Personal Archaeology 23: Work

Yes, that is my badge from when I worked at Marshalls for 3 months in the fall of 1994. Yes, I still have it.

So I have probably been watching too many teacher complaining and teacher quitting TikToks lately, which I can’t say is the most healthy thing, especially considering how exhausted I have been this school year. But while I have not made any dramatic pronouncements about or moves concerning my teaching career, watching friends quit or look for work as well as many in my profession spiral out, I have gained a lot of perspective. Part of that has come from the many conversations that my colleagues and I have had about what’s bothering us or what other plans we might have. Part of it has come from looking back through my college years journals to see what I wrote about working.

That’s what I am going to be writing about here, of course. How is the way I am looking at my job right now the same or different than how i have looked at it in the past?

I have had a tumultuous relationship with work since I was a teenager. My first job–in junior high and early high school–was putting together the Sunday papers at a local stationery store for $25 a week. It’s probably one of the only jobs I ever had that I rarely, if ever, complained about, probably because I was able to spend all that money on comics. But it kind stops there. From the moment I started working as a stockboy at the local Marshalls, I was a petulant shit in my journal (and sometimes at work), not liking the directives given and often half-assing things. From those now-shredded notebook entries of high school to the soon-to-be-deleted old computer files, there are so many times where I wrote about work and just complained.

And while I realize that everyone complains about work at some point or another, there was some point where complaining about my job became a default setting. I don’t know what influenced me here, and it could be that it just got folded in with all of the rest of the faux “cool” cynicism I developed in early adulthood. Liking things or looking forward to something or enjoying an experience became “lame” to me or even worse a sign of “unintelligence.” I’ve got through the better part of two and a half decades feeling stupid if I don’t offer up a criticism of something I purported to like, downplayed the excitement of anticipation, and noting what wasn’t present in an experience. All so that I don’t feel stupid.

Which is stupid–really, really stupid, I know–but as I look at these entries about work, I see someone who genuinely enjoyed some of the experiences but felt weirdly conflicted about that. It was as if I wasn’t supposed to enjoy my seasonal state parks job, which I now look back upon fondly as “an honest day’s work” (whatever that means). In the moment, I acted like it was getting in the way of something. I could probably have a million excuses for what I wrote in my journal back then, but it all stems from immaturity.

Immaturity and an overwhelming sense of obligation, really. I worked for the state parks department for two summers and decided not to return because I pursued an internship in publishing in Manhattan. I honestly don’t know why I did that other than at some point in my junior year at Loyola, I became convinced that: A) I had to get an internship because that is what you did and B) it was going to be in publishing because … well, I don’t know. I do know I took the offer because it paid, which is the dumbest reason to take an internship.

[Quick aside here: this was back in 1998 when the vast majority of internships for college students were unpaid. I think this has improved since … at least I hope.]

In hindsight, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation, I felt pressure to do something. And not just any something, such as go back home and work the beach job until I figure out what I wanted; the “make sure it’s real and that you have it before graduation” something. I had neither the insight to sit down and truly talk to myself about it nor did I have the balls to decide to do something that was going to go against what was “Expected.” I spent much of my first few years after college in various states of wanderlust and depression, and would act put out when anyone asked me to do just about anything.

In retrospect, it’s amazing I wasn’t fired for being unprofessional.

Teaching probably was the ballsiest thing I ever did career-wise, especially since we uprooted ourselves from NoVA and moved down here (and it’s been nearly 20 years even though I remember Arlington like it was yesterday). But even then, I’ve worked through years of anxieties and imposter syndrome moments as well as the feeling that the job is interfering with my life. I’m not sure if I ever fully committed to being part of the community in which I taught (although considering one of my teaching jobs was deep in Trumpland, I don’t blame myself), as I keep people at an arm’s length. And this cycle has been going on for more than 20 years.

All that from a handful of journal entries.

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