By Dorothea Gillim
When people ask me, “How did you go from being a fifth grade teacher to a television producer?” it’s as if they’re asking me, “How did you go from living in Boise, Idaho to the Ukraine?” It’s an improbable journey, and one that’s definitely not a straight line.
The short answer is dumb luck. The longer, truer answer is a different story – a story about finding your passion and never giving up.
After college, I taught at a private school in Philadelphia. Even though I loved the kids and loved creating my own curriculum, Ifelt a vague calling to do something that impacted kids on a much bigger scale. So I went on a one-year career exploration program – grad school.
At the Harvard Graduate School of Education I took a course in media literacy that landed me a job at a short-livedcable network founded by the Christian Science Church.
At last – television!
Except I got pink-slipped after one month when the church pulled the funding. I still didn’t think of TV as my calling,, but I did know I could write. So I spent the next three years freelancing and writing educational supplements for The Boston Globe and teacher guides for Discovery Channel.
I was barely making ends meet and still haunted by the sense that I should be making an impact on a bigger level, but I had no idea what that meant. So I decided to give myself one month to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
It seems preposterous now -- figure out my life’s purpose in 30 days. At the time it made sense. Desperation can be a great deceiver. I stopped taking freelance gigs and read a career counseling book on finding your passion. At the end of one month, I had discovered my passions were radio and curriculum design. What kind of profession was that?
The month-long experiment had failed. Plus the rent was due. Seeking more freelance work, I called up a local software company, Tom Snyder Productions. My cold calls got nowhere, until one day I woke up and decided for some uncharacteristically ballsy reason to go to the top. I called the company, asked to speak to Tom Snyder, got through (which I later found out rarely happens), and learned that Tom was working on a new project called "TimeShift Radio" and needed someone with curriculum experience to help because his project manager was going on maternity leave.
Radio and curriculum design? At thirty years old I had finally found the job of my dreams. Except I quickly learned I was useless at software design and hated it. I did, however, learn to edit audio on the computer, which enabled me to jump onto another project – "Dr. Katz," the company’s first animated television series produced for Comedy Central. Television, at last! And this time it stuck.
My career grew alongside the company’s. I produced our second program, "Science Court," which was a kids’ show on ABC Saturday morning. I later created my first series, "Hey Monie," an adult animated comedy that aired on Oxygen and BET. Then my second original series debuted on PBS, "WordGirl," about a 10 1/2 year old superhero who flies, bends steel, and knows every word in the dictionary and some hieroglyphics too. A new generation of kids were laughing and learning words like preposterous and flabbergasted. Finally, 15 years later, I had fulfilled that desire to be making a bigger impact on kids.
Now at 44 I can say with confidence that I’m doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do. But my journey to the Ukraine was not easy, nor obvious. And yet, it seems clear to me now (as hindsight always is) that my ignorance was key. Had I picked television as a chosen career, I might not have gone to grad school in education nor applied to a software company that would go on to produce animated comedies, including my own. Sometimes there’s wisdom in uncertainty. And if you have the fortune to feel the pull of a higher calling, no matter how vague, don’t give up. It will take you where you need to go.
Dorothea Gillim is an executive producer at WGBH, the flagship PBS affiliate in Boston, where she creates children's media programs.