Thursday, 26 April 2012

Transitional times and time needed for transition

Well, after taking my son home last Tuesday evening from the hospital where he spent ten days, family life is now kind of settling back into some sense of normality. Some of you who read my last post will know what happened over the Easter, start of Passover weekend, so I won’t lay out all of the details again. The fifteen year old skateboarding boy who endured a significant head injury and seizure is home now, in full teen, grumpy spirit, insisting all is fine.  He does admit to getting a bit over tired but the headaches seem to be subsiding and he wants to get back into everyday school action as before. We were told he performed well in his neuro-psychology assessment that was done the other day, managed to stay focused, concentrated with no signs of memory problems, so good news there. He’s keen to get back to school full-time (in spite of doctor’s advice to take half-days at the moment), see all of his friends and have a ball.

It’s been a strange several days for his father and me. Over this period we have tried to have sensible discussions around the whole business of safety and the importance of wearing a helmet to protect this precious brain that he injured, and still he asserts he will not wear one when back on board after the three month ban. He was just unlucky, he claims, and won’t try any dangerous tricks like that in future. He’s been having endless arguments with my cyclist husband saying that yes, while the all knowing dad wears a helmet, he could still crash and have a list of other severe injuries, such as those to do with the spine, and end up in a wheel chair or even dead. So, a point taken there, but at least one can argue that helmet wearers are making a conscious effort to protect their head if they come off. Hence, the rationale around the eventual laws that require wearing car seat belts, motorcycle helmets, and helmets in public skateboarding parks in the US. The Brits haven't got that far just yet, probably because there aren't many public skateboard parks available. Yes, there is too much money being spent in the National Health Service, especially on those stubborn teens who refuse to wear helmets and injure their heads.

So, hubby and I are a bit frazzled and on edge after this episode and have resigned ourselves simply to keep trying, have the skating helmet available and try to force him to take it with him later on, all with the hope that he might wear it. But we can’t monitor his behaviour when he’s out of our sight and aside from chaining him to the house, we’ve just got to go with it and hope for the best.  He’s actually a good kid, doesn’t give us any trouble, is coming up to sixteen and is keen to do well at school, study Maths at a top university. There are no signs of drugs, bad company friends (they all want to go to a good university, blah blah) and he’s experimenting with a bit of alcohol here and there, but no signs to worry about (yet!). He’s home at a reasonable time when out on weekends every now and then, so we have no other excuse to punish him and play the role of nasty draconian parents. Hell, his bedroom is even pretty tidy and he clears up his plate after meals, so we can’t complain too much. Go with the flow we will, and inevitably with this will come many levels of anxiety after what has happened. Oh, the joys of parenting!

Okay, so that’s the latest on the domestic side of this post-academic blogger’s life. As things have been calming down a bit, I’ve picked up again on my latest reading while waiting for grumpy teenage son to get home from school. After coming across another post-academic blogger’s recommendation (Sorry I tried to find the exact place where I found this but I think it was in a reply to a post so it’s hidden in someone’s blog!) I ordered So What Are You Going to Do with That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, and What Color Is Your Parachute? 2012: A Practical Manual for Job-hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles. This book by Bolles has been around for years apparently and keeps getting updated by him with current information and Internet links to follow up.  They are both US publications but offer strong post-academic general advice that many of us residing outside the US can use. (PS: I have only come across one other non-US post-academic blogger so far, from Australia, so if any other UK based people want to get in touch, please do. I don’t think this is because there aren’t any UK post-academics out there, but they may feel less inclined to blog about the experience.)

One of the main things that I am learning from my period of current unemployment since the paid part of my last research project work finished, is that the transitional period out of academia takes a lot of time and takes up a lot of head space. This is probably necessary because we actually need good chunks of time to sit with ourselves and reflect on our lives, our past successes, failures and everything in between, and ask what we are going to make of it all. Some of this is painful and if you’re forced into unemployment rather than by your own choice, the pain can turn into depression. Bolles writes about his own experience of being sacked from two jobs and he remembers the intensity of feelings that he experienced afterwards. What I enjoy in reading many of the wonderful post-academic blogs is the revealing of the range of emotions that many of us have in our search for other meaningful means of employment. The revelations of 'bitterness' that many of us admit to feeling after working years within the structures of academia, encouraged to pursue our academic passions and build those strengths, only to discover there’s hardly any room for us, are emotional narratives that we must embrace because we have to decide what we are going to ‘do’ with those feelings. I appreciated Bolles’s argument that touches on this point:

