the twenty three poll

I graduated college into post-crash uncertainty like many others of my micro-generation. An unpaid internship was the viable route into the industry that interested me, and that meant moving back home and earning whatever I could, however I could.

The slightly Groundhog Day scenario of going right back where I started unnerved me.  I was anxious to feel like grown up life had begun (by which we mean “grown up” and “life” respectively). To ease this anxiety, for a few years I developed a practice of asking people I admired a one-question survey:

What were you doing when you were my age?

I asked my bosses and managers, my neighbors, parents of my human and canine charges. I figured that if I someday wanted to end up like them, it was worth knowing what groundwork to lay now.

I didn’t expect to find out that a superwoman (and awesome mom) in higher ed and development was selling software out of the back of her car at twenty three. But it made sense given the people skills and doggedness she made use of in her current job.

The woman who ran a huge summer program for teenagers with humor and good grace, who mentored me from the day we met, sight unseen, told me that for her, twenty three was all about having the kid she hadn’t planned on. Which was why later on, with that kid grown, she’d been able to stay involved in dance and education exactly as she pleased.

Another boss and mentor, who often felt like the Yoda to my young Skywalker when I cut my teeth as an education administrator, fixed swimming pool filters as his first job out of college. What it taught him, he said, was the ability to sit with a problem until he had worked out a solution. No wonder he was unflappable when it came to supply snafus, messy logistics, or panicked parents.

The answers I got were surprising, humbling, and liberating. I could say yes, after all. I could try things out without having to make sure they all lined up on some predetermined career path. And so I did.

I had some wonderfully eclectic jobs during my internship years. Besides caring for dogs and children, I stage managed plays and worked run crew (“moving furniture in the dark” was how I described that gig). I published art reviews in a small magazine. I curated a show of my own. I did writeups of local businesses for a Business Improvement District’s magazine, which meant I got paid to bike through Brooklyn sampling baked goods and coffee, checking out funky clothing boutiques and bookstores. Like the swimming pools or software sales, it all taught me something – about a neighborhood, or an industry, or about my own writing.

As a classroom teacher, I’m thankful for having had other experiences in between schooling and being schooled, because in this job you never know what you’re going to need. I can never know enough, but the more I’ve been exposed to, the better. I hope my students learn that too. If we can help young people believe and see that every experience can teach you something, not only do they remain life-long learners – they can take an active role in making sense of their experiences to bend them toward their goals.

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