By Erica Photiades
Last summer, I picked up my entire life and moved 1,400 miles to teach orchestra in Texas. I’m from Michigan, The Motor City, baby. I’d never been to Texas, and I’d never thought about living there. It’s not very Midwestern to leave home. It’s the Promised Land, where your immigrant ancestors settled, where all their children and grandchildren stayed to build their lives. If you do leave, it’s to follow a dream, preferably one where you end up somewhere glamorous, like New York City or LA. But, you always come home in the end. Besides, there are tons of clichés about Texas, and hatred of Yankees is pretty high on the list.
The job found me through Facebook. One day I logged on and there was a message in my inbox from a stranger asking if I would be interested in moving to Texas to teach orchestra. That one message changed my life. In the span of that week, I was phone interviewed, offered the job and accepted. I had two weeks to figure everything out before school started down there. My fiancé and I agreed we would take our life to Texas together. One week later, I packed my Camry with a suitcase, an air mattress and a folding table, and I left in pursuit of my American Dream.
I’ve played the violin since I was five years old. It’s a beautiful instrument, but it’s really hard. When people tell me they could never learn the violin, I believe them. Anything worth accomplishing takes effort, but more than that it takes a belief that it can be done. I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher, and later, when I was thinking about a major in college, it became clear to me that I wanted to teach music. I graduated a semester early with honors. I felt that I would have no trouble finding a job where I wanted, teaching what I wanted to teach.
Of course it was naïve of me to assume that things would be so easy. But most 23-year-olds don’t think about the economy or the job market. They think about how hard they’ve worked, how much potential they have, and they see the world as ripe with opportunity. I’ve always thought that what separates children from adults is work. If you have a job, and you can support yourself, you’re an adult.
I entered the workforce the year the housing market crashed and Wall Street fell apart. Lehman Brothers, General Motors, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae all declared bankruptcy. Thousands of hard-working people lost their pensions. No one knew this was going to happen, so no one could tell us new graduates how to cope with it.
Michigan has fared especially poorly, and Michigan’s schools have suffered. School districts have been scrambling just to cover the basic costs of maintaining buildings and a skeleton crew of staff. In many parts of the state, budget items previously considered important—busing, sports, fine arts, field trips—were cut completely. The “good” districts didn’t want to eliminate their “high-quality” programs, so they instead cut staff, starting with their newest teachers.
At the same time, “teacher accountability” became the silver bullet of education reform. From Michelle Rhee to Bill Gates, suddenly everyone was convinced that bad teachers were the enemy dragging down America’s students. As a result, several state governments, including Michigan’s, moved to base teacher “effectiveness” around standardized test scores, and to dismantle the teacher unions.
Two years out of college, my future as a teacher had seemed to evaporate. I had been on tons of interviews, but I couldn’t find full-time work as an orchestra teacher anywhere in Michigan. The salaries that were available were so low I could have qualified for government assistance.
So, the opportunity for me to move to Texas came and I took it. My home state was dying, and if I wanted the chance to teach, I had to leave.
I don’t romanticize that I arrived here with nothing but the clothes on my back and a hole in my pocket. I have a college education, a couple years of teaching experience, and I live in America, which I still believe is a land of opportunity. Texas is currently one of the best states for pursuing opportunity.
It is hard to accept that I probably won’t be moving home again, but my gamble has so far paid off. I work for a school district that appreciates what I do and sees it as important. I have great students to teach. I bought a house with my fiancé, and I have the means to think about a future that isn’t month to month. Here in the Lone Star State, I can be an adult.
Photo provided by Erica Photiades.