Work & Purpose

Career Shift: From Radical to Corporate Suit to English Teacher

After this former campus radical was laid off, he found the job of his lifetime

How did I, a onetime youthful idealist, end up working in Time Warner’s corporate communications department? God, I don’t know — exigencies, contingencies, the occasional choice. But there I was for eight long, rapidly passing years encouraging the company's employees to believe that they and I were all part of a larger corporate “we.” That turned out not to be true. 
Laid Off at Time Warner

After laying off 500 employees (including me) one day in February 2008, the company’s chief executive told the press, “We’ve eliminated the bloat at corporate headquarters.” Who's "we"? Who's "the bloat"?

In a heartbeat, I’d gone from valued colleague to flatulent digestive disturbance. What a rip-off! I’d made a deal — “I'll give my time on Earth to the Corporation in exchange for money and health insurance for my family” — and the company wasn't holding up its end of the bargain: “We don't want you anymore. Get lost!"
But, surprise, now I was found.
After the layoff, I felt anything was possible. Well, not anything: At 59, it was extremely unlikely that I could get hired for a position like the one I’d lost, even if I wanted to. (Companies tend to prefer younger and cheaper people.)

So I figured this was the time to look for something meaningful, something that felt like what I was supposed to be doing. When I wrote The Strawberry Statement at age 19, it gave voice to what a lot of people my age were hoping: that our generation would be different. We'd be less greedy, more kind, more true to ourselves.

Now I had the opportunity.

Some people have a calling. I once met a cartographer at Mapquest who told me he stumbled into a box of National Geographics when he was 5, opened it up, saw a map, and never looked back. Many of us aren’t so lucky, however. We feel as though something is out there calling, but too quietly, or at too great a distance to be heard. Or the call comes when we’re busy, and our minds don't have call waiting, so we don't pick up.
David Worley, dean of admissions at Denver's Iliff School of Theology, gave me some guidance. “I don't think that meaning is somewhere out there in metaphysical space that one day clicks for us," he told me. “I really think finding meaning is a process — one of constantly working yourself into a better situation. It has something to do with not having to truncate yourself — being able to be fully you." 
My Ephiphany About Downsizing

Epiphany: I hadn’t been downsized; the company had been downsized. I’d been given the chance to climb out of a corporate cubbyhole, stand up, stretch and grow into a job that wouldn’t require me to leave part of myself at the door.

Looking back over my life, I remembered that I'd enjoyed the times I volunteered, teaching immigrants English. I always loved the people as well as the opportunity to help them. I decided it was time to find a job doing this.
After repeated requests, I managed to snag a volunteer slot tutoring refugees at the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian group based in Manhattan. Then I took a six-week course to earn a Certificate in English Language–Teaching to Adults, which qualified me to teach in commercial language schools. My fellow trainees were in their 20s, but since in my heart of hearts I think I am, too, I just acted natural and quickly felt at ease with my peers.
I applied for jobs at 16 New York City schools that teach English as a second language, but got a response only from Language Studies International, which serves affluent young adults from around the world. That job wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but I took it and began teaching 20 hours a week.
Loving My New Job as a Teacher

I wound up loving this position, and my supervisor then helped me land my current part-time job at LaGuardia Community College, teaching English to immigrants. My students work long hours at exhausting jobs by day then come to study four nights a week. It’s an honor to stand in a classroom with them.

Over the past two years at LaGuardia, I’ve become part of a genuine, larger “we.” No one is using anyone else as a means to an end. We are all there to learn together, to succeed together, to empower and support one another. A lot of us are poor, some of us are more educated than others; but we all respect one another as equals. It’s the opposite of the life I had led in a corporation.
I now appreciate that there is no distance between who I am and what I am doing, at last.

In speech lab one night I played “All You Need is Love,” and my students sang along. I thought it would give them good practice pronouncing the “uh” sound high in their throat (as in “up”) and — over and over again — ”love.” (Many of them tend to pronounce every “uh” from a lower place, like the “oo” in “good” or the “u” in “rude.”) As I stood at the side of the room listening to my class sing the classic line, “Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be,” I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was in exactly the right place, doing precisely the right thing.

Next Avenue has published other articles about career shifters, including these four:
James S. Kunen
By James S. Kunen
James S. Kunen wrote The Strawberry Statement, the best-seller recounting his participation in  the 1968 anti-war uprising at Columbia University, and went on to become a public defender, a freelance journalist, a People magazine editor, and a corporate communications executive at Time Warner. Laid off at 59, he embarked on a quest for meaning in work and life that he chronicles in his new book, Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life.

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