Schoolmaster as Cook
by Ibn-Salim Hanna - 1971
The author, a recent Ph.D., describes his frustrations of job-hunting. Here he shares one rather unique reply to his innumerable queries.
"The average schoolmaster is and always must be essentially an ass, for how can one imagine an intelligent man engaging in so puerile an avocation?" This reflection of H. L. Mencken seems particularly relevant to these times when the market is flooded with teachers. Before I stumbled on Mencken's insight, I typed and typed letter after letter, tucked in vita after vita; I opened one reply, then another and another and another until the total reached three hundred and two. There must be a pattern, I thought, from which "rejection" or "no vacancy" or "open file" type letters partake. I then concluded: In an age scrambling for Ph.D. dissertation topics, the nature of such letters and their impact on the lives of young teachers could be a topic worth researching. Three hundred and two was not the number of inquiry letters I forwarded. That number was four hundred. And as one of my teachers remarked: "You probably would have gotten back the other ninety-eight replies had you enclosed a stamped self-addressed envelope."
Most replies were ordinary, neat, formal, cold. One reply, however, was extraordinary, and it was to an extraordinary letter of inquiry, letter number four hundred. Unlike the rest, that final letter was handwritten, and it deviated from the standard rhetoric, although it still subsumed the essential data that a college administrator wishes to know. Addressed to Dr. Thomas C. Mendenhall, president of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, the letter was dated June 24th and read:
Dear Dr. Mendenhall,
If I am unable to locate a teaching position for the next year, I expect to be washing dishes. In this letter, I wish to assess my background and interests which might lead you to hire me to your staff at Smith College or to recommend me to the dishwashing profession.
This August I expect to pass my Ph.D. field examinations in Near Eastern Studies with a major in Arabic Literature (classical and modern) and minors in Islamic History and Near Eastern Political Systems.
My general academic record is quite impressive. It consists of many courses (ninety semester hours at the graduate level), excellent grades (3.8 on the four-point scale), and several publications in leading journals. One of the publications has been translated into French by Professor Jean Lecerf of the Sorbonne and has appeared in Orient, a Sorbonne-based periodical.
I am twenty-six, a U.S. citizen, and I would love to teach. During my graduate years, I held a National Defense Fellowship on two different occasions and a University Fellowship; moreover, I received an assistantship and a research grant.
To sum up: I am good and I can do more good in the teaching profession than in the world of liquid Joy.
Please hire me!
Suhail ibn-Salim Hanna
P.S. I will accept a part-time appointment—anything. My complete dossier, file number 31692, is with the Indiana Bureau of Educational Placement, School of Education, Bloomington, Indiana, zip code 47401.
To this letter, Dr. Mendenhall wrote a reply in a felt pen and dated it in the British style, 16 July. He addressed the envelope, sealed it, and, no doubt, licked the stamp. The warmth, indeed the humor, of his letter reflects the measure of our common humanity. His reply in full:
Dear Mr. Hanna:
Though I have nothing to offer or suggest, I somehow cannot let your plea for a teaching position go unanswered! There is nothing at Smith and I know of nothing around us in the Valley. I am sure you have tried the usual places; so the most you can do is keep trying, for your specialized knowledge and interests will surely find a taker somewhere.
So don't despair, and try cooking rather than dishwashing. The need is greater, and the pay better.
With best wishes,
T. C. Mendenhall
I didn't despair, although at times I felt it must be easier to become minister of the Last Baptist Church than to be a college teacher. Yet I kept my cool even on that muggy evening, the twenty-first of July, when I wrote—after returning from a six-hour session at the pinball machine where I stood bored, stoned, frustrated—the following letter:
Dear Dr. Mendenhall,
Your idea of cooking instead of dishwashing is a good one and certainly worth a try. Thanks for suggesting it.
It felt so great to receive a personal note from a college president. Believe me, I truly appreciate it and it will be one of the few letters I'll save. You know, if someday you become famous—I mean real famous, say vice-president of these United States of America—then I can display the little letter you sent me on 16 July. Indeed, that letter will be a collector's item. Become famous and mark my word.
Alternatively, I could become a great cook and with my Arab-Greek Orthodox background, I might land a job with the Onassis family and wouldn't that be something! In so being, you can claim the honor of having advised me to seek my fortunes in the world of cooking without having had a dish, a cup, a cone, a dip, a spoon, a lick of my famous fish ice cream—a real treat!
Seriously, if you have a file for me at Smith, please enclose the following essay in it. I wrote it a few years ago when I was twenty-one. I published it in Literature East and West. Professor Jean Lecerf of the Sorbonne -- a brilliant, well-published, highly respected, uncommonly kind scholar -- picked it up, translated it into French, wrote a Preface to it and published the French version in Orient, a Sorbonne-based periodical. His Preface could serve as a recommendation of my limitations and abilities.
In the future, perhaps, you might want to consider my candidacy. If you hear of anything for the current year, please tell me. Anything. I'll even accept a two-thousand dollar part-time appointment. I've got another two-thousand dollar grant coming from Indiana University; so, if as they say, two plus two equals four, then with that sum, I'll be in good shape and I won't have to live with my girl. I'll marry her. So if you decide to hire me, you will indeed be able to claim the fact that you—in one mighty blow—"married me off" and saved me from the world of liquid Joy.
I'll close. Thanks again for your concern.
Most Sincerely Yours, Suhail ibn-Salim Hanna Enclosure
While waiting for Dr. Mendenhall's reply, I finally landed a job nipping -- cooking -- hamburgers and washing dishes at a local Burger-Chef. Two birds with one stone: After all, isn't that the dream of every schoolmaster?