Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Commuter Marriage

Michigan has a glut of teachers just now--about ten recent English teaching grads for every open job--so when Dan was wrapping up his second bachelors degree and studying for the Praxis exams, we went to a few hiring fairs for teachers. It was April or May of 2004, and we were getting married in July. We both had decent jobs, but not great, and I wanted him to use his degree, not just continue to accrue student loan debt in a masters program he wasn't really interested in using. He was too smart to not be teaching, I told him, and it was time to move forward.

Dan is not the kind of guy who would make the decision to move to Maryland without being pushed. And I pushed. I took him to buy a suit, have it altered, make sure he wasn't wearing white athletic socks with it, beat his resume into shape, made sure he had copies of transcripts and portfolios and everything else he needed before we went to Eastern Michigan University's teaching career hiring fair. There were no jobs in Michigan, especially for new teachers without substantial experience, I told him. We would be stupid to continue to drag along, making less than $20,000 a year between the two of us, into our thirties. I wanted more.

At Eastern, he was offered the first job he interviewed for: with the Baltimore City Schools. I had never thought of moving to Baltimore. My cousin and his wife and their son lived there for years before moving back to Michigan, but most of what I knew came from "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and Laura Lippman novels. We heard rumors, though, that the City schools frequently ran out of money before the end of the year and stopped paying their teachers in April. Oh no.

He was offered a few more jobs on the spot: a couple in Florida, and Charles County, Maryland. Prince George's County, where he currently is, offered him a second interview. In June, when we came down to interview again, he was the first teacher recruited from Michigan by a new principal, who hired him on the spot.

There was never any question about whether I would go with him to Maryland. Dan is a wonderful guy, the best guy I've ever known, but he has a few areas at which he does not excel. Breaking out of his own comfort zone is one. He rarely ventures out of his own neighborhood without some major form of guidance. Another is general administrative and organizational tasks. Once, when we were dating, he had his electricity turned off for non-payment. We were literally just sitting in his living room when the lights went off. The overdue amount? $16. He just simply hadn't thought to pay it. For three months. Besides, we were getting married in July. We had begun talking about marriage when he had been considering a teaching post with the Department of Defense, where he would have been posted in Europe or Asia somewhere for two years. Having just narrowly missed being deployed to Iraq with his National Guard unit, he wasn't willing to consider us being apart again. When we decided not to take the DoD posting, we realized that we didn't care where we lived, we just wanted to be together and married--even though we'd only been dating a little more than six months.

I would describe our first year of marriage as unusually eventful. Two weeks after we got married, we packed everything that would fit into his car, stored my car and the rest of our possessions in his parents' barn, and moved to Maryland. We didn't have an apartment yet when Dan reported for his first day of work--we literally parked in the school administration building's parking lot with everything we had in the back of our car. We stayed in what could only be referred to as a hooker motel across from the gates at Andrews Air Force Base until we found an apartment. We slept on an air mattress. We bought two lawn chairs at K-Mart and watched a 13-inch television sitting on top of a milk crate in our living room our first night there. "So this is marriage," I remember saying to Dan. "I thought there would be more furniture." Another teacher took pity on us and gave us a couch from Ikea. The lawn chairs were more comfortable. But, at least I could stretch out and enjoy the all-day morning sickness--within ten weeks of our wedding, I was pregnant.

We did eventually buy real furniture--including what I consider a BRILLIANT find, a big, cooshy, deep armchair and matching ottoman covered in what may possibly be the world's ugliest green flowered upholstery, that I got for $25 at the flea market in St. Mary's County--and the world's largest couch. I survived 492,395,302 months of pregnancy and gave birth to Captain Adorable. And now, we're coming up on five years since we met (but not five years since our first date, since I spent about six months being unimpressed by Dan), buying a house, and attempting another 493,490,503 months of pregnancy.

We've never REALLY been apart. Before we were dating, we worked together. Before we were married, we lived together. For the last almost-five years, basically, all I've had to do at night was reach to the left, and there he was. He's been my anchor, my rock. I've always known where home was: it was wherever Dan was.

Dan works with another teacher from Michigan now. He's from Battle Creek, a town not far from where we lived. Dan said he had found him a little standoffish for the first few weeks of school. A few weeks ago, Dan said that the new teacher came to him and asked, "Where do you get your hair cut?" This prompted Dan to sit the teacher down and get his story.

He had been the principal of a Catholic school in Michigan. He was frustrated with having a bunch of kids who didn't really seem to need what he had to give, and so he went looking for a teaching job in a community that really needed good, caring teaching. This teacher's wife is a teacher at the same school where he had been principal.

She and their children have stayed behind in Michigan while he tries out this new community for a year. He is here, all by himself, 11 hours away from his wife and kids, in a totally foreign environment. When Dan and I went looking for "diversity" in a community, we hadn't really given a lot of thought to the idea that we would be what made it diverse, but we are the minority here, and it is not the same as living in a town where everybody looks like me. Don't get me wrong--it's not bad. I wouldn't give it up for anything. But it is not the same. I had to fly to Michigan to get my hair cut once, because I couldn't find a salon that didn't tell me "We don't cut white hair."

I can't imagine spending a year, alone or with Max, away from Dan, in such a challenging environment. It sounds miserable, frankly, and I am much more amenable to change and new environments than my husband is. I can't even imagine.

A friend of my mother's was just named the head of the social work department at the university where she works. Her husband, who had been dean of admissions at another college, was fired from his job, and quite quickly afterwards, got offered another job as the dean at a United Methodist community in Boyne Falls, Michigan (as a teenager, I attended and then worked at the summer camp there). The problem: Boyne Falls is a good six-to-eight hour drive from Kalamazoo in good weather, which, in the winter, Boyne Falls gets very little of. Her friend wasn't willing to give up her academic position to go sit in the woods, even for her husband's dream job. They now have what my mother calls "a commuter marriage."

We're not planning on leaving the D.C. area, not as a family unit and certainly not individually. But all of these commuter marriages have me thinking: speaking both qualitatively and quantitatively, how far would I be willing to go for personal, job, and family fulfillment? Could I feel fulfilled in a job knowing it had me away from my family? Military families face questions like that a lot.

I don't think I could. But nobody's asking me. Thank God.

1 comment:

merseydotes said...

I don't know how people do it. It's like being in the military or something.

One of the priests at our church just left to become a rector in Blacksburg. His wife just accepted a job at a local school here and his son is in school here. They are going to have the commuter marriage for a year between NoVA and Blacksburg and then everyone will move to Blacksburg. Or they will do it for another year and let the son finish middle school at this one school. I don't know how they're going to manage.