Dear Lily June,
It’s an especially American preoccupation to define yourself by your occupation. But I want you to know, because I spent too much of my life not believing this, that you aren’t (at least solely) what you do for a living.
You are what you live for. If you think that way about yourself, and imagine that you’re not simply the work you do, but rather, you’re the sum of all you’re working for or towards, then your understanding of success can be really bloom and unfurl. Open your mind, my dear, to include all the possibilities of your identity, and don’t limit yourself to the objective line of a resume or the bullet point of a CV.
Consider the order of Maya Angelou’s words and the fuller approach to identity they inspire:
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
You have to start by liking you, an identity Angelou separates from what you do. And in any profession or even recreation, it’s the way you go about your actions–hopefully, with honor and integrity–that reflects back on the work more than the title of the position itself.
There Are No Small Parts, Only Small Actors
Given the chaos that was going on in my family, and how I largely felt invisible next to the violence that ensued between my parents, it’s no wonder I was bitten by the drama bug. My first role was in kindergarten, when I was to play a teacher with one couplet of dialogue:
“Behave, John and Jane. / You’re driving me insane.”
My bold debut was interrupted by another kind of bug–the stomach variety–and though my teachers pushed me out onto the stage, ensuring me it was “stage fright,” my mother knew better. She saw my little face, contorted into a frown like a tragedy mask and knew I wouldn’t be able to deliver my comedy line. Up from the back of the auditorium my mother came rushing, whipping her fever-addled five-year-old from the stage, while the audience erupted into a prolonged, “Awwww.” Maybe they thought I had stage fright, too, but your Grandma Raelyn rescued me, and in doing so, made my part even more dramatic. I had been seen, Lily.
From then on, I was obsessed and reached the peak of my acting career in fifth grade, when I beat out an entire room full of boys for the lead role in A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge. (Ask me about my gruff English accent!) That time, the whole family was in attendance–my father, my mother, and my sister–as I crooned off-key about Christmas ghosts and the power of redemption. I was sure a little star was born, Lily, and that star was me.
Later that year, I joined the forensics team and delivered a dramatic monologue called “Hey, Dummy” in a city-wide competition. It was about a sibling whose bully of an older sister dies in a car accident, and my sister, your Aunt Loren, helped me prepare by being so heinous to me that year, I had the impetus to want to imagine her dead. For that performance, I took home two, blue, first place ribbons (the only such award of its kind I’ve ever won) and was interviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about my performance. They asked if I was nervous, to which I replied, “It’s good to be nervous. It means your heart is in it.” That was the caption to the photograph of my team, and I’d earned, as Andy Warhol prophesied, my fifteen minutes.
And then, after fifth grade, my parents divorced, and I moved to a new neighborhood, where I was typecast as a shy, bookish nerd relegated to the chorus line of my new school’s plays. And so, by the age of eleven, my acting star had diminished.
Those Who Can’t Do, Teach
After graduate school, it was time to step back into the same role of my kindergarten fame–the one with the line I never even got to deliver–only this time it was for real. Now, surely, now I couldn’t be ignored. I was the face at the front of the room that all the other faces–and minds–looked to and depended on. I had become a teacher.
With all due hatred toward the person who claimed,
“Those who can’t do, teach,”
I think the slogan is really backwards. It should read, “those who teach, can’t do [anything else, ever, because they don’t have time when their week nights and weekends are spent cultivating arthritis as they bend over a stack of student essays to write for the umpteenth time that your comma usage makes them want to drop into a coma except they can’t afford it because teachers are paid a meager pittance when you consider the amount of time they put in ‘off the clock.’]” I suppose this is why I’ll never be employed as a meme generator. I’m just not pithy enough.
Suffice it to say that, despite being the “fun professor,” who figured out how to incorporate YouTube videos and Twitter feeds and other such multimedia into my lectures on Whitman and Dickinson, when it came time for students to perform on exams, I learned just how invisible I had always been–like one of the ghosts from A Christmas Carol. And feeling grumpier than Scrooge, after years in the profession, I threw up my stack of papers, and my hands, and declared “Bah, Humbug.”
Write What You Know
The truth is, I had gone to graduate school to become a poet. (I know, I know, it’s crazy to go into a such a cutthroat field whose only priority is money, but Momma loves her some diamonds.) But, unless you’re Maya Angelou or a teacher, it’s not a sustainable vocation. (At least until the collapse of the world economy, when sonnets start being accepted as legal tender. Then, we might be able to afford an apartment for three people with more than one bedroom.)
