Winter 2016

Biggest badass in the room

Post bereavement, post stroke, post rehab, post 60 … Laurie Haycock Makela braves her first job interview and gets back to the classroom

The minute I saw the online post – ‘Full time tenure-track Art / Design Teacher at Community College’ – I imagined my new life: I’d be doing what I love again, teaching visual communication to anyone who walked in the door. Even better, it was in my hometown. I don’t tell many people I’m from the San Fernando Valley, but suddenly the campus looked as comforting as an air-conditioned mall in the desert. I imagined my new life like an episode from a warm-hearted sitcom (anyone remember Welcome Back, Kotter?) filled with great kids and passionate teachers like me.

I read the requirements for the job about 150 times. I was more than qualified to teach design at their college. I have led two world-class design programmes. It felt right. This should be a slam-dunk.

I was also terrified. I was terrified because I was 60 years old and have not had a serious job interview for a long time. I’m old and out of the career loop.

My last interview, more than two decades ago, was for the chair of the design department at an A-list art school on the West Coast. I was treated to a five-star hotel, a cocktail party and a six-figure job offer. And around the same time, the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) gave me a medal. In those days, I showed up to events in a T-shirt, miniskirt and combat boots — the mark of a total 1990s badass.

Then everything changed. My husband died, leaving me a widow with two kids. Then I had a brain haemorrhage.

I was 40 years old the first time I had a brain haemorrhage. I was about to give a talk at a New York design conference. Suddenly, I felt a searing headache in my left temple, like a gunshot from the inside of my brain. Twenty-four hours later I was surrounded by neurosurgeons, all surprised to see me still alive.

Seven years later I had a second haemorrhage in the same part of the brain. After that, I couldn’t read or write. I didn’t know the difference between the letter ‘A’ and my left foot. I said ‘tree’ but I meant ‘refrigerator’. Numbers didn’t make sense.

Later I learned that brain injuries like mine cause communication problems with three lyrical names: Aphasia (difficulties with speech), Agraphia (difficulties with writing), and Alexia (difficulties with reading).

I had seizures in the street. I slept. I had brain surgery. I slept more.

Then I went to occupational therapy. At therapy, I learned how to make a wooden box – as if my life depended on it. Because it did. I was not the same. I was slow. I was full of fear. I stopped teaching.

Now, a decade after rehab, here I am applying for a full time job for the first time in years. I treated the application process like that box in rehab – overcoming fear like my life depended on it. I got everything together – college transcripts (thank you, Berkeley, for reminding me I repeated ‘Intro to Poetry’), references, resume, portfolio. I applied online and on time, which, in itself, felt like a huge achievement.

Finally, out of hundreds of applicants, I made it to the top ten for an interview. I did the Mom-dance around the kitchen: ‘I got the interview!’ On the big day, my daughter drove me to my interview like we were going to NASA – while my brother was on the phone: ‘You just tell yourself “I am the biggest badass in the room.”’

I tried to tell myself I am the biggest badass in the room when BAM, I’m in the conference room, facing a committee of six strangers in khaki. At first I thought we were peers. They ask, ‘Why do you want to teach?’ and I say ‘Because I’ve taught my whole life.’ But the questions got weird: all about committees, politics and learning outcomes – none of it made sense. I wanted to jump across the table, screaming ‘these are stupid questions! They have nothing to do with design, or what I have to bring to the table!’

Then the committee escorted me across the campus to a large classroom. Time for a teaching demo. As I stood behind the podium, a strange calm came over me – and the language of design flowed out – as natural as riding a bike down my old neighbourhood. This is why I teach. This is where I belong. This is my passion. I may have been wobbly on the Illustrator demo, but solid on concept. When I finished, I bowed. But it was at that moment that I also realised I was probably not going to get the job.

After dissecting the events on the way home with my daughter I admitted my sense of failure, which at best, was embarrassing. I didn’t have to wait for the email that came much later to get the message: I was not the biggest badass in that room.

But a few weeks later, I was more than surprised to be offered the chance to teach ‘Intro to Graphic Design’ at a different school. Was I interested?

I was terrified, but yes, I was interested in teaching again. Not too old or too brain-damaged to teach what I know best. Failure is part of learning, and change is part of life.

Laurie Haycock Makela, designer, design t(h)inker, Los Angeles

First published in Eye no. 93 vol. 24, 2017


Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can see what Eye 93 looks like at Eye before You Buy on Vimeo.