As usual, my early-morning routine is hectic. I am once again leaving my small apartment without eating breakfast. No time. I wish I could avoid speeding on the beltway to arrive on campus in time for the class I am supposed to teach at eight. I have no clue how long I can avoid getting a speeding ticket.
Pacing the floor of the university classroom outside of Baltimore, making eye contact with no one, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I am well into a lecture when an alarmed student rushes to the front of the class, and without asking permission, turns on the television set mounted on the wall. The images of people jumping out of windows to their deaths are jarring. The stillness of my transfixed body clashes with the spontaneous chaos and the cacophony of ring tones and screams that suddenly erupt. Within seconds, students are rushing out the door. I feel like I am having déjà vu. My keen sense of purposelessness evaporates. At that moment, in outrage, I vow to join the fight against terrorism. There is no better way to regain a sense of control and to restore certainty in my life. I pledge to bring all of my talents to bear for this newfound purpose.
I am bored. Helping privileged, talented, and driven students offers no intellectual stimulation. Competitive as they are, they do not need me to make their way in their lives. Even a bad teacher could not stop them from achieving good grades. My restless mind thrives on high-minded projects. I need to feel that I am making a difference. I ache for the natural high that feeling gives me. I cannot wait to be totally engrossed in activities that are fun and rewarding. I enjoy autonomy and strive for the freedom to choose how I channel my energy. I desire power, that ability to make things happen and long for status and quiet recognition for a job well done. I am needy.
Early this evening the phone rings. It is Sherawonda.
“Good evening, sir. Shera speaking.”
Not long ago, she had been a student in my class; since then, she had become a successful lawyer. As a teen, before joining the university, her mother’s crack addiction landed them in a homeless shelter. She badly wanted out of that life. Never complaining, always prepared for class, she applied herself and made it a point to shine. I saw myself in her; trusted and believed in her abilities. People like her are the reason I became a teacher. I believe in the transformative power of education.
“Hello, Sherawonda. Nice to hear your voice again.” She was one of the very best I had ever taught. Writing her a recommendation for law school had been an honor.
“Am I calling at a bad time? Can we talk?”
“Absolutely. Now is a fine time to talk.”
“Did you think about what we discussed last time? My brother thinks—”
“Oh yeah. Well, I will take him up on his offer this time. I just need to clear my head and figure out how to proceed.”
“Oh, great news. Remember, I know you will be happier doing something that matters to more people. Gotta talk to him. May I give him your number?”
“Yes, no problem. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I dunno if—”
“Don’t worry, sir. Everything will be okay. Take care for now. I need to call him.”
Sherawonda wanted to help her brother, a recruiter for a governmental agency. He had told her about how difficult it was to find good language instructors capable of securing a clearance.
The Office of Recruitment called me twice before I finally got around to submitting an application. One year later, in October 2002, during the twenty-three days of fear that the Washington, DC snipers inflicted on the region, I venture out to submit myself to a series of interviews and tests. Each time, I rush back home to avoid being shot. The last thing I want is to become another casualty on the evening news. The shooting spree in the DC metro area culminated with ten people killed and three others critically injured.
Fear is nothing new to me. She is an old pal. I have felt powerless before; terrorist attacks had plagued and interrupted my childhood. Bombs left in street bins, on subway platforms, in shopping areas, in restaurants, and in police stations had unsettled and destroyed all expectations of peace and stability. Pro-independence separatists, right- and left-wing extremists, pro-Palestinian freedom fighters used to run rampant while I was growing up.
The government agency’s test in my native French is the hardest I have ever taken. Two elderly women are drilling me machine-gun-style, intent on tripping me up. I am French, by way of the islands; I was born in Guadeloupe and taken to France at the age of two. Throughout my youth, I have flown back and forth between the French West Indies and Europe every two to three years.
In the writing section of the test, I answer a series of random questions. Next, the psychological assessment. It is long and uninspiring—like all psychological assessments. The psychologist, a pale, old, disheveled weirdo refuses to shake hands. He has a large coffee stain on his white shirt. The weirdo provides some levity. He looks more in need than most of the services he offers. Finally, a polygrapher asks about my sex life, fun, fun (does he need tips?); the number of women I have been with, how I spend my money, the type of friends I keep, and my alcohol and drug use. His tone makes the session long and dreary. On two occasions, I even fall asleep. Boring! Otherwise, unnerved, wanting to spice things up, stay awake and have some fun, I reveal that I had been a pothead in my teenage years. The man does not flinch. In the end, I leave the room drained and annoyed for subjecting myself to this. I no longer care whether I get the job.
I convince myself Sherawonda’s brother has made me the butt of a sick joke. He has told me that the government desperately needs people who speak foreign languages. I am fluent in three of them. Could it be that my dual citizenship is the problem? I shrug off the whole thing as a bad trip. All hopes of ever hearing back from the recruiter are gone.
An eternity goes by. Two months before the second summer after the polygraph, I receive an official offer in the mail. A huge sense of relief, mixed with resentment, comes over me. What a rollercoaster! I give up my annual summer vacation and start working for the government in mid-July 2003. Almost two long years have elapsed between the time I had applied for the position and what is to be my first day on the job. This must be some job!