Career Day

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Harvard lawyer. I can’t really say for sure what put me on that path, but I know my mother was thrilled with the idea. At the time, I’d never seen anything court-related except perhaps The People’s Court. Maybe deep down I had aspirations of appearing before Judge Wapner?

In addition to my litigation work, I planned to be a part-time gymnast. I’d taken what my dance class had called “acrobatics” when I was very young, and around the time I’d decided I would pursue this (part-time) passion, around age 10, I think I’d probably been in gymnastics for maybe a year. If that.

But wait! That isn’t all. Along with my Ivy League career and Olympics-level side job, I also planned to be a cartoonist. I loved Garfield and Peanuts and was proud of myself because I could draw Garfield, Odie, and Snoopy and believed I was well on my way to dazzling future of (weekend? IDK) drawing the Sunday comics.

Ahhh, the optimism of the young.

I don’t remember what I was leaning toward once I hit high school. But by then I’d determined that law was out for me because I couldn’t hold an argument to save my life and my tear ducts were wired to my emotional state. There was no way I could argue a case in front of the jury or defend an objection to a doubtful judge without bursting into tears, and that wouldn’t do at all. (I didn’t know then that not all lawyers do courtroom work; I only learned about things like estate law much later.) I’d given up gymnastics, which was fortunate because in my sophomore year I developed a herniated disc (now two degenerative discs, TYVM) that had me in bed for a month. Probably caused by doing too many backbends and handsprings in the backyard, or at least that’s my contention. The only visual art I was doing by then was doodling on my paper schoolbook covers. Remember those?

Eventually, over time, I began to turn my focus toward music. I was in band, as I’ve mentioned. Having started flute in eighth grade, by my sophomore year I was playing flute, piccolo, and slide trombone and had briefly played the trumpet as well. I enjoyed it, but I never seemed to develop the skill (probably from lack of practicing) that would lead to any of the competitive auditions, like All-State Band or the Olympic Conference. Not once did my director ever suggest that I audition for any of these. At the time, that was a relief—less work for me! My friends were busting their asses to be seated in these groups. It wasn’t until later that I realized that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t all that great a musician. Passable, certainly, but not passionate.

I wish I’d realized that sooner. I applied to college with the intent of studying music education and becoming a high school band director. I knew the directors in our area were all nearing retirement age, so there would likely be openings when or shortly after I graduated. (I was right about that, actually. Score one for me. ) I focused my energies on getting into the local state college because it was known for being a good music school, and I could save money by living at home. I only applied to one other school, a state college a few hours north that a fellow bandmate had begun attending the previous year. I never explored anything or anywhere else. I was determined. A college in North Carolina called our house one night to try to talk to me, but I wasn’t home; my dad apparently spent some time talking with the admission rep and was very gung-ho about the school when I returned home that night. I had a relative who was a graduate of a well-known, well-ranked university, and some encouraged me to apply there because perhaps the “family connection” would benefit me.

Then there were the Jesuits. I was very anti-religion in those days. When a letter of interest came for me that suggested it was from a Catholic university, I skimmed it and rejected it without much consideration. They’d offered a small scholarship, which for a very long time I remembered as being 15%, but that didn’t sway me in the least. I also had never heard of the Jesuits before, so I didn’t realize I was being courted by a fairly prestigious institution. All I saw was religious, and that was all I needed to know. Later in life, just a few years ago in fact, I was going through some old school papers and I found that letter of interest. I was horrified at myself when I realized they had offered me a 75% scholarship, not 15%.

This is why we shouldn’t force teenagers to make enormous life-changing decisions when they are still in the throes of adolescent stupidity.

I got a full academic scholarship to the local state school, and that’s the school I attended. I also got a small partial music scholarship. My parents bought me a trombone as a graduation present.

The story doesn’t end there, though. I attended the two-day freshman orientation in the summer of 1993. It was supposed to be an opportunity to meet some classmates, meet our department chairs, and select our first-semester classes. When I checked in, I was the only person (as far as I was aware) who hadn’t been booked into a dorm with other students; I was assigned a single bedroom for the night. Not easy to meet strangers when you’re already an awkward introvert and now you’re isolated while everyone else is grouping off with their new “roomies.” At the dinner/DJ party that night, I stood alone. I also hadn’t packed for social activities, I’d only packed “professional” clothes to meet my professors in, so that made me feel even worse. Then, the next day, I was given my class assignments and told that, on top of the 11 hours of classes I would have to attend every day (which only totaled up to 15 credits because individual instrument lessons were only one credit each), I was expected to practice for another 8 hours a day. On my schedule, my introductory oboe lessons were immediately after my trombone lesson. How could I learn to play a reed while my lip was swollen from my trombone mouthpiece? Not well, that’s for sure. I went home from the orientation fairly dejected.

