Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Cincinnati, Dayton: Work/Study

Written by Mike Spock

As both an enrolled and separated student during those difficult years I had a lot of work experiences. The Antioch catalog made a lot of the centrality of the work/study program, and of course while dropped out I had to earn a living. Jobs included helping with a study of squirrels in the thousand-acre natural area running along beside the campus, bird-dogging buyers to approve deadline-driven advertising page proofs for a department store, being the night attendant in the college infirmary, supervising recreational activities at a residential children's home, building and designing furniture in a small millwork shop, and being appointed a teaching assistant and the designer and supervisor for renovations to the Antioch biology department. But two jobs and one course turned out to be pivotal.

I moved down to Cincinnati to work at a hospital on my first college-arranged Antioch Co-op job experience. The thought was that as the on-call orderly I would get some feel for medical care as seen from the bottom up. While waiting for the job to open up I worked alone as the pump jockey at Cincinnati's busiest all-night gas station smelling the competing mix of gas fumes and the donut bakery across the street. The orderly's job—lowest rung of the hospital caretaking hierarchy—turned out to be an education in every sense of the word. I wrestled clunky oxygen tanks from storage to patients and back to storage again, moved frail and feather-light patients with fractured hips out of bed to chair and back to bed, and cleaned and jerked grossly obese patients and their beds into the air as a nurse scrambled to insert leg-extenders that raised the bed and immobile patients up to working height before my back collapsed in spasm. There were other tasks. I learning to assist doctors and nurses, including one grizzly procedure I abandoned in mid-operation before I passed out next the patient's bed. One time I was left to remove a dead patient's catheter, transfer him to a gurney, and wheel him to the hospital morgue. He was cool to the touch. But the work was not all unpleasant. You could flirt with student nurses in their fetching starched uniforms and caps.

Between reading in the solarium waiting for my number to appear on the call light, it was a pretty interesting and sometimes demanding job. But the more the weeks passed the less I liked being a part of the hospital and my place within it. To me doctors seemed arrogant, uncaring, not likely to seek out and acknowledge either patients or staff. You could see nurses-in-training and medical students, caught between the hospital's hierarchical culture and needy patients, trying to hold onto their human feelings and values but ultimately developing a businesslike protective shell. It was that or burnout. I realized that this choice was not for me. Although I grew up in a doctor's family it never occurred to me that working at a hospital meant I would spend most of my time with sick people; and that the sick were different from the rest of us. Patients are by stages scared, demanding, powerless, depressed. Unless I had a special gift for the work, its demands and rewards, I probably would not be happy in medicine. How fortunate to understand this early in my journey. But now what?

Basil Pillard taught a course in applied semantics, the study of how language affects the way we see, talk about and understand things. The subject of the course and the exercises it was built around were fascinating, a revelation. The work was organized into a predictable rhythm. There were readings in S. I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action and exercises to do at the end of each chapter. These activities, crafted by Pillard, were the real work of the course. You had to do the exercises, write up a few paragraphs exploring insights from the activity, and share a discussion with the class. The unusual feature of the course was that Pillard took time to write a response to each assignment you handed in. For every class and every student he wrote a personal commentary on our thoughts and insights, adding his own perspective on the content and activity, all in time for the next session. The exercises and writing were challenging but bite-sized and nonthreatening. I looked forward to the assignments and had no problem getting them done. Early in the course Pillard expressed surprised that I thought my writing was a problem because it seemed to him, on the evidence, that I wrote well. As with Coach Silvernagle, Basil Pillard managed an extraordinary educational tour de force that became a personal breakthrough to my learning. It turned out that I could write but I seemed to need a setting and approach that more closely fitted my peculiar disabilities or gifts.

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