Some Notes On Endings…

I published this post on my Facebook Author Page on May 14th. It got the highest number of responses I’ve ever had on just such a post, and I thought I share it with you…

Today was what we humans normally refer to as a big day. In fact, it was a big day after a series of big days. Two weeks ago, I had a video appointment with Karl Rogers, my oncologist. He gave me the results of my latest PET scan.

Turns out I don’t have cancer anymore. I’m clean. Went to the surgeon last week who removed the port from my chest where for the last year and three months, they pumped chemotherapy into me.

For the time being, the world’s stuck with me.

I learned something profound about cancer treatment. With all its amazing advances and technology, cancer treatment is the same now as it’s ever been: poison the cancer and poison the patient and see which one taps out first.

The cancer tapped out first.

I would have written about this sooner, but it’s been one big day after another lately. Everybody my age feels like the world’s in a mess, but truth is we’re dealing with a real, honest-to-God, full-blown, pants-wetting crisis. We’re dealing with bigger days than we’ve ever had to deal with before. And most of it, candidly, is not any damn fun.

Today was a big one, though. My 25-year-career as a full-time film school professor came to a close. I taught my last class and it was, appropriately enough, creative writing. We gathered in a video conference via Google Meet and spent three hours going over their poetry, memoirs, the beginning of a novel by one student, the working draft of a children’s book with illustrations by another…

An amazing group of talented young voices. It’s been a thrill and an honor to work with them.

It sounds like a retirement, only it’s anything but. And I can’t even blame this one on the Coronavirus. That dreadful, damned disease has eff’d everything up beyond all comprehension, but this day would have come whether or not we’d ever even heard of Covid-19.

No, this day came because after 135 years, the Watkins College of Art is closing its doors. Insolvent, with student enrollment dropping steadily for the last decade, the Commissioners and the Board of Trust tapped out, just like my cancer.

I joined the faculty when the Film School opened in August, 1995. I’ll be there when they close the doors at the end of May. My ties to Watkins go back even further than that; my grandmother took classes at Watkins a century ago.

There’s a passionate and committed group of students, alumni, and even a few professors who formed a group called Save Watkins, who are dedicated to stopping the proposed merger with Belmont University, where Watkins will exist in name only as a division of the university.

I’m not ordinarily this blunt, but they’re wrong and misguided.

You can’t save Watkins; there’s nothing to save. If it weren’t for the generosity of a Board member who lent us the funds to finish the semester, we would have closed the doors in January. The College couldn’t make payroll, pay the health insurance premiums for employees, meet its daily and monthly expenses. Watkins was a tuition-driven institution; it paid its bills this month with the tuition dollars that came in last month.

At its peak, there were nearly 400 students enrolled. Now there are only a hundred or so. The Film School peaked during my fourth and next-to-last year as Chair, when we had about 165 film majors alone.

If the College hadn’t closed, we’d have had 17 returning film majors in August. Do the math.

Last person out, turn off the lights.

What happened? You can argue the institution was ill-managed and ill-led and you would be right. You can argue that we had a passive, ineffective Board of Trust that fiddled away while the College burned and you would be right.

That ignores, though, the fact that small, private art colleges have been closing all around the country. A New York Times article last year interviewed a higher education expert/consultant, who concluded that America is way the hell overbuilt with colleges, and that we’re going to see between 15 and 20 colleges a year close for the indefinite future.

That’s a scary, fun-filled fact, isn’t it?

The world is changing faster than it’s ever changed before, at least in my memory. What emerges on the backside of this current crisis will be a world we wouldn’t have recognized a decade ago. Some of it will be good; a lot of it won’t.

I’ll miss my students. Working with them, listening to their stories, standing in their passionate wind with my hair blowing back, made it worthwhile. And it’s the only thing that made it worthwhile. People who aren’t in higher ed imagine a college professor’s life as glamorous; one of lofty intellectual pursuits, research, conference trips to exotic places, hobnobbing with our fellow wizards and having summers off.

There may have been a time in history where that was true, but those days are long gone. For most college professors, higher ed sucks. The pay’s mediocre at best. In my twenty-five years at Watkins, I had one pay raise that was large enough to be actually felt. We haven’t had raises at all in over a decade. The benefits were terrible. There was no longer any travel money or professional development money. My last semester, I was asked to teach a class I’d never taught before and I had to beg the front office to buy me a copy of the textbook.

As for that fun summer vacation, most of us had to take side gigs, freelancing, or second jobs to make it.

And in my quarter-of-a-century at Watkins, I can count the number of administrators I had any respect for on one hand. Most of them were narcissistic incompetents who were living proof of The Peter Principle.

So just when I get a clean bill of health, I lose my job. And the truth is I’m thrilled. This is my chance to get away from a situation that’s not been much fun for about a decade. I’m going back to being a full-time writer. I’m taking a course in audio book production and ramping Spearhead Press back up to a full-time pursuit.

I’m hopeful. There’s still a future out there for all of us. Lately, I’ve taken more and more of an interest in investing. One of the adages in investing is that you never lose money on a stock until you give up and sell it at a loss. That’s kind of like life in a way. You’re not really a failure until you give it up and sell it at a loss.

As long as you’re still in the game, you can have a good outcome.

So that’s my takeaway. And while I don’t normally quote songs, here’s a line from one of my favorite indie bands, Semisonic, and their one big hit:

“Closing time.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end…”

Goodbye, Watkins.

 

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