriend, like the young fiction writer who moved to Australia with her boyfriend or the slightly naïve but spunky girl from Pittsburgh who grew to hate Florida just as much as I did. Some would become close friends and would help me survive. Others would try to drag me even further into the pit of despair with their constant complaining. And still others provided mere entertainment, like the woman who often wore skirts way too short and came to work drunk on more than one occasion. She actually taught two face-to-face classes intoxicated and wasn’t fired. Later, due to an eye injury, she would be forced to wear an eye patch, and I’d affectionately refer to her as Patchy to my friends. There was Rachel, who wore fingerless gloves and earplugs on a regular basis, and Julie, who wore a Snuggie to work and cried a lot. She only lasted three months before she quit and went on welfare. Welfare was apparently preferable to teaching at a for-profit university.
You can’t make these things up. We were a department of disasters at a school that was even more disastrous than we were.
Once I began teaching, I realized most people I worked with either had no idea what they were doing or had given up even trying to be a good teacher due to the circumstances. My English-composition class was one of the first the school had put online, and instead of using a learning management system already in existence like Blackboard, the school had “designed” their own, which barely functioned. It took them three years to thread the discussion boards on our course sites. I mean come on, you can find threaded discussion boards on a forum arguing which Star Trek captain is the best.
The online system was managed by a graduate of the school who looked like an extra in an Enrique Iglesias music video. He combated any critique or question with some ridiculous response. When our department asked if we could get the character limit for the textboxes on the discussion boards increased, he said, “Why do you want the students to write so much?” I don’t know, because it’s a writing class.
There were no entrance exams, which meant anyone who could pay or get enough loans could come to the school. Our degrees were offered in a wide range of entertainment-based professions like gaming, recording arts, and film. We called them bachelor’s degrees, yet our accreditation was the same as the one beauty schools get, so most states would not consider these real degrees, and transferring credits would be nearly impossible.
Our students, of course, didn’t know this. Many of them came in excited, believing in all seriousness that they were going to be the next Jay-Z or Tarantino. They were wide-eyed and undereducated—people who, for the most part, had done terribly in school and for whom the idea of going to college and learning about movies or video games seemed very appealing.
And the school put on a good show. Once you got inside the strip malls, you would find state-of-the-art technology and equipment that would wow potential students. The school attracted those who wanted something quick without much work. These kids were hungry for success as fast as possible, and a school promising a degree in just twenty-two months seemed like a dream come true. Basically, we were the Burger King of education: fast, easy, and you can have it your way.
They recruited people at kiosks in malls, at Orlando Magic games, and on expensive recruitment trips to poor countries where they would convince people that a shiny new Apple laptop and a poorly-functioning website was a quality education. A student could literally go from never having heard of the school to signing up and starting classes within the span of two weeks. And in those two weeks, they also signed up for a lot of debt. The school charged between $60,000 to $100,000 for the degrees. This was just for the classes. For the “education.” The school offered no housing or food plans. It didn’t take me long to realize I’d become just one of the moving parts in a large education scam.
English composition was the first class for many of the students, and for most of the time I was at the school, it was taught online for all students whether they were in an online-only program or not. In a section of twenty-five students, I had a wide range of ability. I’d have one or two at a normal freshman college level and the rest fell somewhere between not being able to put together a sentence to not even knowing English. We went after many international students who truly didn’t speak the language, and the results weren’t pretty. The failure rate was normally 50% or higher, which caused higher-ups to question our teaching and to suggest, on numerous occasions, changes to the course, including making it easier and getting rid of the essays. The class was already at about an eighth-grade level.
No one seemed to want to acknowledge that people were failing because they weren’t ready for college. Some didn’t know how to use computers, and others had struggled with writing all their lives and needed a different kind of course. Designing one English class for all students with no entrance exams to determine ability ahead of time created an impossible challenge. That predicament, paired with a four-week time span and a barely functioning website, resulted in one giant mess.
Once the school began increasing online-only programs, the students got more and more diverse. One month, I had a student in her sixties named Lulu who lived in a trailer in Montana and had just signed up for the computer-animation online degree. Her writing ability was at about a second- or third-grade level. When asked to write a review of a movie of her choosing, she selected Disney’s Pocahontas and her brief response included lines like “Pocahontas is a cartoon. I like it. It had animals. Animals are fun.” At least in that one, I could understand what she wrote. Other times, I couldn’t make sense of the work she submitted. One piece included lyrics from a Cher song and mentioned Lulu’s abusive husband as well as her dead children. She failed the course, and I had to wonder how she had been convinced to do this. She didn’t belong in this program. I knew, just as everyone around me knew, the school would milk her for every dime she was willing to hand over.
