Expecting a 17-year old to choose a life path is like asking a third-grader to create a financial portfolio for 2021. Sure, there are the occasional kids who are wired with pragmatism and wisdom beyond their years. But for the most part, these developing minds aren’t any more equipped to predict their future desires than they are to sign a debt-inducing promissory note that will haunt them for years down the road.
But four years of college is the American way for the middle class. Unlike my grandparents, who came to this country after the Holocaust without a penny to their name, I grew up in a house where going to college wasn’t an option; it was the next step after high school. This was a stark contrast from my father’s life, which, as a first-generation American, did not entail such a definitive path. Instead of hitting the books, he worked. Back in the olden days of the 1960s, college wasn’t a necessary or assumed step. So he forewent higher education in search of work – selling shoes, managing restaurants and eventually to owning a small retail business.
It was this business that put me through school in the hopes that I would make a better, easier (presumably white-collar) life for myself. I was lucky. I grew up watching my father leave before the sun came up to commute into the city and arrive home far past my bedtime. Education was supposed to be my ticket to avoiding this.
My parents weren’t thrilled at my choice to get an English degree, or later, a master’s in creative writing that I have come to deem my “master of arts and crafts.” What they fail to tell you as a wide-eyed teenager is that a liberal arts degree, though useful for developing critical thinking skills and expanding one’s mind, does nothing to prepare a student for the Real World. I didn’t know that English was the color of my parachute; but 17-year old me would not be caught dead getting a business degree. I was a writer. I was going to make documentaries and save the world and rawr riot grrrrrl.
English majors are a special breed. The English building at my school was at the South Pole of campus, a solid 35-minute walk from my dorm. I traipsed across the grassy pathways and found myself in front of an entrance that reeked of Marlboro Lights, t-shirts commemorating The Cure and the occasional Renaissance-inspired ensemble. Inside, we discussed worn novels with tiny notes inscribed on the edges and listened to each other wax philosophical on post-modernism and the Southern Gothic. I found solace in the rants of my classmates about why Hemingway was actually a feminist, even when I knew it was nothing more than marijuana-induced, masturbatory, right-brain dribble. We were THINKERS. The world was our oyster, its pages lined with all that we needed to know.
Imagine my surprise when I started working as a corporate proposal writer two weeks after graduation. Oh, the horror of cubicles and phrases like “value-added” and the sad little brown-bag lunches that my coworkers ate at their desks. Learning the cold, hard truth that my ability to excel in British Literature did not matter when it came to “impacting change.” Or that people would cringe when I responded to the obligatory “were you in any clubs in school” with “I produced the Vagina Monologues.” (Corporate America did not like to be reminded that it had genitalia.)
Why did the sales team, comprised mostly of men of a certain age with a fondness for arena rock, think that I could staple copies any better than the rest of them? And for the sake of all things holy, DID NO ONE HERE CARE ABOUT THE EGREGIOUS USE OF THE SEQUENTIAL COMMA?
The answer to all of these questions, I learned, was that I was in the Real World. Where absolutely nothing I had learned in the past four years could be applied to the actual work I was doing. Sure, I could dot I’s and cross T’s. My saving grace was having worked for my school newspaper, where I learned how to “thrive in a deadline-driven environment,” a phrase gleaned directly from my current resume.
My parents were thrilled I had acquired a job so quickly. Even though I hated every second of it. “Stick with it,” they said. “You are one of the lucky ones.”
That’s exactly what I did for the next 7.5 years – I stuck with the idea that I was an English major, and I was supposed to be dotting I’s and crossing T’s. I could always try to make it as a Writer, but that didn’t involve health insurance. And not having health insurance meant that I was asking to get hit by a bus, a fear my Jewish mother instilled in me early on. My string of writing jobs in various capacities did afford me some good times and better friends; my stint at a small advertising agency was one of my favorite jobs to-date. But eventually I moved away and desk life began to wear on me. Writing for pay in a windowless office on someone else’s schedule was sucking the fun out of…writing for fun. And writing jobs in New York – corporate, university, nonprofit – are a breed of their own. I will happily work as a freelance writer any day – but the thought of going back to full-time desk life is enough to propel me through a drastic career change.
As I sit here on my second-to-last day of desk life, I am pushing away the fear of embarking upon an adventure into the sciences – to what will eventually be nursing. Seeing as how I took one biology class in four years of college, this shift is nothing if not drastic. But it is necessary. Rawr grrrrl power.