One morning in May or early June I walked into the English Department mail room and there’s an official letter in my box that says, “We are happy….” When they start off like that usually something good was in the letter, and there was because they were happy to offer me one of those self-terminating contracts for the upcoming year. A couple of other Visiting Lecturers were in there checking their mail too, and one, a lady I liked, opened her letter and turned red and put her hands over her eyes and walked out, and another guy gave a grunt, sort of like he had been hit in the stomach, and walked out.
Turns out their letters had not started with “We are happy…,” but with whatever words people use as the lead into “You are fired…” Over fifty percent of the Visiting Lecturers—and there were a good 30 of us by that time—had been fired. And nobody knew why either because the Department with its four years and out rule were under no obligation to tell you why you were fired. Hell, they had done more than they were legally required to do by just telling us we had been hired. Or fired.
And for weeks nobody could look anybody in the eye because nobody knew who had been fired and who hadn’t and it was too damn awkward to ask, unless the person happened to be a friend. Because whatever the reason might have been for the mass firing, everybody knew that somebody had sat in an office, made a list of the Visiting Lecturers, and then drew a line between the hired and the fired. The hired being good enough to continue; the fired not being good enough for whatever unknown reasons. So if you told somebody you were fired, you were just a loser, and if you told somebody you were hired, you probably were a kiss-ass suck up who had cultivated the right connections or fucked the boss.
I spent hours talking to the people who had not been hired. I couldn’t leave the place. On the way out to the parking lot, I would walk by the office of a fired person and lean in and ask them how they were doing, and end up sitting there listening to them lament and both of us chewing things over to figure out what had happened for hours at a time.
I began to realize that something was out of whack in my response to the situation. I really didn’t feel good about getting rehired; I honestly didn’t feel any sort of secret glee or inward sense of superiority. I felt terrible. Maybe it was the survivor syndrome or something. Like everybody on the airplane dies in the crash, but you and you go around saying, “Why me, Lord?” And given my complete lack of self esteem or self worth that was a hard question to answer unless God was just an arbitrary jerk. This event precipitated a form of life-crisis that led me to seek the aid of a psychotherapist.
As it turns out though, the event was a non-event. Everybody by the middle of the summer was rehired. As it turned out, the money for funding us was slow coming down the bureaucratic pike. Whoever the boss was knew the money was more than likely coming down the pike. But we were Visiting Lecturers so nobody had to explain anything to us, and firing a bunch of us was a good way to remind everybody: your contract is self-terminating.