I put my high school years behind me 30 years ago, but some memories still resonate. It’s not the social ordeal caused by being an introverted, day-dreamy girl with ADHD in a small school seemingly filled with focused extroverts, nor the crisis of self-esteem engendered by feeling huge, if not morbidly obese, at 5’9″ and 150 lbs. (if I’d only known). No, the memories that stick—and sting—have nothing to do with the students I shared my high school days with but the adults who were supposed to be showing me what it would mean to be a grown-up.
The Perfect Storm
I rocked my English classes. My English teachers loved me, and I loved one teacher in particular. Miss U was a zaftig, kaftan-wearing, long-haired pseudo-hippie who taught all my favorite classes—College Prep English, Creative Writing, Journalism. When I was a high school senior, I wanted nothing more than to be like her, a popular teacher, beloved by her students, a guide through the wilds of the English language and written text. I wanted to be a teacher. And one day I confessed this desire to Miss U, certain she’d be thrilled that I wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Instead, she sighed. “Don’t be a teacher,” she said. “There are better careers out there.”
Maybe she’d just finished dealing with some bureaucratic administration bullshit. Maybe she was tired. Maybe a student had been particularly difficult. Quite possibly, it was a momentary blip and she wouldn’t even remember saying it. But she was human, and she did, and I took it to heart.
Still, that didn’t stop me from telling my guidance counselor, Mr. Kneece, that I wanted to go to college to study English and possibly teach high school. I was determined. I would make a difference! I would write, and also teach young adults to write.
Mr. Kneece sighed. “Well, after looking at your transcripts, I don’t know that you’ll be able to do that. You don’t have enough math credits to get into a state university.”
Math credits? I hated math, and so I’d only taken the required one credit. Why hadn’t someone told me I’d need more to get into college? (And, in retrospect, why hadn’t someone told me that I could’ve fulfilled those requirements at a two-year community college and then transferred to a four-year university?)
Mr. Kneece pushed a pamphlet across his desk at me. “Your friend, Wanda, is going to cosmetology college. Have you thought about that at all?”
I hadn’t. I mean, I knew Wanda was going to some school called Capri, and that she was incredibly excited by the prospect of doing hair, but it was Wanda’s thing, not mine. “I’ll think about it,” I said.
“If not that, there’s always technical school,” Mr. Kneece said with a cheerless smile.
Technical school? For what?
As the weeks rolled on, I pondered my impending adult fate. It occurred to me then that not only was I a rockstar in English, but I was pretty damn good in art. Maybe I could make something of my art skills. I searched through the Madison Area Technical College catalog (we didn’t have the Internet in those days, sonny, and we were happy to have catalogs!) and discovered a two-year program in commercial art. There we go! I would be a commercial artist. I filled out the application that had been tucked into the catalog and mailed it that night.
When I arrived in my art class the day after my artistic revelation, I marched up to my teacher, Mr. Karberg, and declared, “I’m going to go to MATC to become a commercial artist.” I was certain he’d be pleased that I was going to follow in his . . .
He sighed. (There were an awful lot of sighing adults during my senior year.)
“Commercial art is really competitive,” he said.
“And that’s bad?”
“You have to be really good.”
“And I’m not good?”
“You’re good,” he told me, “just not that good.”
Something to fall back on
I don’t remember crying. I do remember the crippling self-doubt I faced after all these important people in my life told me that the things I thought I wanted to do were: a) not worth it, b) not possible, and c) beyond my abilities. Even so, I got my acceptance letter from MATC. I showed it to my parents, eager for their approval, certain that commercial art was my future.
“We don’t know how we’re going to pay for that,” they said. And I didn’t know, either. I was woefully uninformed about student loans and how they worked, and I just didn’t have the mental energy to find out more. Why invest time sorting out financial aid for schooling that my art teacher—another favorite and deeply respected educator—told me I wasn’t good enough to make a career of?
