During June of 2006 I was visiting an old friend of mine in India. He was a former teacher and I tracked him down online a year before. Tim had left the Anchorage school district under a cloud of controversy. Rather than push the boulder back uphill, he decided to pack everything and move to India, with a few years’ detour through southeast Asia.
We kept in contact over email, and one day he sent a group message saying that he’d moved to Mamallapuram and that he was eager to have people come to visit him.
Several of us on the email thread, mostly other students, flew out to meet him. There was an atmosphere of reunion, many of us hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years.
One night, we were gathered in his room where he was holding court, telling us a story about how he got fired from a job teaching English to Korean school children.
“These kids would get to me after twelve hours of school. They’d be herded in and forced to sit still for another hour while I stomped English lessons into their tired little heads, then they’d be taken home where their parents would put them through another few hours of homework.
“One day I had enough. I looked around at all of the kids and told them that they were going to get a special lesson. I taught them how to say ‘School is for dopes’ in English. Then I told them to say that to their parents.”
That story stuck with me. And it came to mind the other weekend when I was sitting on the roof of my apartment building with my girlfriend, Laura. We were drinking a bottle of rosé, staring at the Manhattan skyline because cliches are so in this year.
Laura had just quit her job as the Director of Special Education for a couple of charter schools. She wanted to get into education consulting and make a bigger impact. The whole summer was ahead of us and we knew that when she found a new job she’d be head down working her little bum off. Still, the uncertainty was driving her nuts.
The discussion drifted to a friend of hers who was hustling his ass off, overeducated and underemployed. She wondered why he didn’t get out for a month or so and go live in Central America, where he’d previously done a lot of research.
I shot off without thinking. “Why doesn’t he just say fuck it and go backpacking for a whole year? The work he wants to do will still be there, but he’ll get a lot of perspective. He knows how to hack it in foreign countries, and if you stick to the developing world, long-term traveling is pretty damned cheap.”
In one of those life-before-your-eyes flashes I thought about how she’d be right back on the treadmill after maybe a month or so of downtime, and how my contract would be up in September, right when she would be returning to those long (albeit rewarding) hours.
Then I said, “Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we just say fuck it and go backpacking for a year?”
Laura looked back at me for a second. “You’re not joking, are you?”
“Not at all.”
Just like that, we set to planning our round the world airfares and scouring travel blogs. The world has become a lot easier to travel in over the last ten years. Broadband is everywhere, especially in Southeast Asia. Information about what to pack, what to avoid, and what not to miss is plentiful.
It was like Tim’s wisdom had been sitting in the back of my mind, biding its time for the right moment to strike.
When he told those kids that school was for dopes, he wasn’t saying that education in general wasn’t a worthwhile endeavor, he was saying that working yourself to death was a fool’s bargain. Striving for success is only part of a well-lived life. The rest is, y’know, actually living it.
I’m extremely fortunate in that I can work on the road if we need extra money—thanks in part to that now-plentiful broadband. Laura is planning to reflect on eight years of work as a school psychologist. Maybe write or blog or visit schools in India. And I will pick up more grist than I could possibly mill when it comes to my writing. Both of us will return better prepared for whatever the next phase of our life holds.
Now, the very fact that we have the option to do this is evidence of our incredible good fortune. Neither of us are blind to our privilege. But to blindly continue on the work treadmill without looking up would be a criminal waste of that privilege.
There are a lot of people in the world who don’t have the option to do this, but there are a lot of people who do have the option and refuse to see it. So while it may sound tone-deaf without the back story, that’s what it means when we say that work is for dopes.