Career Day

Here’s an old post from my previous blog 50 shimmering pages.

March 13, 2013

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon talking to 169 fifth graders. I was joined by a singer/songwriter, a policeman/karate instructor, a marine, and a nurse. The program was sponsored by a local nonprofit with a mission to help women and children explore their dreams. We were there to offer a glimpse into our respective careers. We were there to inspire, plant a seed, spark a fire.

There was plenty I could’ve said about following your dreams. The path that led me to writing is long and winding. Back when I was in the fifth grade, I wanted to be Isis, goddess of Egypt. I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I wanted to be anything except the new kid, which is what I was. I wouldn’t really know I wanted to be a writer, though, for another fifteen years or so. Not until college. In the interim, I thought I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. I was going to law school. By way of the Army, my only means of paying tuition. It set me back a few years, the Army, I mean. When my friends were enrolling as college freshmen, I was becoming acquainted with the front-leaning rest position in boot camp. Still, I’ve never once in all these years regretted enlisting. So much of who I’ve become is a result of that short stint in the Army. And — I will even venture to say — that I probably wouldn’t be a writer today if I had taken that other road, the one that led my friends to careers in business and medicine and engineering. But what to tell these fifth graders in the span of fifteen minutes?

Two days earlier, I’d been helping my sister and her seventeen-year-old son research colleges. I was reacquainting myself with the FAFSA, looking into scholarships, fielding her questions about my nephew’s interest in something called Outdoor Leadership. Is that a wise career path, she wanted to know.

My ongoing search for full-time employment makes me nervous for my nephew. Someone somewhere along the way assured me that an English degree would lead me anywhere I wanted to go — no teaching license required. I followed that advice, and now here I am, utterly unemployable in this part of the country. An MFA in writing doesn’t help much either, not beyond the part-time teaching gig I currently hold at the local community college. Don’t misunderstand. It’s a job I love but not one that can pay the bills. Luckily, my husband followed his own dream to a comfortable salary with benefits.

As I scoured the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website, I came across this grim reality: Only a career in health care, business, engineering, or science is a wise employment choice for the future. And if that’s not depressing enough, read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Michael Malone: The Bonfire of the Humanities. And take a look at this: The absolute worst degrees to cross the desk of a hiring manager include anything in the arts, humanities, or social sciences. Oy! My nephew’s dream of doing something outdoorsy in Recreational Management? Not looking like the soundest move either.

So what can I say in defense of dreams, of following one’s passion? I’ve never been one to regret the road not taken. I think too often maybe about Joseph Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey, that our lives are adventures to be undertaken as bravely as we dare.

But the publishing industry is showing ever more worrisome signs that it’s being forced away from short story collections, poetry, literary novels in favor of more entertaining forms of literature that can hold their own with consumers (Read AWP—Why the Absence of the Mainstream Publishing Industry Matters by Julianna Baggott). No sense complaining about it anymore, is there? Or blaming publishers. It comes down to a simple matter of preference. Supply and demand.

So back to career day. I share an anecdote from fifth grade when the seed to write was planted inside me. A teacher. A play. The Underground Railroad. I make a connection. Hands shoot up. “How many books have you written?” “Are you famous?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you ever get writer’s block?” “What’s the biggest book you’ve ever written?” “What’s the title of your book?”

Suddenly I feel like a fraud. Not because of what I am. But because of what they think I am. Then the songwriter speaks, and I find myself wincing as he relates to the children how close he’s come to having a hit song in Nashville. Over and over he tells them how it only takes one hit song to make a million bucks. I want to crawl under my chair for the both of us.

Next comes the marine, a shy, skinny nineteen-year-old. Still in training. Wearing that crisp blue uniform that makes every American heart stand and salute. A man of few words, summoning his courage. He quotes a line inscribed on a plaque in the Marine Corps Heritage Museum. President Reagan. It goes like this:

“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they’ve made a difference in this world. Marines don’t have that problem.”

I think of myself at his age, younger, eighteen, serving overseas. Frankfurt, (West) Germany. Working as a 74 Delta, a legal beagle, independent of the JAG Corps of which I was a member. Serving in a position two pay grades above the stripes on my arm, the SME for a battalion commander of 15,000 troops. A girl of few words, summoning my courage. Primed to make a difference in the world.

And now? Now, I don’t know. Can we still make a difference in the world? We poets and storytellers? We historians and puppeteers? We songwriters and painters and book-binders?

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