So it’s become my avocation, my passion, my true calling. I publish more now as a secretary than I ever did when I was teaching students how to write and publish, and I can accept that, because I like, if not myself, than at least what I do and how I’m doing it. I’ve made my job into the thing I do to afford the time I want with your dad and you. And when 4:30 rolls around each day, I’m not a secretary anymore. I’m a puff of smoke.
Women Become Their Mothers
Lily, I sincerely hope–in a lot of ways–this isn’t true for you. But I find myself doing the same work today that my mother does: We are the many, the proud, the embittered, the secretaries. And if you truly want a job where you become invisible, step right up to my desk. You’ll be sure to watch people looking right through me–even as they need me–all day long.
I’m reminded of the famous series of anti-drug commercials from my childhood in the 1980’s, where the tag line was, “Nobody ever says, ‘I want to be a junkie when I grow up.'”
The truth is, I don’t recall a single kid on the playground proudly pronouncing that they wanted to be a secretary when they grew up, either. But it’s the twenty-fifth service anniversary of the first secretary I worked for in college, a woman I’ll call Shirley. And I remember, Lily, when I was working in that office that her strength and her smile held that place together. I remember that she was the first face anyone saw to start their day and that she saw me through four years of college, listening to my complaints about my work load or my commute when she had chaos Atlas wouldn’t want to shoulder going on at home.
Not long ago, the elderly mother she’d taken in and cared for passed away. Not long after that, her son, who wrestled with severe addiction issues, shot his ex-wife and himself, leading Shirley to get death threats in her own home from his ex’s living relatives. This woman received complaints from clients with the patience of a saint, filed decades worth of paperwork without so much as a sigh, and made sure every single day, for people who thought themselves her betters, that the lights were on, the phones were answered, and the tedious tasks of managing day-to-day operations never so much as passed across their desks.
I watched as, over and over again, people dumped on Shirley their problems, their work tasks, their insecurities. And she shouldered that burden as only a mother can, with grit teeth and dreams of a happier home when the day ended. The fact that her home was a harder place to work than her workplace was something so few ever knew.
And the same has been true of my mother, whose work, only through watching Shirley, did I begin to see the tip of the iceberg for, and who, only when I’d stepped into her same shoes, did I really begin to respect and admire for all she has accomplished. My mother, your Grandma Raelyn, started out as a broke divorcee receptionist with two kids and worked her way up to co-own the company she’s employed with. (Okay, so it’s a two-person operation, and the other person is her husband, Derrick. So what?! She saved that company, when she came in, from financial ruin, and she earned every ounce of her title.)
Likely I’ll never get to that place of status or financial solvency, but for now, Lily, I’m focusing on realizing I’m so much more than the phone-answering monkey where I work. I like being your mother, I like writing poetry, and I like how I’m able to accomplish those things–with equal parts smile and sarcastic sneer. That’s who I am, Lily, and so much more.
Who, I wonder, will you someday want to be? And who will you, because of or despite what you’ve been through, actually become? And how will you, through the great strengths of your perception and wits, make those two into one in the same?
- “Telephone operators, 1952” by Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA – Telephone operators, 1952. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Telephone_operators,_1952.jpg#/media/File:Telephone_operators,_1952.jpg
- “Angeloupoem” by Office of the White House – via NPR, courtesy of the White House. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angeloupoem.jpg#/media/File:Angeloupoem.jpg
- “Tragic comic masks – roman mosaic” by antmoose, 4June 2005; English Wikipedia, original upload 25 June 2005 by Wetman, same filename. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tragic_comic_masks_-_roman_mosaic.jpg#/media/File:Tragic_comic_masks_-_roman_mosaic.jpg
- “ESL 1918” by Pierre Daye – National Geographic, 1918, “What Is It to Be an American?”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ESL_1918.JPG#/media/File:ESL_1918.JPG
- “Leonid Pasternak – The Passion of creation” by Leonid Pasternak – http://www.art-in-exile.com/forums/photopost/showphoto.php?photo=14639. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creation.jpg#/media/File:Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creation.jpg
- “Christmascarol1843 — 137” by w:John Leech – https://archive.org/details/christmascarolin20dick. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christmascarol1843_–_137.jpg#/media/File:Christmascarol1843_–_137.jpg