I just had what is, without question, the single most humiliating job interview of my life. It was awful. I am shamed, so very shamed. I’m so shamed I never want to talk about it again, which is usually a prelude to telling the whole world. (Nobody else can shame me if I beat them to it!)
First, a preface: I love job interviews. A lot. I get to talk about me, and it’s not only “okay” but I’m actually doing it wrong if I don’t. I like talking about me, but I also like not being a grandstanding asshole, and these two things frequently conflict. Not so in job interview land! Also, they ask me challenging questions, interesting hypotheticals, want me to tell them stories off the cuff, and all the while I pretend I’m a civilized, friendly human being, not a self-absorbed, misanthropic wrath-monster. Also, at the end, I win! No really. Either they give me the job (fooled you into thinking you want me, ha!) or they don’t (oh thank god I have so many jobs why did I think this was a good idea?). In summary, job interviews are the best. (Note: I submit for publication because I like rejection letters. I acknowledge my strangeness.)
This particular job was for tutoring. I like teaching things. Teaching things is a chance for me to talk about something I like (I like most teachable things) and then twist the brains of whoever’s listening until they get it. It’s manipulating people into a new state, FOR GOOD. Or, at least, for a minor net reduction in global ignorance. The point is, it’s more of me talking, and meeting spontaneous challenges, with added on messing with peoples’ heads. It’s awesome. It’s also something I have functionally no outlet to do since moving, which has led to some pouting, and some thoughts of, “Why was it I decided not to get a masters? Am I sure that was the right idea?” (YES. YES IT WAS) I have long since learned that when I start flirting with ideas of going back to school, it’s time to get a new job.
Fortunately, I’m also a frequent Craigslist browser (don’t ask why, because I don’t know) and there just happened to be a tutoring company advertising there. And I just happened to apply because, hey, reasons. And they asked me for the subjects I want to tutor.
ALL THE SUBJECTS. I WILL TUTOR EVERYTHING. I WILL SHAPE THE WORLD INTO MY SPECIAL IMAGE AND IT WILL BE GLORIOUS. Or, you know, Literature, Writing, Beginning and Intermediate Spanish, maybe a bit of math (no, not arithmetic, numbers don’t combine properly when I use them. And nothing where you learn trig first. Let’s stick to subjects I’ve tutored before, not things where I needed OMG all the tutors. Those middle sections with the fun variables and whatnot though? I’m on that.)
Sure, says their application process. That looks great, says their application process. We’d love to talk to you, says their application process. But first, how about you take a math assessment just, you know, to check that you know what you’re talking about.
I hadn’t flunked a math test since Calc went 3-d and started moving on me. Until yesterday. Hooboy, did I flunk that test. “Look,” I explained to the test, “I know how to use the formulas we need to use. And I know how to ask Google what the formula for the thing is. Clearly that’s good enough, right?” The test was unsympathetic. “Come on. I haven’t done any of this math since high school. I think my retention here is actually really impressive.” Flunkety flunk flunk, fail.
I was bummed, but also empowered. This company is serious. They are not, no way, no how, going to let me teach a thing I’m too rusty on. So let’s go back to plan A. TUTOR ALL THE SUBJECTS. If I had ever, at any point, tutored anybody in a given subject, I put it on the list.
“So, you’ve got quite the list of subjects here,” the interviewer said at the beginning of the interview. I nodded proudly. I am pan-tutor, teacher of all the things. “You understand that just because you’ve taken a class doesn’t mean you’re a good fit for teaching it, yes?”
“I was the smart kid growing up. If I took it, I tutored it,” I did not say, because that’s not how you get a job. “I trust your assessments,” I say instead.
“Why did you think you could teach math?” my sister asked me when I talked to her immediately after the interview.
“I taught you pre-algebra. I don’t remember any complaints.”
I still have no idea what the first question they wanted me to break down was actually asking. I’m sure it’s just a change in vocabulary thing. I haven’t looked at that material in the better part of two decades, and the curriculum I was being taught from was at least ten years old, but still. Also, my tablet is a terrible virtual conference device, a thing I should have anticipated (it’s a terrible everything) but had never actually tested until job interview time. Normally I virtual conference, when needed, on my webcamless desktop, but they wanted to see my cheery smile. Or something. Everything was terrible.
Let’s move on to biology! “Define the pertinent vocabulary in the question, then answer it, please.” I got this! I mean, come on, I write SF. I’m messing with biology all the time for fun. I can explain to you what an organelle is. And I can talk to you all day about what chromosomes are and how they work and also are you up to date on epigenetic marking? I didn’t think so, but it’s neat. Right, topic at hand. Cytoplasm, I got that. I’m a little sad you didn’t ask me about mitochondria since they’ve been a favorite topic of mine since forever, but hey. As for the answer to this question I….