When the school started a new department called “Student Success,” I hoped things might get better, but they didn’t. When a fellow instructor called the department to report that one of her students was basically illiterate and wondered what could be done, the response was “This kind of problem usually just takes care of itself.” Translation: if he keeps paying, we’ll keep enrolling him in classes.
Many students, however, understood what they were getting into and wanted an A for simply paying the fee. These students were habitual for-profit students. They’d gone from one to another to another. They knew how it worked: you complain to the right person and you get what you want. I’d get students threatening to call lawyers, the Board of Education, and, once, John McCain. Others threatened me with the wrath of God and told me it was against the law to fail them. These students were angry when they met any resistance. They screamed into the phone, sent emails in all caps, and demanded to be treated like a customer.
One student informed me it was my job to make her happy and make her want to continue at the school. She then told me how another for-profit school was very interested in her, and if I didn’t give her what she wanted, she’d go there. As a general rule, I held my ground and let the people above me give them what they wanted. The result was the same, but I could feel somehow separate from it.
Going from no money to a steady paycheck kept me coming back to my cubicle day after day those first six months. Unemployment showed me how quickly I could fall and that survival sometimes requires doing things you don’t believe in.
But at the six-month mark, I was ready to break. I’d kept my mouth shut, which for me is a feat. I’d followed the rules, even when I didn’t agree with them. I’d graded my students fairly. I’d answered their questions. I’d tried my best to teach them something. I’d sat in pointless meetings. I’d observed my boss and coworkers. I’d done my best to ignore the slimy feeling I got anytime my boss’s boss, Ted, showed his smiling face in our department and told us how grateful we should be that we all had jobs. In a way, he was right, but after awhile you wonder: Would a cardboard box under I-4 be so bad?
In May of my first year, a staff meeting was called to discuss the failure rate of students. As my boss, Noelle, explained how puzzled the higher-ups were about this failure rate, I began to zone out. In just six months, I’d heard this absurd discussion countless times already. People who decide to go to college while shopping for new tennis shoes in the mall are probably not going to have the highest success rate. I was suddenly brought back into the room when I heard the words “grammar test” mentioned. Wow, I thought. They’re finally realizing we need an entrance exam, or at least a way to place students in more appropriate courses. But then I realized I’d misheard.
Before I could stop myself, my mouth was open and words were barreling forth: “Wait, you mean you want us to take the grammar test, not the students?”
“Yes,” Noelle said in a tone that implied this way of thinking was perfectly logical. “They want everyone in the English department to take it, to make sure that the failure issue isn’t because we don’t know our stuff. I’ll put one on everyone’s desk.”
“That’s insane! First you make us take a grammar test when you hire us, which I thought was offensive enough, but now I have to take another one? It’s been six months! Do you think I’ve had some sort of brain injury that’s caused me to forget grammar?”
Suddenly everyone woke up. They’d never seen me like this. One of the only other men in the department was sitting beside me, and he whispered that I should calm down. I told him I was fine and was about to continue when Noelle stood up and with a slight terror in her eyes and said, “The meeting’s over. Make sure you all do the quizzes by tomorrow.” She was out the door quicker than I’d ever seen her move.
After the meeting, I stormed out of our glass-storefront English department quickly, followed by my current friend in the office. We made our way across the strip mall parking lot to the Chili’s, where we cursed the school, ate shitty food, and drank two-for-one margaritas.
The next morning I found the grammar quiz on my desk and was faced with a choice. Up until this point, I had tried to separate myself from everything that was happening. It wasn’t me making these students pay all this money for a bad education. It wasn’t me trolling malls and high schools, asking kids if they want to make “phat beats.” It wasn’t me convincing homeless people, abused housewives, and war vets with PTSD that our school was the only option to improve their lives. It wasn’t me running this department or making these bad choices. But now I felt like my face was being rubbed in it.
Nothing I had accomplished was worth anything. My good grades, my real degrees, my publications were all nothing to them. For all the good I’d done, I still ended up there in a cubicle staring at a grammar quiz that any ninth-grader should be able to ace. It was the principle of it, and the absolute denial of those running the school, that made my face burn with anger. I could imagine Ted over in his office laughing at the act of making a room full of people with MFAs and PhDs take a grammar quiz. Did they really think this was the problem? I threw away the first quiz that was placed on my desk. It was an issue of pride.