And I remember the feelings. The overwhelming feelings, that only intensified in the weeks after that. I would describe my state as feeling sad, being in a funk, feeling despair, feeling hopeless, feeling like things “will always be this way,” or feeling depressed.
 Why oh why, I remember thinking at the time, don’t “career experts” ever talk about feelings? Unemployment was rocking my soul to its foundations. I needed to know what to do about my feelings.

So, I am finding that the time I am spending reading through the post-academic blogs and books like these, is well spent for practical reasons, for example, in reminding me how important it is to recognise my ‘transferrable skills’ and communicate them effectively. But, of course, like much self-help literature, the books and blogs are reaffirming of all of the confusing feelings I have been going through during this time when I need to make important decisions about what I want to do. I am not sure yet about what to make of this idea of finding my ultimate ‘calling’ or ‘mission’ in life. Bolles adds a large section on this in the Appendix and he draws on his relationship to God to explore it. He tells people to skip it if this is not their thing. I guess I have kind of resigned myself to accepting that another non-academic job may not live up to great ‘calling’ expectations (and neither do academic jobs for that matter, in my eyes), but that job/career choice may offer a long list of bonuses that are ‘good enough’ and even better than academia can offer.

This leads me to try to summarise a bit now. The other day I came across an advertisement for a job in British Post 16 education for which I believe I am more than qualified. In short, it’s a role that is not subject specific teaching, but will assist in academic support and mentoring, with the whole student in mind. After pondering whether I should or shouldn’t apply I thought, I really need to give this one a shot and see what happens. It is very local, actually walking distance (never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I would find a job I could walk to!), and it has lots of potential to make interesting things happen with regards to developing the student experience and enrichment activities. So, I’ve been spending the last few days working through the application and personal statement, breaking down sections of text that address all of the criteria I meet, so I would be surprised if I didn’t get an interview. But I am quite concerned that there may be the usual worry that I am overqualified, potentially uninterested because of my experience of teaching in Higher Education. I’ve tried very hard to present a case that addresses this and shows I am keen to work in another kind of educational environment, and so on. I also had experience as a secondary school subject teacher before my son was born when I lived in London, and I’m hoping that the path from there to MA, PhD and now (all managed with young children in tow – yes, I know you’re all thinking, “I don’t know how she does it!”) will be viewed as a bonus, and that they can see the benefits of this diverse experience.

Will have to sit tight and wait/hope for an invitation to interview after sending in the application, and in the meantime, get myself ready to do more and more research on the school. For US readers, here in Britain they call Post 16 'Further Education' institutions ‘colleges’, not to be confused with British 3 year (not four as in the US)  Higher Education universities. In fact, I was intrigued to discover, when I learned about the structures of British Further Education, that these 2 year colleges, historically, are offered as preparation courses for academic students aiming to study at university. By the time they go to university, they have already chosen their main area for degree study (unlike the US system where the first year is spent exploring a range of options). The two Post 16 years, therefore, are far more focussed and narrow. You could argue then that the second year Post 16 students here who go off to university the following year, are more like first year US undergrads. In any case, this rjob is not subject specific, which I really think I would prefer as a post-academic. Working in a role like this would allow me to focus on other issues in education which I have not been able to do as subject Lecturer at university level. Ho hum, we shall see how the whole thing pans out. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A not so Happy Passover...

I'm sitting here, feeling that I really need to post this but fingers are kind of trembling a bit. This post is intended to be a very brief one, a little summary of how the Passover festival started in our household last Friday evening and where things are now. It has nothing to do with the post-academic topic really, but it has had the effect of making me think again about how life's surprises force one to stop and put work/career problems aside.

