The most poignant moment on the recently-aired series finale of NBC’s Parks and Recreation was when the show’s protagonist, Leslie Knope, reflected on her career at the Pawnee Parks department by saying, “What makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people that you love.” Her words resonated strongly with me and led me to reflect a little deeper on the career I’ve tried to build for myself and the many people who have drifted in and out of my working life.
I’ve taught at a public afterschool program for the past five years alongside an eclectic cast of characters who have always reminded me just a bit of the cast of Parks and Recreation. There many not be anyone among us who’s nearly as materialistic and image conscious as Tom Haverford or as lovingly simple-minded and childlike as Andy Dwyer, but nonetheless, we are a quirky bunch who have remained a close knit team. We’ve even formed some unlikely but delightful friendships, some that I would have never thought possible. I had originally envisioned my position there as temporary, a stepping stone to whatever might be next. But I think it was my deep appreciation for my coworkers, some of whom became my friends and some of whom I clashed with at times, that kept me coming back year after year.
We all combine our strengths and personalities to deliver a program of activities to a diverse population of children ranging from 5 to 11 years old. And while none of us are quite as amazing or as magical as Johnny Karate, the children’s television character played so masterfully by Chris Pratt on the show’s final season, I like to think that we’re a pretty talented bunch. We’ve organized everything from an annual talent show that includes breakdancing and drumming acts to an arts and crafts sale to raise money to build a brand new playground. These huge efforts were successful only because each staff member was able to contribute meaningful, valuable work to provide for the greater good of the team and the children.
Unfortunately, the work we do is not always so valued by the larger community. Various shifts in school budgets and staffing have left us scrambling for adequate space and time to plan and run our program. And the part-time nature of the job, coupled with an hourly wage that, while generous compared to many similar programs, leaves a little to be desired, leads to high staff turnover. Over the past five years, we’ve had to weather a few major changes in staffing and have been forced to spread ourselves a little thinner. Our core staff; the Leslie, Ron, Tom, Donna and April of the program; if you will, has mostly stayed intact. But we’ve seen several major and minor characters come and go; some departures have been especially bittersweet, while others have been a huge sigh of relief.
This particular school year has been the most challenging one yet for the program. Aside from a record number of school cancellations due to an especially snowy winter, there has been a general decline in staff morale and teamwork that has left the program feeling frayed and tattered. We lost four especially talented, enthusiastic, hard-working staff members at the end of the last academic year, and their replacements have been lackluster to say the least. A program like ours can only run successfully if everyone on the team is willing to work together and to demonstrate passion, creativity, and consistency on a daily basis. We’ve thrived on these things for the past several years, but I feel like I’m part of a crumbling empire or a coldly dysfunctional family these days. Our invaluable former teachers who had the work ethic and heart of Ann Perkins and Chris Traeger have been replaced by newbies who sometimes display behaviors as challenging and counterproductive as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein and Jeremy Jamm, and it can be frustrating to see eye to eye with them or to get them to pull their weight. Adding to the problem is the fact that our “deputy director,” or our male version of Leslie Knope, is not always getting the support or the creative freedom he needs from our female Ron Swanson of a director in order to make changes, unify the staff, and make his vision a reality. In short, I know in my heart that the work I do matters, but it doesn’t feel as worth doing anymore because I’m no longer working with a team of people I love.
So, while it saddens me to say this, I’ve decided that the last day of this school year will be the series finale for my career at this program. Just as TV series should bow out before they become stale, I feel that I should close the curtain on this part of my career before I allow myself to become stagnant, frustrated, or bitter. I’ll always look back on the days I spent working with my friends with almost the same fondness I feel when I re-watch old episodes of Parks and Recreation. And I can only hope that wherever I land next, I’ll find another group of co-workers worthy of comparisons to my favorite citizens of Pawnee, Indiana.