Having chosen teaching as my major late in my college career, I graduated in December. That created a problem. The prime season for finding a job in academics is the spring semester, so I was behind the eight ball a bit.
I had several job interviews in the fall while student teaching, but they were primarily for teachers going on maternity leave. None of them panned out. As a result, graduation and the Christmas season were depressing, and moving home was not an option. I refused to go backwards and become a “failure to launch”.
Fortunately, in that day, East Carolina University had a program where teachers could fill out a generic application to be kept on file. That way, if schools contacted the education department, they would have plenty of candidates along with their contact information.
After a despairing 48 hours post-graduation, the future principal of Tar River Learning Center contacted me. He informed me that Rocky Mount, NC was opening a training school for students who had been previously expelled. The school was the system’s effort to reduce the dropout rate. He wanted to know if I was interested in an interview.
I immediately said, “Yes.” My interview was the next day.
Rocky Mount is about an hour away from both ECU and my parent’s home. It is a small town with an amazingly high crime rate. It is known for its drug trade, being exactly half way between New York and Florida on I-95. It is also traditionally one of the worst school systems in NC.
In my interview, the principal let me know that he was temporary as the school launched. Also, the school wouldn’t have enough books for every student, and the teachers were required to teach multiple subjects at the same time, even if they didn’t have training in that subject. The upside was that classes would have no more than 15 or so students.
I jumped at the opportunity despite multiple friends telling me that I was crazy to even consider it. Yes, it was the only job offer I had, but that wasn’t it. Since attending Urbana 90 (a mission minded, college conference held every three years), this was my goal and my target job: working with at-risk students in an urban environment.
Tar River taught me, perhaps more than seminary, how to communicate and how to get to the basics of any subject. My classrooms were full of unwilling, and seemingly, unteachable children. There were bright spots of course, and now, 20 years later through social media, I’ve learned that a few went on to be nurses, graphic artists, and the like.
Additionally, without taking the job, I would not have met my wife, wouldn’t have been mentored by her father, and I can’t realistically figure out how I would have gone into ministry.
In graduating late, taking a job that everyone thought was a bad idea, working in a rough environment in difficult conditions, God led me down paths I couldn’t have imagined. There were many stresses along the way, but I can look back now and see God’s hand in every step.
While we may not always know or trust God is at work, we should assure our hearts that He is.
Isaiah 45: “Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn;
from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance
If you want to follow more of what’s going on with Gordon, check out the website www.jgordonduncan.com and his recently launched podcast at