Williams and the real world

Family members and friends proclaimed “Now the world is your oyster” at my recent Williams graduation. These people had already gone through the strange, formula-defying transition from college to work, and I took their warm reassurance to heart. My family, my school and society at large had finally concluded that I was ready to be unleashed on the world. Well, I hope everybody’s listening, because here I am, a year later, in my oyster, rather than holding it in my palm, as I had visualized, unclasping my fingers to reveal that robust, glimmering pearl – a good job.

Granted, had my expectations not been so great, my present situation might not feel so desperately petty. As introduction, take my new home, a work carrel at my job in a Washington, D.C. public relations agency. Proportionally, I in my carrel probably occupy the same dimensions as an oyster in its shell. A carrel, for those unfamiliar with the streamlined efficiency of today’s offices, is the poor cousin of the cubicle – about the same size, but with waist-high instead of head-high partitions. They, I think, were designed so that all passersby might inspect the contents of my computer screen, leave their folders and coffee mugs on my ledge, and carry on loud conversations about their weekend while I try to communicate on the phone.

As I sit in my carrel, writing important email reminders to agency executives in my role as “Account Coordinator,” I am often struck by the gaping disparity between my preparation for life and my life as it stands now.

I probably should have been suspicious after the job interviews I had the spring of my senior year. The same distressing pattern was apparent at each: “Okay, graduating with honors, good, but what’s the deal with American Studies? What exactly does that entail?” And my “name” school? “Williams College. . in Virginia, right? Ohhhh, it’s one of those small, New England schools — that’s nice. But look at this, you’ve done data entry for your city councilman — Great! It’s so important to be a part of government in action.” I should have understood immediately that the people who would be hiring me saw me exactly inversely to how I saw myself. What I thought mattered, they didn’t care about; what I was most proud of, they didn’t understand.

I was entering the “real” world, its realness significant because it was the polar opposite of my life up to that point. The inverse relationship I had glimpsed in my interviews would hold true. The system was bigger than I, with my hard-earned education and my breezy assumptions about success. The “foot in the door,” touted by my parents as the direct link to success and fortune, led me only to my five- by eight-foot carrel, and would take me on frequent and regular trips to the copier, the fax machine and the big copier, the one with its own special room. These were not the intellectual challenges I had prepared for at Williams.

I held it together at first. Sure, I might be doing mindless, menial tasks all day, I thought, but I am not a secretary, I’m an Account Coordinator, and I am on a ladder. Unfortunately, that mantra all too often took on literal meaning. And, as I fiddled futilely with the ceiling vent to deflect its arctic blast of air conditioning away from my head, I again reassured myself that no one here thought I was a secretary. Of course not, if that were the case, I’d be making better money.

What my parents and older, wiser friends had failed to account for in their oyster scenario was the fact that no one would be able to promote me based on my intelligent, thoughtful and creative work if I was never allowed to produce any. As far as I knew, promotions in this world were in fact based on one’s ability to fax and photocopy well for a sustained and predetermined period of time. The work I initiated myself — rewriting the radio ad copy that didn’t flow, researching ways to target Hispanic consumers — was given to my supervisor and carefully filed in a folder probably entitled, “Things AC did that will never be used, but show good initiative.”

When I wasn’t building my folder of useless contributions to the company or honing my copying technique, I was a keen observer of this alternate universe I found myself in, hoping to glean a new strategy for success. As with any culture, this one had codes of behavior, a language, and native garments. It was politely hinted (I have learned that nothing negative can ever be said negatively, because we’re all team players and we all know we can accomplish anything with a good attitude!) that I might benefit from a manicure, and, when weather permitted open-toed shoes, a pedicure. It was suggested that this might earn me more respect in the office (read: this might land you more important proof-reading assignments). I enthusiastically agreed, but I also had the good sense to postpone my nail appointment until the burns I received while clearing the latest copier jam had healed properly.