Okay, so last Friday my husband and I were spending the afternoon preparing for the Seder meal intended for about ten of us in total. My 15 year old son was happily hanging around in his pyjamas and dressing gown, playing cards with his sister, and watching TV until he was prompted to go out with some friends with his skateboard to the local park. We warned him that he'd better be back early as that we wouldn't have to wait around for him as he's had the habit in the past, in strolling in after forgetting the time, for the start of an important festival like the Jewish New Year. We are not very religious, but we follow the festivals and have fun celebrating them with friends who live locally, so it's important to us that he and my daughter are involved too.

Just as we decided to have a break at around 3.45 we got a phone call from his friend who started the conversation with, '....... is okay, but he's hurt himself on his skateboard and we're waiting for the ambulance to come. Here's the emergency services lady who can talk to you...' She starts off the same way, saying that he's fine, but witnesses there noticed that after he crashed, he'd had a seizure for a few minutes. He's talking now, will put him on the phone', and so on.

My husband rushed off to meet them at the local hospital to find they were late after the ambulance broke down, of all things. Luckily he hadn't shown any worrying neurological difficulties, with the exception if vomiting and bad headache, but a CT scan showed a fractured skull and bleeding - extradural haematoma. There was a worry about his neck and possible lung puncture but Xrays there were okay. The bleeding was not large enough to warrant surgical removal so close observations in high dependency unit were the immediate solution.

He's only been taken out of the HDU and now in the ward but has had excruciating head pain and lots of vomiting, which has made him very weak. He's had some better moments when he seemed to respond to the pain killers but many others when morphine hasn't even helped. Yesterday seemed to be the worst. He woke at 6am with terrible pain that lasted throughout the day into the night, and only after vomiting again after 3am, did he manage to dose off. I stayed the night there next to him just so he wouldn't feel alone, and I can say, it's been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to witness. Today has gone on with little improvement as more vomiting has made him even weaker.

Some of this time, when I've had moments to email or text friends, I've thought about how relieved I've been not to be caught up in all the marking I would have been doing at this time in the year. Of course, if I was still teaching, it would all just have to wait, or be passed on to someone else in the department who would offer to help, gladly I'm sure, to know they could take the load off, but they certainly wouldn't be grateful for the extra work.  We have also needed to think about our son's studies now, as this is the big exam period for GCSE students in the UK and he is meant to be revising for some exams which will start soon after the Easter break. When he's felt some relief with pain meds he's mentioned his worries about having to get on with studying and wants us to bring in his books. Of course, these moments have been very short indeed. We've learned not to feel too positive about a quick recovery just yet, after seeing him plummet back down when the pain comes back.

I am also grateful for the UK National Health Service for the great care they've given him. I am always stilled surprised, after living in this country for over 20 years, that I have never been asked to show a health insurance card, fill out a form about every detail of our lives so that if the bill isn't paid the collectors will chase us up and take our house away if all else fails. After living with this in the US so long, old habits die hard. And I often find myself wondering when things will get bad enough for the NHS to stop offering free prescriptions for 16 year olds and under - when will we be forced to become more like the US with everything going private? The NHS, in spite of the problems that any institution of this kind will have, has offered top notch care, called us to let us know how he is when we've been home having a break, and responded to his every need quickly without a grunt.  For the moment, if my husband lost his job tomorrow (who knows, anything can happen now), the one thing we would not have to be losing sleep over is the need for health insurance.

Okay, back to the 'exams' subject. All of this business about exams and work doesn't matter when one realises how seriously close we've been to maybe losing him or experiencing worse injuries with poor outcomes. At the moment, we've been told the bruising on the interior part of the brain will mean he'll have to be on anti-seizure medication for a longer time, and perhaps there's an increased risk that he's likely to have more seizures in the future. But we're grateful he's alive. I won't go into a long diatribe about the whole issue of teens not wearing helmets when they skateboard - could be here forever. Some famous celebrity skateboarder from the US will have to be the face of a campaign or design for 'cool' skating helmets that they'll all be happy to wear. The boy is only 15 and can be forgiven. But maybe some of these older guys (most of the skateboarding community is male, with a few exceptions, I guess) can take on the responsibility to change the culture a bit around high risk skating activities. How can I email this person?
Heavy sigh...the struggle isn't over yet. Our biggest heartache is seeing him in so pain and getting him through that. When he's home I'll post a little note to say so and find some time to get back on the post-academic posting when life feels like it's getting back to normal. But for now, there are other things I'll be busy with.