What is this blank space and why is it in my brain? You know, the part of my brain where sixth grade biology belongs. Can we pay attention to the clear demonstration of knowledge I just gave you and pretend this moment isn’t happening? Please? Oh god please, I have so much shame already from the math. (The answer, I realized when sharing this story with Uni, was “nucleus” which I would have realized if they’d specified eukaryotic cells, which was sorta implied based on the context of the question but really, I’m a dumbass.)
So that Spanish evaluation. I know me some Spanish. I have done a ton of tutoring people in Spanish. I have also got a very long history of not knowing Spanish as well as I think I do, and not realizing the error until I’ve made an ass of myself. I was insecure about my Spanish performance before I was mid-interview that consisted entirely of me failing at everything. I’m used to being a rock star made of awesome during an interview. Blatantly sucking like this, not so much my thing. And now we’re at a subject which I’ve actually used in the last three years and I am certain I’m going to screw it up, too.
But! This assessment is filling in worksheets. This is what my first 5 years of Spanish training consisted entirely of. I can fill in a Spanish worksheet like nobody’s business. I can also butt in to conversations strangers are having about how distressingly sunburned I am on a bus on Buenos Aires, but nobody wants tutoring in being a brash tourist. I am set, so long as they don’t ask me for future conditional or subjunctive. I might be able to brass my way through future conditional, but I am sunk, so very sunk, if their Spanish level markers aren’t where I think they are, and subjunctive is part of the intermediate curriculum. And, frankly, my ego is not going to handle much more fail before I actually wilt into a tiny ball of thwarted egomania and the video conferencing interviewer just hears a cat yowling for cuddles in the background because the work-at-home human has ceased to exist.
“I’m going to scroll through a page that covers several topics on it,” the interviewer says. Imperfect particples, no sweat. Conditional, I’m fuzzy but I can swing it. Subjunctive. SHIT. Future Subjunctive. ON A STICK. Don’t get me wrong, you put those things in front of me, I know what they are and how to interpret them. But I cannot produce them on my own without a resource. I have never produced them on my own without a resource. It’s some grand compromise my brain made for not flinching when a whole new mood got introduced – I can handle the concept, but it will not remember the endings and rules for generating it. And now it’s two sections, on the first bit of the interview that has gone at all well. “Tell me,” the interviewer continues as I weep inside, “Which of these would be the hardest for an English speaker to learn.” Choking noises escaped my throat. “And why,” she concludes.
Ego. Saved. For some reason, I managed astonishing eloquence on this point.
“So, teaching reading,” she says. “Explain to me Jargon Jargon Jargon thing.”
“Uhm,” I say. “Look, I’ve taught reading. I TA’d an elementary school class my first year in college and the remedial reading groups were mine. I did well. But I have no formal training and I have no idea what you just asked me. Maybe we should skip this section?”
“Phonics then. Explain to me RULE.”
Funny thing about me and phonics. I learned it. I did the smart kid in class thing and taught my peers. And I haven’t touched it since. “Er, it’s been over twenty years since I taught phonics,” I say. Also, I’ve gotten a degree in Linguistics in the mean time. Want me to explain the phonotactics of the thing you’re asking me about? How about a generalized survey of similar rules across language families? There’s a neat cognitive ling study on how visual data can interfere with brain processing of those particular phonemes I could talk to you about!
No? You want the answer from how it gets taught as English phonics? Are you sure? Because the visuals with the study are really neat and once you can read you don’t really need any of the jargon they teach you in phonics…
We moved on to writing and Literature from there. It got better. Much better. I didn’t notice at the time because, well. I’m in chronic need of humbling, but I can’t really say I’m a fan of the experience. At all. Even a little.
I got the job, though. I’m all official and greenlit to teach Spanish (up to intermediate), Language Arts, Literature and Writing. I’m a little surprised she didn’t hang up and put us both out of our misery when I couldn’t summon NUCLEUS as the obvious answer to a question, but I’m guessing she took a look at my resume and knew exactly what was going to happen. Good for her.
Also, all you people who talk about how much you dread job interviews and I usually stare blankly and don’t understand? I GET IT NOW.
2 thoughts on “Job Interviews”
This is not a humiliation story, but I was in a programming job interview one time and he asked, “Let’s say you had a list of books and their ISBNs and you wanted to look up books by their ISBNs, how would you do it?” I launched into a 5-minute explanation of the concept of a hash table, how you implement it by taking the ISBN and running it through a mathematical function to shorten it to a number that is then an index in an array, etc, etc… and he says to me “I’m going to stop you there. Microsoft provides this for you in .NET. You don’t have to implement it yourself like a sophomore year computer science major. The answer I was looking for was ‘Dictionary’.” I think I said something like, “Huh, that’s good to know.”
That is rough. And that interviewer as a bit of a jerk.