My first memory of the word tenure is from the third grade. A new governor was about to be elected in Tennessee, and our teacher got us involved. I’m not sure how the teacher thought she was replicating democracy, but I do know that I was assigned to learn about—and campaign for—Lamar Alexander. I gathered information about some of Alexander’s proposals (many later, upon his election, became policy), and quickly learned that the most controversial of them had to do with a complete overhaul of the state’s education system. I didn’t know why, but I did gather, especially from the horrified look on my third grade teacher’s face when I presented Alexander’s proposals to my class, that this word—tenure—was a massive source of anxiety. All I knew is that Alexander wanted to get rid of it because, as he put it, it kept bad teachers in the system. I’d had a bad teacher in first grade who yelled at me for using the stapler improperly—even continued yelling at me after I’d bloodied my little thumb—and so the proposal made sense to me. I was, recall, in third grade, and so I didn’t know that Alexander’s proposal really had much more to do with stemming union “control” over raises and job security, which my thirty-something self would most definitely oppose.
In any case, tenure, I learned, was something someone didn’t really mess with. Only the thing is, since I gathered my information from mostly oral sources (my teachers, television, our neighbors), and since my school was within view of the Appalachian mountain range, I thought this word that was kicking up such a fuss was actually not one word but two: “ten year,” emphasis on ten, often pronounced “tin.” For those of you not as familiar with the East Tennessee strain of the Appalachian dialect, with the twangy hurried-up way words get crushed together, especially when those words appear in excited contexts, this “mishearing” might come as a surprise. In this case it was less the Appalachian tongue than my well-honed Appalachian ear that interpreted the Latin rooted word as two and found it not all that curious that the “s” was dropped (since that too is a feature of this particular dialect). It also fit the context. I’d gathered that the concept related to the number of years a teacher logged, and so, I presumed, that number was ten. As in after ten years, ya git tenyear. I wasn’t even ten at the time, so as you might imagine, this number of years impressed me. And so tenure, for me, was long associated with 1) anxiety; 2) working an unimaginably long time, and 3) the republican gubernatorial candidate who always wore a plaid shirt and chopped wood with regular folk.
Despite my mishearing, my original associations, especially 1 and 2, still pretty much obtain. Though I have admittedly and somewhat idiosyncratically flashed on that plaid shirted wood chopper when certain usually well meaning colleagues reminded me that I didn't have it. And so when word came down this week that the Executive Committee had approved my and my three other colleagues’ cases for tenure, I flashed tenyear, and I thought about how my youthful hick-ear scheme was really quite accurate, because even though it’s technically “sixyear,” it’s really, let’s face it, at least ten years' worth of work.