In 2010, amidst the throws of the Great Recession, I lost the dreaded copy writer job. I was thrilled. Suddenly, the woman who longed for creative, autonomous, purposeful and meaningful work, no longer had to commute to a grey-carpeted corner cubicle to pen tedious, boring, inconsequential and unread fiction. I celebrated!
“School” soon interrupted my merriment; ruled by its Any Job Will Do doctrine and its tutelage, I frantically and desperately scrambled for any work. As unemployed ranks swelled and panicked, I soaked in the tenor of the country and “school’s” insistence on urgency; I applied for and took almost any job that would have me (drawing the line at McDonald’s). Work begets work, I was told. I took that “help” in earnest.
Given my experience, I can safely say that parasites and predators crawl out of the woodwork during an economic crisis — after all, opportunities to take advantage of desperate people abound. For example, in my urgent state, I discovered “marketing” and “customer service” positions that magically mutated into door-to-door sales jobs. (Yes folks, door-to-door sales still exists). These employers must have all attended the same How to Scam the Desperately Unemployed into Selling Your Crappy Product summer camp. Job seekers beware, should you fall into such a scheme:
1) Call a phone number provided in an ad.
2) Friendly young voice informs that this job is not “sales” but “customer service”. And, to boot, “We train you!”
3) Schedule an interview.
4) Arrive at interview to enter an office crowded with half unpacked boxes, motivational posters leaning up against walls and unemployed 20-somethings filling up folding chairs, scratching through applications, and filing in and out of a corner office.
5) Wait for at least 40 minutes after the appointed interview time, as the competition files in and out of the corner office.
7) Finally meet with interviewer (always half my age) in coveted corner office, who reveals that “customer service” really means selling vacuums, or knives (if you can believe it) door-to-door.
8) Try to convince the prepubescent interviewer to hire me, while thinking, “Are you fucking kidding me? Where’s the candid camera guy?”
In the knife-selling scene, as unknowing knife-selling wannabes scratched out applications, an over-zealous manager led the newly chosen through a motivational pep rally in the adjacent room; the accompanying games and cheers made my insides curdle like outdated milk. Yet, I stayed and fumbled my way through the interview, trying to convince Mr. twenty-something that I could dream of no better job. After the interview, my feet spurred me out the door and down the stairs, accelerating with each step from walking to trotting and – once out of the building – sprinting to my car while fighting off the urge to scream. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, and I wasted a lot of time following the “any job will do” doctrine.
During this dark period, I recall feeling like school was constantly monitoring me. When every cell in me screamed “No!” – like during this knife-sales interview — my fear of not “making my aim” shackled me to this ridiculous, desperate and anxiety-driven job search. For a good school doobie knows that there is no greater sin than not making your aim. I was certain that God (i.e. “school”) would punish me for even considering blowing off any employment opportunity, no matter how skanky.
My fear of “school’s” otherworldly omnipresence illustrates what I now call magical “school” thinking. The properly indoctrinated hand divine powers to the institution. When putting efforts towards “school”, or anything “school”-related (like our aims), we believed ourselves immune from damage and danger. Our lives ceased to have their own innate momentum and rhythm of ups and downs. In our minds, “school”, or lack of “school”, dictated and orchestrated all; “Without school, I would never have [the marriage, the house, the job, etc.],” we told ourselves, and each other. If we followed school doctrine, we believed our lives would unfold in concert, every wish falling into place. If we break school rules, wrath and hellfire will surely follow, our little lives descending into depravity. Given that we believed school-related efforts to be divine directives, we felt immune to, and became blind to damage it inflicted on our psyches, our relationships, our jobs, our families, our spouses and our limited time here on earth.
When it came to my job search, had I been in my right mind, I would have told Mr. Interviewer, “Good luck with your knife-selling scam. I’ll pass.” But my inner compass was cowed by previous experiences, when the school-sponsored and directed job search worked — at least in terms of getting of any job; whether or not the job worked for me was (of course) inconsequential. Besides that, my history of pre-school employment failures loomed large, feeding my worst fears. I imagined myself homeless, shivering and begging quarters in Harvard Square.
Those days, I existed in a strange isolation; despair, fear and fatigue brought on by secrets and “school”-sponsored “help” piled a wall between me and friends and family. I kept trying and failing to find work — why weren’t my efforts paying off, I wondered? These principles used to work. I must need to try harder. A potpourri of character-building experiences followed: I worked domestic jobs that paid low hourly rates including babysitting, elder care and housecleaning. Trader Joe’s rejected me repeatedly and in several locations. And I bumbled my way through two shifts at a coffee shop, while every cell in my body screamed “Noooooo!!!”
Magical “school” thinking was the only thing that led me to the coffee shop. In my right mind, I would have never considered applying for this position, heeding my previous not-so illustrious waitress-ing legacy. I would have recognized myself for the person I have always been — one who gets flustered and make silly mistakes when facing growing lines of demanding customers. I would have honored the strengths I’ve always had — listening, empathy, writing, the arts and creativity. I would not have bothered applying for jobs that required skills I’ve tried and failed to hone in the past.