By the time school began, I had decided I had to get out of music. After some debate and a lot of flipping through the course catalog, I decided to pursue English, and figured I’d become an English teacher. My first day of classes was spent in registration lines as I dropped and picked up whatever courses I could find. I kept one music class, Music Appreciation or some such, because I figured it would fulfill one of my Arts requirements. I kept the very few general education classes that had been squeezed into my schedule. I dropped everything else. My days went from 11 hours of back-to-back classes to 6 or 7 hours on campus with breaks between classes and Wednesdays off completely. It was a relief. That first day, I also attended the first Music Appreciation class. During the hour lesson, the professor explained that we would be expected by the end of the semester to be able to identify any musical composition he played, composer and piece, by hearing just a few notes of it no matter where in the piece he dropped the needle (we still had record players in those days, folks). When the class ended, I ran back to registration and dropped that as well.

My 4 years of college were okay. I loved the freedom of it, being able to study what interested me, but being a commuter sucked. I was never on campus at night. I didn’t attend a single party on campus the whole 4 years. I made few friends. I joined even fewer extracurricular activities. I worked after school, so I was off campus by 3pm. After the first semester I dropped the education focus and became a liberal arts major, which opened up more possibilities—in particular, room for three film classes. (There’s nothing like getting academic credit to watch and talk about movies!) I was required to take two English seminars, but one summer my advisor and favorite professor called me out of the blue and invited me to join a third seminar on science fiction that she was putting together. I had enough time between classes to attend the open ice skating session at the rink a few miles from campus. I also discovered the computer lab, and the internet, which was still in its early days of IRC, Telnet, and Internet Explorer.

As my last semester approached, I discovered I had taken enough of the required classes to add a Women’s Studies concentration to my major, which I thought was pretty cool (because it had been entirely unintentional) but my dad laughed at, saying something like “What are you going to do with that? Study women?” Har har har. Again, it was the early 1990s. Gay rights were still a pipe dream. Queer jokes were the norm.

Toward the middle of that last semester, I began to worry about what was next. I didn’t want to teach. Didn’t want to study law. Couldn’t afford to go back for my masters (I assumed). Had no portfolio or experience or contacts in anything. Publishing was out because I’d never taken a journalism class or anything publishing related except one creative writing class. Then the Business department held its annual job fair, so I put together a stack of resumes and dressed my best. I was graduating summa cum laude; I must be marketable to someone, right? My best friend at the time was a business major, so she and I met up and toured the vendor tables. Nothing seemed to fit for me. People only took my resume when I forced it on them. At one table, for a local casino, the representative took my resume and my friend’s resume and looked them both over. He looked up at me and said,

“I don’t have anything for you, but you could valet park.”

Then he told my friend to hang back, because he wanted to talk to her. I was crushed. That night, at a course I was taking on Women in the Media, we were having a guest panel discussion with some women professors and chairs from the campus. It was being simulcast on the college radio station. During the question and answer portion, still reeling from my day, I got up and asked something like, “How do you figure out what you want to do?” and then I told them all about my experience. They were horrified and supportive, and I felt marginally better until I could get home for a good cry.

A few weeks later, my English Honor Society group went out to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Michelle Pfeiffer, which had recently been released. I was telling our chapter supervisor, who had also been my Shakespeare professor, about the job fair debacle. As I finished, he looked at me. “Ohhhhh,” he said, very dramatically. “YOU’RE the one.” What? He explained that my question and story had been heard on the radio broadcast and had apparently raised some trouble between the English department and the Business department. I was stunned. Not long after, my advisor/favorite professor had a friend from New York come to speak with us. She was a freelance writer or editor or something along those lines. I don’t remember now. But she told us that she had not studied journalism or communications in college and had gotten into publishing anyway. I went home that day for the first time seriously considering publishing. I’d always loved to read; why not try to work on books? I searched the want ads for entry-level publishing jobs and applied to all of them. The area where I lived at the time wasn’t really a hotbed of publishing, but there were several medical book publishers in the city, and I scored my first and second interviews with two of them. By the time I graduated, I had been hired to start work as an Editorial Assistant.

And that, as they say, is that. I was quickly promoted to editor, and not long after to department supervisor. I taught the in-house copyediting course. The company was basically a sweatshop for copyeditors, but it was a start. After 2 years there, I moved to the job in DC that I loved and then left to be a mom and have now returned to after 16 years. It’s not what I ever expected to be doing when I was 8 or 18. It’s not law, or sports, or art, or music, or even film, which I attempted briefly to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in after my divorce but couldn’t afford.

I’m proud of my career. I’m proud of myself. I love my husband and I know he loves me very much. I have a good life, all things considered. I’m not in the career I planned to study when I started college. I’m no longer married to the high school sweetheart I thought I’d be with forever. I don’t live with the son who is my entire reason for existing. We don’t necessarily become the people we expected to be. Life throws too many things at us to assume we can even begin to predict where we’ll end up.