At 50, I quit my job as editor of a small-town weekly newspaper, hoping to find something I was more suited to, like a communications position with an environmental organization or a job teaching English at community college. After sending out dozens of resumes and cover letters, I got nowhere. I was unemployed with no prospects, trying to imagine a better future, but finding it hard.
I was in good company. Back in the 1970s, a friend of my dad’s named Bill Smalley was working at a toy store on the east coast. “Uncle Bill,” known to some as William A. Smalley, was a linguist of great renown, underemployed with no prospects. He was 55, and his resume was better than mine: a Ph.D from Columbia, a long list of publications, a book that was a classic in his field (“Manual of Articulatory Phonetics”) and a lifetime of adventure behind him.
My dad was his old colleague, friend, and writing partner, and he talked the administration at Bethel College into expanding the linguistics program, so Bill and his wife Jane moved to Minnesota, where Bill was able to finish his career doing what he loved — teaching and studying in the field of linguistics. Dad and Bill had written a book together in the 1960s, “Becoming Bilingual,” and they ran the Toronto Institute of Linguistics with colleagues Linn Barney and Tom and Betty Sue Brewster.
Bill was a gentle giant, so tall that my brother and sister and I called him “Bill Talley.” When Dad and Bill visited a remote tribe in New Zealand in the 1960s, the chief said to Bill, “You are the tallest man I have ever seen.” Then he looked at Dad and said, “You are the fattest man I have ever seen.”
Bill and Dad worked in a small circle of linguists (Barney, the Brewsters, Smalley, Gene Nida, Ken Pike and others) who helped tens of thousands of missionaries and translators move to foreign cultures, learn the language, and translate the Bible. Dad and Bill were a little dubious about the idea of imposing Western ideas and values on traditional tribes around the world, but they were great believers in the inherent value of cross-cultural communication. The older Dad got, the more he questioned the practice of “preaching the Gospel” and instead encouraged missionaries to bring real skills in medicine, agriculture, engineering, or education to the developing world.
Only a few strands of a once-strong rope still tie me to the faith of my fathers and mothers, but I still admire those who devoted their lives to language learning and teaching, to cultural exchange and respect, and to promotion of literacy through development of written languages for people who had none.
Bill was one of those people, and he’s something of a hero among the hill tribes of Southeast Asia, as his New York Times obituary explains: ”I cannot value his work,” said Yang Dao, assistant director of the English Language Learner Project of the St. Paul Public Schools. ”It is invaluable. This writing system helped us to preserve our culture and tradition and history. Now it is used by Hmong all over the world.”
Bill was one of my favorite teachers in college. He approached the art of teaching with the same creativity and the same fertile mind he brought to his extensive scholarship. I did some of my best college writing for Bill, because his assignments brought out the best in me.
After college I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was interested in sociology. My Dad was much more convinced of the value of anthropology and its sister science, linguistics, and through his influence (or my fear of letting him down) I applied and was accepted to the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.
I quit after three weeks, for a combination of reasons:
- I realized as soon as I walked into my first class that I was doing what my dad wanted, not what I wanted.
- I was compelled to read theology at the time because I had to make sense of my religious upbringing, which had made me a little crazy.
- I had a novel to write that would make me rich and famous and the talk of the literary world.
- I was afraid of failure.
- I preferred drinking beer and singing country songs with my friends across the bay to sitting in a class full of whiz kids discussing Bronislaw Malinowski.
I’ve regretted the decision many times since.
Fast-forward eight years to International Falls, where I was married to Diane and teaching community college English, the fulfillment of “plan B.” I had pursued a Master’s in English from the North Dakota State University of Agricultural and Applied Sciences — known by some as “The Berkeley of Fargo.” I had been lucky to land the first job I applied for. When I proudly told a former teacher (not Bill) that I had a teaching job in “The Icebox of the Nation,” he replied, “I’m sorry to hear of your exile.”
At graduation my first or second year, the president of the college accomplished a coup: U.S. Rep. Rod Grams was scheduled to speak at our little Rainy River Community College. Rod Grams was from the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party (but would be considered liberal today), and I despised him and everything he stood for. I had fallen in with the wrong crowd — the teachers union — and we decided to protest by handing out leaflets listing Grams’ voting record. I volunteered to write it, and I also passed it out before graduation, wearing my robe and my NDSU Master’s hood.
There’s two kinds of people, a wise man once said: Those who piss out of the circle, and those who piss in. You can guess which one I am, and I can tell you I took after my father in that respect. Thanks to my dad, that’s what I thought teaching at college was: Making the students think by pissing off (or pissing on) The Man.
Anyway, Diane and I didn’t want to be exiled forever, so we moved to a sort of hippie commune in Bogus Brook Township, where there weren’t a lot of community college teaching options. In ensuing years, I applied for many community college jobs in Minnesota and came close several times. Once, a community college president told me he was going to hire me if my former college president gave me a good recommendation. Three times, I was a finalist at another school where the president was a former colleague of my old boss.
For many years, pissing off the college president by dissing Rod Grams was one of my greatest regrets.
I also regretted quitting my job as editor of the paper after my failure to find a job made me decide to pursue a teaching license as an act of desperation. During a long year-plus of challenging grad classes, B.S. licensure requirements, being the oldest student in the room, and student teaching kindergartners (even though I had no desire to teach at that level), I regretted and regretted and regretted.
Now I’m almost done, and I have too many options, and things are looking up for ol’ Brett.
When I return, I’ll have a great job as a writer for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, contributing to their paper and helping to manage the website and Facebook page.
In the fall I’ll teach a little English and journalism at the Mille Lacs Reservation college campus, through Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
A partner and I are considering a publishing project that would fulfill another old dream of mine.
If none of that works out, I’ll have a teaching license that will open doors around the world.
If I’d stayed in graduate school in 1987, I probably wouldn’t have married Diane and had my two beautiful kids, who make me feel so proud and rich in love every day.
If I hadn’t dissed Rod Grams, I probably would’ve been an English teacher all my life — never learned journalism, never gone to New Zealand, never lived in a hippie commune surrounded by good friends and kids and animals
If I hadn’t quit my job, I wouldn’t be in Tanzania, missing my family, learning Swahili, having the time of my life, and thinking about regret.