I applied at the suggestion of my “wiser teacher”, for “school doctrine” had informed me that I didn’t know who I was, couldn’t count on my first 40-plus years of life experience. Better to acquiesce to those wiser and more evolved beings who had been “doing the work longer” and saw things about me to which I was blind. Those beings inferred that the frantic and desperate search, and willingness to work anywhere, earned a reverent “school” doobie illusive and coveted help from the invisible world – the divine help that accelerates a job search to a fever pitch, mysteriously attracting potential, yet inappropriate, employers.
At one auspicious occasion, I blew an interview for a $10-an-hour concierge job at Mass General Hospital. In my anxiety-ridden state, I had arrived at the wrong time and then mumbled, bumbled and stumbled my way through. Again, the interviewee was probably half my age; he sent me an email o’ rejection a few hours later. I confessed this to my closest friend, Janet who responded, “What the fuck were you doing wasting your time applying for this job?” What I was doing was heeding “school” principle; following the “help”. I had stated a five-week aim to get work, any work. Aim is everything, I’d been told. Aim is your God! (Translate into “school” is your God). Of course I couldn’t tell her about that “help”, or the aim, because that would be “leaking” – a violation of “school” rules.
As I continued to follow “school” rules and heed instruction, my life was devolving into a series of losses, humiliations and reminders of my incompetence – the coffee shop flop being the most obvious illustration. Since, at the time, getting a job was my stated five-week aim, quitting the job was unacceptable. But quit I did; I then confessed my sin in class during our required aim reports. Often aim reports give “school” license to deliver the verbal lashings that all “school” attendees receive eventually. My time had come; my “teacher’s” face darkened. She tersely boomed out (insert Wizard of Oz voice here), “Who are you to quit a job?” and then announced grandly, “You have a bit of a princess in you.”
As the more evolved being, this “teacher” was providing the revelation needed for me to overcome these weaknesses and evolve — otherwise known as “help”. My face was burning with humiliation; for the princess declaration echoed my relentless inner judges who had long ago convicted me of laziness, entitlement, incompetence, and more! In my right mind, I would have told her to kiss my ass and left “school’s” hallowed halls immediately, leaving behind the impression of my middle finger sticking in the air. But in my school stupor, I simply soaked in the humiliation and fumed (and did I ever fume). Magical “school” thinking informed me that this exposed weakness was — however embarrassing — necessary to my “evolution”, “We all go through it,” I told myself.
Later, in a private conversation, this teacher fortified her point saying to me blithely, “Maybe you will always struggle to get work.” Her prognosis filled me with dread. Already a neurotic mess, I recall thinking, “Maybe she’s right! Maybe I will never have what it takes to hold down a job.” However, at some point after the humiliation, another “classmate” referred back to the “princess” comment as great “help” given by a “teacher” to me. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and interrupted my school-induced coma; my inner rebels knew that my school days were numbered.
Now, on looking back, I see my need to confess as ridiculous. I felt like a sinner because I quit a $9/hour coffee shop job. The truth is that — as an adult — I had made a sane decision based on my gut instincts and personal history. There was no reason to justify or confess this decision to anyone – I knew in my gut that I wasn’t going to grow into this job. I knew continuing it was going to be an empty exercise in trying to be someone I am not and that it would only rub salt into my frenzied, depressed and anxious state. I knew that it was the worst thing I could do for my emotional health, because I was trying to contort myself into a role that I could never fill and that I was marching into another employment failure, driving home my already-well-branded sense of entitled Jewish-American princess who will always struggle to find and keep work.
But you see, dear readers, what I knew was to be dismissed and swept aside; I was to bow to the voice of the “school” wizard. Therein lies the most damaging aspect of “school”. It wears away at your soul, until you become its empty, fear-driven vessel, malleable, pliable and easy to manipulate.
When I honored my instincts and said no to the job, I began to wake up to the truth: I couldn’t continue the “school”-sponsored job search. My inner compass and instincts were in direct conflict with “school principles.” I had questions about aptitude, natural proclivities and strengths, but I never asked them in class because I knew, based on witnessing and receiving five years worth of “help, that “school” would wave them away. These considerations were inconsequential. We plebes did not know our aptitudes and strengths. Still, the quiet inner voice kept whispering, “there is something wrong” and increasingly she butted up against the louder “school” voices that proliferated the message of with “help” from “school”, you can transform from lazy, entitled Jewish American princess into a “real woman”.
Between the low hourly rates I received for domestic work, the running around, the constant searching for any paycheck and the repeated rejections, my already worn down sense of worth started to wear through. My bedraggled psyche felt pulled in several wrong directions; I longed for the day when I could focus on and walk towards those things to which I felt innately drawn. I had been waiting for “school” to grant me permission; I started to know that “school’s” permission would never come. But I was festering in the fear that if I left “the help” my life would only get worse. Thankfully, at a certain point, my husband heard the quiet inner voices that I kept dismissing and he pushed me to open my ears. When I finally heeded them and decided to leave, I told myself “If my life goes to shit, at least I’ll be able to say that it did so on my bidding.”
When I did leave, I found the opposite to be true.