I had muttered something about Capri Cosmetology College, the school Wanda would be attending, to my parents. They seized on this as a great idea. “Not your lifetime career,” they said, “but something to fall back on.” Better yet, my grandparents had offered to pay for my schooling and my half of the rent and utilities on a one-bedroom apartment in Madison that I would share with Wanda. With that, my fate was sealed.
I spent 10 miserable months learning to be a cosmetologist. (We didn’t like to be called “beauticians.”) Living in Madison was fun, but school was torture. I wanted out, but my family insisted I stay because only a small portion of my tuition would be refundable if I left. I also had shared responsibilities on a lease with Wanda. So, I stuck it out. I skipped classes often because I just couldn’t will myself to go, but since a certain number of hours were required for graduation that only meant a prolonged stay at Capri.
Finally, I graduated with little celebration and found a job. I worked straight commission during non-peak hours at a dark little salon (it was in the basement of an office building) and I barely made $80 per 40-hour week. I spent more time folding towels than I did cutting hair, and I hated every minute of it. One day, when I announced I was leaving my towel washing and folding duties early to take my sick dog to the vet, my boss snapped at me saying, “You’d better decide what it’s going to be; your dog or your job.”
I lifted my chin, leveled my eyes at her and said, “I guess it’ll be the dog.”
“Are you quitting?” she gasped.
“Looks that way,” I said. I gathered my scissors and supplies, and I didn’t let the door hit me in the ass on the way out. Aside from the penance I had to pay for having squandered the education my grandparents paid for—free family haircuts and perms for the next 20 odd years until I finally reminded them that I’d hated doing hair then and I didn’t like it any more now—that was the last time I worked in cosmetology.
“Do what you love” is not bad career advice
I come across articles regularly that scoff at the aphorism: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day. In fact, Time recently interviewed Miya Tokumitsu about her new book, Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness. (I admit that I haven’t read the book and know nothing about its message or merits other than what appears in the Time article.) It’s become de rigueur to lump “do what you love” with fluffy-bunny, New Age nonsense.
I call bullshit.
The belief that I needed to have some sort of practical, sustainable career—and relying on the guidance of the beleaguered souls in the trenches—led me to places that made me desperately unhappy. For a while, thinking I couldn’t find anything better to do, I worked in a plastics factory operating a press and using a box cutter to trim excess bits off things like bed pans and telephone receivers. I raised dogs for a short time and worked as a receptionist for a dog grooming school where I learned that—surprise!—I had a knack for writing. (Who knew? Well, I had. In high school. When I wanted to pursue higher education in English.) I became an administrative assistant and, later, the person in charge of marketing and admissions. I served as ghost writer on my boss’s dog grooming guide and penned the school’s quarterly newsletter and other marketing materials.
Over the years, my career path has always involved writing. It’s what I love. Writers aren’t known to earn a fortune (although some copywriters and others of that ilk make big bucks), and I never have, but I’m content. I have to wonder how different my life might have been if I hadn’t taken all the (mostly) well-meaning adult guidance to heart and followed my bliss from the beginning.
I believe that, whatever a person loves to do, there’s a way for them to make money doing it if they put their creativity to work finding their niche. But the world needs people like garbage collectors and janitors, too—jobs many might consider mundane, if not thoroughly unappealing. And there will always be people who need that kind of work. There’s a lot to be said for finding value in one’s work, no matter what it happens to be. I was unhappy working in a plastics factory, but there were women on my shift who weren’t, and who took great pride in their output and quality control. They embraced what they had come to do and made certain they were good at it, and they seemed content, too.
I believe we should work for the right reasons. Work shouldn’t be a soulless grind toward paying the bills from month to month (although plenty of people, unfortunately, have to do just that) or dying with the most toys. I subscribe to the tenet most often attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
“Whatever you are, be a good one.”
And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m a crazy idealist. But isn’t the ideal at least something to aim for?