This nail care mentality would take some time to adjust to. At Williams the condition of one’s nails ranked right up there with the importance of clean hair — basically zilch thanks to the invention of the ponytail and the baseball cap. It was my brain that mattered. In school, where I was supposed to have lived my small, Purple Bubble existence, my life was peppered with questions and discussions about whether the Vietnam conflict was avoidable, and how the Mexican-American experience has changed over the last 20 years. A typical semester involved calculus, economics and the thorny issue of race relations in the U.S. Granted, there were the smaller issues: is Brunch Night on Thursday or Friday? Because I only have one meal left on my card this week and I want to stock up on bagels. But over bagels, the merits of Faulkner versus Hemingway might come up, and how cogently you supported that argument in class might well impact your GPA.

Today the problems placed before me to test my worth fall into the narrowest of scopes. A client’s voice mailbox is full; I received only two pages of a 10-page fax; I forgot to take the printer off manual feed. My constructive solutions, my brilliant hypotheses? I’ve pretty much decided that if the sender of the incomplete fax doesn’t respond to my phone calls or emails, I’m going to go up on the roof and send smoke signals.

I won’t say that I’ve learned nothing on the job — there’s never a shortage of things to pick up when one inhabits a foreign culture. I have vastly expanded my vocabulary, as words I previously thought had one meaning now have several new ones. My boss once explained to me that “the point person on this project received a corrupted attachment, so we lost the soft copy.” She went on to say, “Could we go ahead and task you with re-keying this hard copy? It would be really great if you could step up to the plate and take the lead on this, and once we get our head around these proposal concepts, I’ll let you know where we net out.”

The incredible urge to mock the people who speak in this manner (“Hey, when you’re done massaging the text, could you stop by my office? I’ve got a knot in my shoulder.”) faded all too quickly, my wry perspective curbed by the universal consensus that this was normal professional speech. Soon, I admit, I had incorporated some of the new words into my own speech. Inexplicably, “re-type” no longer meant what it had before. “Re-key” meant “re-type,” and “re-type” now implied “re-write,” and “re-write” had been shelved as a no-longer-useful term. Who said my world wasn’t expanding?

And so it is that I am now someone who wears pantyhose regularly, even in summer, and offers dutifully to “take the lead” on one-person projects. But the irony of getting dressed up for something so demeaning is never lost on me.

Neither is the fact that spending every day from nine to six doing a job that I could accomplish in four hours is due almost entirely to the inefficiency and mismanagement of the people around me. In that sense, I haven’t lost my optimism. I still think I could do a better job than everyone else — that’s how I know I’m still a college kid at heart.

My hope derives from the moments when I perceive, through the slit in my oyster shell, the exciting and life-expanding opportunities outside my carrel. And it’s not just the things I find inconceivable and beyond me — my friend in the Peace Corps in Senegal, my other friend who’s already a city planner in Boston. I see new roles that might be within my own reach, if I can just pry my amorphous, unmanicured self off of my moorings and through the opening in my shell.

Seven months and four days later, I did manage to leave that job for a new one. I opened the shell wide enough to haul in some walls to put around my desk, upgrading from carrel to closet. And once I put some pictures up, it might become a more livable space — after all, it’s private and it’s mine. This is when it occurs to me that the absolute best thing, and often the only thing, good I have to say about my current situation is that it is all of my own making. I choose to get up in the morning and report to work roughly on time every day. No one, save me and my hungry, aggressive cat, is making me do this. While I’m at it, I chose this city, I chose my apartment, and God help me I chose that first, demoralizing, thankless job. And then I chose a better job.

I will also be the one deciding, when I pry the shell open a bit more to get a better view, what my next move will be. I have become resigned to the fact that my foot will likely have to squeeze into many more doors before I reach a place where I can breathe a sigh of satisfaction, even if only for a moment, that I am doing the kind of things my Williams education made me believe I could do. In the meantime, I’ve got to find a way to enjoy the process — the oyster shell as unique fixer-upper opportunity.