Labor: From Latin, related to labere, “to totter under a burden.”
I was born the day before Labor Day in 1982. My mom relished the long weekend. (If you like, I encourage you to submit your own “labor” puns in the comment box below.) She was a high school orchestra director, so until then, I imagine Labor Day was one of the worst days of the year for her. That’s because Labor Day’s that way for pretty much everyone involved with the public school system, because, as with many school systems across the country, Labor Day in Fairfax County, Virginia, marks the last day of summer vacation, and as such is the last day of freedom for legions of children, teachers, staff, and administrators before school reconvenes. It’s also the last day in what has been by that point a fairly long stretch of hot, stuffy, gnat-beleaguered boredom—the pool’s turned predictable, the sugary Slurpees now sting your incisors, pick-up team selection has grown increasingly thin, you’ve insulted and/or freaked out all available members of the opposite sex, and those enormous late-August afternoons thud down on you one after another like an endless series of blankets you fear you won’t ever be able to kick off—all in all a stretch of time from which by September we are in desperate need of reprieve. And so for students and teachers both, summer’s extra day holds a strange, complex place in our hearts. It’s a saving grace, and yet it sticks in our craw. It’s a holiday, but from what? Labor Day is an irritating remainder in what had been, right up until then, the elegant equation of summer. The Labor Day paradox: when you realize on one hand that you actually welcome the return of the school year, that you are in fact at your core a goal-oriented and ambitious social creature who craves structure and challenge and interaction and change, but simultaneously you consider just how precious a thing it is to be bored, what a luxury, and how badly we all seem to yearn for it, the lengths we seem willing to go to in order to attain it, for ourselves, for our kids, even. And so these thoughts push and pull at you, canceling each other out, and you fritter away your last day of freedom in a sort of anxious stupor, a heightened state of affected and self-aware relaxation. And then, for better or worse, your summer is over.
I can’t remember a single Labor Day from my childhood. Once I think I went to an outdoor jazz concert.
But then you get a little older, you go off to college, and it sucks ass right off the bat because your summers have been cut short and school now starts in freaking August, what the hell, you didn’t even get to get bored yet, and but then you get a week or two into the school year and how sweet is this little revelation: You still get Labor Day off! Even if you’re a college student and you don’t actually labor at all! “It’s not a bender this weekend, guys—it’s a merited reprieve.” A college student getting Labor Day off is like someone getting tax breaks even though his personal worth is in excess of, say, $250 million. Now that’s something special. That’s goddamned American of us. Go back to grad school, and you get to enjoy it all over again, savor it with the maturity of a little experience.
For me, though, this year, the holiday is extra nice. This is the first Labor Day in a long while that I’ve actually deserved to celebrate, that I’ve deserved to observe, because this year I’m actually employed.
Like my mom, I am now a teacher. I’m an adjunct English instructor at a public liberal arts university in central Georgia. Here, we get paid mostly in taters and ‘maters and gourds, slipped only the occasional leafy green. Hold on a second while I pull up my computer’s calculator function and a copy of my syllabus for this fall’s semester. Okay, let’s do the numbers. If you were to say that my students are paying me directly through their tuition, then based on my semesterly salary (about $2,000 per class per semester, before taxes), those payments would come out to $2.87 per student per class, which is demonstrably less than, say, a gallon of gasoline. Or decent milk, even. A gallon of that Horizon Omega-3 organo-supermilk that thoughtful people are expected to buy is, going by today’s market price at The New Kroger, worth two of my classes. Plus, you don’t even have to work if you don’t want. Strive for boredom. Talk about a bargain! And this figure doesn’t include the perks, either, like office hours, lesson planning, essay grading, or conferences—pay your $2.87 a class, and we throw all that in free. Who said anything about a tuition crisis?
Now, for you independent thinkers, $2.87 per student per class might sound like I’m actually cleaning up. I mean, I’ve got twenty-four students in those classes. Adds up. But, as an adjunct, I teach just three sections. Like just about anyone, I’d love more work, but if the school offered me any more than three classes per semester I wouldn’t qualify as an adjunct any longer and the state would have to cover my health insurance. So no dice. Your turn with the calculations, guys. And then deduct insurance. And taxes. You’ll find I, and many of my fellow university adjuncts (nationally, we are one million strong), are living well under the poverty level—even the poverty level here in economically stricken central Georgia.
And this year, it’s quite something to see who values Labor Day around here, to see who among us truly totters under a burden. Because it’s not me, and it’s not my students, who have by midday Friday all cleared their parents’ cars out of their apartment parking lots and headed home for their long weekend, the first big football weekend of the year. No, the folks who do most of the tottering around here, the men and women in service industries, working for minimum wage at chains that don’t close, cleaning floors and toilets in the types of stores that actually do big business on holidays, those folks working two, sometimes three jobs, the men and women I would see rubbing their eyes in my night and weekend classes when I moonlighted teaching at the town’s technical and vocational college, many of those folks, the ones who need it the most, don’t get Labor Day off. And the workers in manufacturing and construction and raw materials, the blue-collar fems and fellas who decades back banded together to give us all a Labor Day in the first place are today a dying breed, thinning out just like the crowd that showed up for pick-up ball at the end of the summer. Across the country, millions like them, and millions of young people like me, with advanced degrees like mine, skills like mine, are yet unemployed, and for them, every day might as well be Labor Day.
I turn thirty on Wednesday. By May, the end of the academic year, I will have made twelve thousand dollars. The holiday means something more to me now. But I’m still not sure what it is. Or what it’s worth.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.