Gifted, Over-educated and Unemployed
I am Somebody?
I was the only African-American student to graduate from the Donaghey Scholars Program in 1994 from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I have a master’s degree in English — a doctoral candidate dropout. I’ve taught at a handful of notable colleges and universities; won research awards, and even self-published a few books. My vitae is only five and a half pages long, but still impressive for the few years I served as a full-time educator.
As a daughter of the south, a promising member of the talented-tenth, I was raised to believe that diligence, determination and cuteness would ensure me a top spot among the most materially successful African-American professionals. Over the years, strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike have all sworn that I will become the next Oprah.
Whenever I walk into a room, everyone treats me like I’m ‘somebody’–like who, I don’t know, since I’ve never really had an impressive title or made significant amounts of money. Regardless, I was a vision of broad, unlimited potential in their eyes, despite my own self-doubts. The girl from Little Rock destined to make it big.
However, through a succession of unexpected circumstances, I found myself back home. While home in Arkansas, I netted a dream job working from home, in addition to part-time teaching and freelancing. Oh, I was the envy of all the 8 to 5'ers. I was an anomaly to family members who had never known a well-paid telecommuter or freelancer.
Then, it happened…
But then, the unthinkable happened. One day after my ‘dream’ employer had flown me to Princeton, New Jersey, and I had spent time ‘living single’ in my writer friend’s Harlem brownstone, I received an electronic pink slip. An email telling me that my services were no longer needed; just like that, without explanation. When I asked for one, I was reminded that I didn’t need one, according to my contract. I was stunned. I had never, ever been fired.
Sure, I had heard rumors of cutbacks, but I never assumed I would be cut. I was much too talented and too good of a worker for that, right? After two months of failed attempts to land full-time employment and a drained savings account, I again faced the unthinkable. The unemployment line.
One sunny morning in April 2004, I tried my best to mentally and physically prepare myself for the trek to the Arkansas Employment Security Department. I wore plain jeans, a purple T-shirt and sandals I bought from Wal-Mart in attempts to look needy. I even limited my jewelry to a single pair of small hoop earrings and a watch. Mentally, I tried to reassure myself that I was not a failure. I was simply a participant in ‘real life,’ not a victim as I had previously thought.
Fortunately, I was able to park my trusty ’95 Honda Accord right across the street from the office — right across from the homeless shelter where various clients milled around, cater-cornered to the Asian-owned wig shop I decided to visit afterward. The unemployment office was smack dab in the middle of the part of downtown Main Street that most middle to upper class people tried to avoid.
As I approached the office door, I quickly slipped my sorority key chain inside my purse in further attempts to camouflage my educational background. Unfortunately, I could not disguise my voice, its timbre and crisp diction, because as soon as I began to speak, several sets of eyes asked the unspoken question I wanted to avoid — “What are you doing here?”
I was just as broke as everyone there, maybe even more so. At the time, I had about seven dollars in my wallet and three dollars twenty-one cents in my checking account. Literally, all the money I had in the world. As I glanced around Room “A” while penciling in a thick stack of forms, I mused at what a great leveler the unemployment office was. People of all ages, gender, race and class were there for the same purpose, but for different reasons.
A couple of blue-haired older ladies announced they were widows. One even joked about marrying a man who could at least leave a few benefits after his death. Room “B” was filled with people ranging from college students to displaced laborers to occasional fast food workers with no desire to work for minimum wage. After viewing the requisite explanation of benefits video, I was glad to learn that I would receive the maximum weekly benefit amount.
As I walked to my car, I congratulated myself on having survived the experience with my self-esteem intact. I had previously been so depressed and tortured over the very idea of having to seek government assistance, since I had spent almost a lifetime striving to avoid this very circumstance.
Keeping the faith…
After hitting up every temporary employment agency imaginable and sending out over thirty resumes, in a year’s time, I still had not landed full-time work. I did, however, create a popular radio show that moved from a community station to a commercial station. I even became a weekend radio news anchor. Even though I was busy and earning a limited income, I still spent many days depressed and upset, until I decided to return to a technical college for advanced computer training to broaden my skills outside of academics. Eventually, the benefits ran out before I could secure steady, full-time employment.
Although I still barely make ends meet with freelance work and substitute teaching, I have exchanged my previously crazed outlook on my unemployment situation for a more spiritual one. I will become fully employed again. I have learned that unemployment is not a punishment, but an opportunity to spend time preparing for new transitions, purpose and destiny, not simply work. For this gift, I am truly grateful.
This essay appears in "Soul Thoughts: Poems & Essays," available on Amazon. The author, Ashan R. Hampton, spent over 20 years in higher and public education as an English instructor, and now works as a legal editor. See more of her work at www.arhampton.com.