A second quiz appeared the next day with a note saying I had to fill it out or I’d be fired. I know Noelle was scared. She was my direct boss, but I knew more than she did about teaching, and I had learned the computer system much faster than she had. She needed me. She didn’t want to fire me, and I’m not sure she would have had the balls either—but Ted would have. Ted didn’t like men. He hired almost all women, but had made an exception for me, probably because I’m gay. He expected me to roll over, to play nice, to be like some sexless gay character on a network sitcom. I didn’t want him to win. Ted was so transparent. He wasn’t very bright, but he had managed to get in a position of power, and he was going to make anyone smarter than he was pay. Basically, he was a cartoon villain.
But what’s worse than working for a shitty company? Getting fired from one. I filled the quiz out and placed it on my boss’s desk when she wasn’t there. I can imagine her sigh of relief when she found it. The quizzes were never spoken of again, students kept failing, and every few months they’d come up with a different reason why.
I lasted another three and a half years after taking that grammar quiz. The department changed a great deal. I got promoted to director of the English-composition course and was forced to hire more and more instructors as the school continued to grow and exploit more people. We moved our offices and eventually ended up in a building full of cubicles setup in a call-center style and decorated like the Ikea showroom. The building was part of the strip mall and had been taken over by the school when the Albertson’s grocery store closed its doors. My desk was located near the old cookie aisle.
I made good friends and a few enemies. Ted was eventually moved to another department and stopped speaking to me when we passed in the hallways. In my last year there, they hired a new boss to oversee all of the general-education courses. She actually had a PhD from a legitimate school, which was rare for the higher-ups, but she proved just as crazy and unstable. She was, however, a true English person at heart, as was apparent in her extreme awkwardness and inability to read social cues. She became famous in our department for her awkward entrances to conversations and even more so for her very abrupt exits. There one minute, gone the next. After only a few months, she was drowning in the rhetoric of the school, and her teaching ethics were nowhere to be found. It was truly amazing how fast the school could change people with a pay bump.
There were times when I would laugh at it all and times when I’d find myself at home in tears, feeling like I’d failed myself. The job wasn’t hard. It wasn’t labor intensive. In many ways, I was lucky: I had a steady income. But at the end of the day, I was part of the destruction taking place all around us in the education system. Education is not something to be boxed, sold, and consumed. It is not meant to make some rich man more and more money so he can buy fighter planes from World War II.
I saw smart students questioning what they’d gotten themselves into, and I saw struggling students who truly wanted to learn but couldn’t in the environment provided. I saw Iraq War vets using the G.I. Bill for an education that would get them nowhere. For-profit schools love vets, because they mean quick and easy money from the government. Most of these schools give recruiters huge bonuses for each vet they sign up. Regardless, any student who could make it to graduation exited with a meaningless piece of paper and often little skill.
All of these students were taken in by a company with a lot of money, fancy equipment, and a flashy website. Some days, it seemed like nobody got it. We were making our money on the backs of mostly underprivileged and undereducated students. We used their farfetched dreams to capture them in a net that would destroy them with a fake degree and debt. Later, I’d see graduates working at the local liquor store or a chain restaurant. Reality would find them, and those dreams would be long gone.
When I saved enough money, I quit my job and moved to New York City. I had imagined leaving so many times before. I dreamed of running through the strip malls screaming, “Fuck you!” at everyone. I thought about sending out a mass email to students and faculty telling them how horrible the school was and why they should all quit. I imagined being a whistleblower and getting a front-page story in the Times. Or, in more vulgar dreams, I longed to shit on Ted’s desk and fill his computer with gay porn. Each and every scenario was dramatic and full of rage. I wanted to destroy the place that had almost destroyed me. I wanted to be like Laura Dern in the opening scene of Enlightened: mascara running down my face as I force the elevator doors back open and scream, “I’m going to fucking kill you!”
When the day finally came, I realized that none of those things would change anything and that I’d be looked at as just another crazy ex-employee. The fact is I could run through the halls screaming and most people would probably barely raise their heads from their cubicles. The school had created a sea of robots bobbing along to the same absurd idea that what they were doing mattered. Many of the faculty members were just as brainwashed as the students. Most were not from traditional academic backgrounds but had “industry experience,” which was a term thrown around pretty loosely. Is cleaning the toilets at MTV really music-industry experience? Most had never taught, and many barely had degrees themselves.
After four years of feeling guilty and weighed down by my need for a paycheck, I walked out those doors for the last time. Though my office had moved, I made sure to take one last look at the old GameStop where it had all started. It was November. The air was still warm in Orlando. I was just two days from my thirtieth birthday, and I was finally free from the land of the strip-mall school.
Rumpus original art by Patrick Sean Gibson.