It was the strangest interview I’ve ever participated in – on either side of the table.
A friend had talked me, or conned me, into interviewing for a job with St. Louis Public Schools – the director of communications.
The school district was in chaos – an outside management firm had been brought in to run the district, schools were being consolidated and closed, services were being outsourced, central office layoffs had emptied more than half of the headquarters building, and protests by parents, students, employees, former employees, teachers and the teachers’ union were daily. School board factions were fighting each other through the news media. The news media was already showing up early each morning at the district’s administration building – knowing there would always be a new crisis to report.
And I wanted to insert myself into that?
I don’t remember all of the arguments my friend used, but they must have been convincing. I sent in my application, thinking that would be the end of it. But then I was called to come in for an interview.
On the appointed day, I showed up and was escorted to a conference room at the headquarters building. Eventually, 10 of us filled the room. Every 10 to 15 minutes, one of us was called out for the interview. I was the last to be called.
I was escorted to the district’s board room. Inside, three people were seated – the interim superintendent, who was a principal with the outside consulting firm; one of his consultants; and a district officer who would be the official boss of the communications director.
I was seated at the head of the table. The questions started, and I was immediately relieved to see they were using the behavioral interview method, in which you’re asked questions like “What was your greatest failure?” I was familiar with that kind of interview; it was (and still is) broadly used by corporate America.
The superintendent was seated to my immediate left, and I could see he was increasingly impatient. He was moving around in his chair, drumming his fingers on the table, and looked ready to erupt at any moment. And then he actually did erupt.
Throwing the interview question sheets in the air, he yelled. “Why the heck do you want this job?” Except he didn’t say heck.
That was not on the list of approved behavioral questions. The other two people at the table both closed their eyes, as if they knew this would happen.
“It’s not a case of why I want this job,” I said. “It’s more a case of why you need me in this job.”
And then we talked. He calmed down, and the others gradually joined the conversation.
When we finished, the superintendent nodded and said I’d hear something within two to three days.
That was bizarre, I thought, as I drove home. I wonder which of the 10 of us will get sucked into that?
As I pulled into my driveway in suburban St. Louis, my wife was waiting. In the driveway.
“You have to go back downtown,” she said. The school district had called, and I was to meet with one of the board members. I drove back, and learned I was to be at a restaurant at 4:30 to meet with a group of teachers for a listening session. And let them meet the district’s new director of communications.
It was poetry at work, all right – the poetry of the totally unexpected. You think you’re reading an ambiguous poem liked “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and discover it’s turned into Alan Ginsburg’s “Howl.” The interview process had a form and even a kind of rhythm and meter about it. Until it didn’t.
What started as formalist poetry had erupted into performance art.
The Job Interview
Tell me a poem, a story
of a favored poet or poem,
one who changed your life,
your mind, opened up
possibilities. Or made you
feel secure as your anchors,
your moorings, were removed.
Speak to me of your need;
describe the expectations
(are they great ones?), explain
how we soar together, toward
the sun, if not the moon,
tell me how I become
part of your larger self.
From Poetry at Work: “Interviews, like poetry, are ultimately about ideas, even though they are ostensibly about people. Behind the people in an interview are ideas about careers, employment, the future, and organizational goals and objectives. Behind a poem is experience, personal and group history, philosophy, how one understands the world, and even hope for a different or changed future.”
This article was prepared for the Literary Life Book of the Month discussion group on Facebook.
Top photograph by Marten Bjork via Unsplash. Used with permission.