Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Bitch Is Back.

I returned to law school this January after my year-long hiatus, mainly because I had run out of options and excuses for not being in school. My job search in higher education administration had been fruitless, and I was frankly getting sick of sitting on my couch in my cold, dark apartment on my one or two days off from the cafĂ© I managed, searching for 'big girl' jobs, sending out resumes, reading rejection letters, crying, reaching out to former colleagues, baking, cleaning, crying, and self-medicating with reruns of Grey’s Anatomy and The Biggest Loser. 

After not having much success with finding an office job and blessed with the encouragement of my girlfriend and a friend in the business, I tried working on more creative endeavors, but I mostly felt drained and sad. Some days I didn’t even have time to turn on my computer, because my job didn't necessitate use of advanced technology and the effort of opening my laptop was too extreme by the time I got home.

My management position at the cafe allowed me to exercise creativity and develop business savvy, test out marketing experiments, and engage in a mentorship with an astute businesswoman. It taught me creative problem-solving, personnel management, and--most importantly--how to develop business infrastructure. My position was engaging, but not what I had planned on doing with my life. Although I consider it a small business, it was still a restaurant. In restaurants, you perform back-breaking labor every day. It doesn’t matter what your job is—you will inevitably be drawn into hauling boxes, unpacking boxes, delivering food, making food; you do whatever necessary to get the job done. Most mornings, my legs didn't work properly until after a hot shower loosened up the muscles in my back.  On top of the physicality, it’s socially and emotionally draining. Most small businesses don’t have a spread of responsibilities across many positions. There are only a couple of people juggling a never-ending task list. Success is tenuous at best: you hope that you hired the right people, that the customers keep coming back, that you ordered enough stock, that the books are balanced and profits are rolling in. There are no specialists or consultants, and every day you keep the doors open is a gamble. 

Every day I walked to work in the California sunshine, grateful to have a job. But, what did I go to college for if not to land a great job? I have a B.A. from a good school. I performed well at that school. I have worked since I was 14 and put myself through college. I have the soft skills that companies supposedly look for. I had a year and a half of law school under my belt. I tailored my resume. I had my resume professionally reviewed. I wrote unique cover letters for every job. I took two-hour long personality tests for companies. If I received a response, it was usually a rejection. For the two interviews I went on, I sent handwritten thank you notes. 

What was I doing wrong?

My friend came to San Francisco for her honeymoon about six months ago. She graduated with her Masters in Library Studies a couple of years ago and quickly found out that there were very few jobs out there. She worked for free for a while, and then got lucky with a consistent part-time job, which eventually turned into a full-time job, at a library about 45 minutes from her home. She works nights and weekends at her library, but is grateful because she has work. In a society where people like us and our friends—highly ranked in undergrad with real-life work experience or post-graduate degrees—keep getting laid off or are chronically underemployed, we feel cheated. That night at a swanky vegan bar we pretended to afford, my friend said the most spot-on analysis of higher education I’ve heard so far: "Those student loans were a promise that we would have a job once we got an education. The government and the schools all told us we would have jobs once we got out, that our education was an investment in ourselves. Now look at us. We can barely get by. They haven’t delivered, because there aren't enough jobs for us to fill. Our education was worthless.”

And with that conversation, along with my mounting debt, growing inability to pay my bills (namely my $118,000 student loan debt), and year without health insurance, I finally felt defeated.  Could I have done more? Probably. Of course. I could have been like the bulldogs I met in law school, the ones who go to every networking event and every mixer and every alumni meet-up. I could grit my teeth and put on my ill-fitting suit and be charming. But I just didn’t want to. (Here, I could go into an in-depth explanation of depression and self-defeating attitudes, but Hyperbole and a Half did such a good job, that I'm going to link it.

So I gave up on the life I was creating in California. I went back to New York.

As I passed through the full body scanner at SFO, sobbing uncontrollably after leaving my girlfriend pressed against the glass barricade between ticketing and security, the TSA officer hesitantly pulled me over to search my bags. "Is everything okay today, ma'am?" (They usually stop the emotionally unstable. It's just good policy.) As he picked through my belongings, I contemplated my decision. 

I was going back to New York to figure everything out, spend time with my growing family, and find a job OR go to a tier three law school where I had a standing scholarship. At best, it would be quality time with my family, as well as a lengthy vacation and an opportunity to really grab hold of something real. At worst, it would be a semi-permanent tenure in my mother's country home while working another gig and trying to figure my life out. 

After finding that my offensive cargo included Indian food with some liquid curry, the TSA guard let me go. By the time I turned around to look at my lady one last time, I only saw a glimpse of her bright red sneakers riding up the escalator. That was that. It was go time. I boarded the plane, and touched down in Westchester, where my mother greeted me with a huge smile and my first love Desdemona, my Volkswagen Beetle.

In upstate New York, the only jobs I found were as a server and as a networking writer acquiring clients for a company (stalking people on social media). Food handling and social media are how society defines me as a millenial. ("Would you like a selfie with that latte?") Granted, there are slim pickings in upstate New York, but I thought I could do better. People offered me receptionist jobs, and my aghast reaction bemused them: "Well, at least you'd make a stable salary and there are health benefits." I knew then how bad my situation was. 

There's a moment when you return to your hometown (read: grow up) when you realize that nobody is better or worse than the next person. There are no points of comparison--there are just different opportunities available to different people. 

As I bumped into people I grew up with and saw what paths they had taken, I felt impassioned to change my limp trajectory. Three years or more out of college, many of my friends were still working their high school jobs. Many of them were unemployed or only employed part-time. Some of them switched to trade work because it was more available. And here I was, serving them all beer and pasta because I had squandered a great opportunity. 

Now, I don't mean to imply that serving is not a worthy pursuit. Food and Beverage is a great industry and I highly enjoy working in it. But, when you have the education, the know-how, the passion, and the support to do something extraordinary and you don't, that's a problem. Going back to my hometown, where many of my peers are lucky to have jobs or find any kind of opportunity, was eye-opening. That I was able to grow up in a small rural town in upstate New York, get into a great university, put myself through college, get into a good law school, and move myself to one of the most magnificent cities in the world is evidence enough of the kind of opportunities I have been afforded. At crunch time, I choked. I can hinge that on a number of excuses, or I can just face the fact that I didn't focus my attention on what's important and just move on from there. 

So, I got myself back into my Tier 1 law school, took my hiatus in New York as just that, and flew back to San Francisco to the open arms of my lesbian lover and the prestigious law school that I had run away from. 

That being said, regardless of where I'm coming from or where I'm going to, the bitch is back for now.