the truth about new beginnings

harpers ferry 2010
This is a picture of me at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in April, 2010. It is ONLY relevant to this story because I’m wearing an SDSU jersey, which I still own. Long before I ever thought I’d become an Aztec, I was repping the colors. Funny where time takes us.

I guess I’ve gotten used to early mornings.

It’s not like I’m a fresh-faced college student, blissfully unaware of how much gas costs, when taxes are due, and where to go to do laundry. The 7 a.m. class doesn’t scare me anymore because I have taken them and lived to tell the tale. Moreover, I’ve lived as an adult in the real world. I’ve had real world responsibilities. 

So, walking back onto a college campus for a student orientation feels a little weird.

Part of me, the part that had no intention to grow up ever, wanted to skip down the SDSU sidewalk cheerily in the mists of pre-8 a.m. fog, saying ‘good morning!’ to everyone. The other part of me, the part at the helm of my self-control, just glowered at the student guides in their red shirts, saying, “I’d be better with more coffee,” when they asked how I was doing.

I sauntered up to the check-in line, battling between the urge to pull out my front desk smile or to drop a snarl, and picked up my folder and nifty little SDSU bag. I tried really hard not to get excited about the bag but drawstrings are my new favorite things and this one even had a zipped up pocket!

Orientation was inside Montezuma Hall, a large rectangle room jutting off a long, elegant hallway. The hallway, accessed by a tall flight of stairs, was magnificent. The ceiling was pulled back with dark wooden beams and the walls echoed with the ghosts of a hundred scholars eternally roaming the hall in search of greater knowledge.

Nope, that was just my excited half momentarily staging a coup.

A sticky name tag with my identification printed neatly on the front began lifting off my shirt by its corners and I humphed. These things are so stupid.

The cynic was back.

Truth be told, I never thought I’d be here, at a student orientation in a grand hall at a real university. I’m not sure if university was never a desire I had growing up because I just wasn’t interested in getting my degree or because I knew I’d likely never get one anyway. It’s easier to just be indifferent to joys outside our reach.

It’s a romantic notion, admittedly, the summoning of a new faculty of academic minds to help them make port in an institution that will become a home and a source of identity. It feels so Oxford.

Student orientation, however, is one of many things in life in which the reality does not even begin live up to the ideal. The first two hours were filled with repeditary information and unnecessary applause breaks. Anyone who read any of the thousand emails the school sent out this summer would have already known what was said from a crackly microphone a thousand times that morning.

The seat next to me was occupied by a brightly dressed woman with matching personality. I could tell by her mannerisms that it was killing her to have to sit quietly. I could also tell there was an underlying level of snark buried in the granules of her person and it felt akin to my own feelings at that moment. Misery loves company.

When she got up and scooted past me during the middle of the second hour, the part of me that was still drooling slightly at the mouth to be sitting here with a cute little official name tag in a beautiful old building was scandalized that someone would be so disrespectful as to get up and leave during the middle of a presentation. But when she came back with a cup of coffee from the campus Starbucks, the other part of me was like, “Man, she’s a smart one.”

Respectful nod.

By the time the members of the student government got up, I was pretty over orientation day. It was almost lunch time, and I didn’t need these twenty-year-olds telling me how transformative the college experience has been for them because they decided to “get involved.”

Are you kidding me? I’ve been “getting involved” since high school. Political movements and election campaigns, volunteer teaching and coaching. I moved my life across the world for two years to work with a church and a school. And you want to tell me about “life changing” ways to “get involved?” No thank you.

My pretentiousness levels have never been so high, nor my patience so low.

The romance of student orientation and my visions of cardigans and Oxford blazers had vanished completely and I found myself sitting in an uncomfortable chair, suddenly feeling like maybe I didn’t belong here.

Between the on-campus student health initiatives and the three-part video about consent, someone tried to explain the effects of too much alcohol. That’s when I got up to look for that Starbucks.

Through a pretty courtyard and around a corner that overlooked more courtyards and walkways, a fairly sizable Starbucks brandished its summer drinks promotion sign. Inside was quiet and only partially full. The barista was clearly in training. Laptops and notebooks were out at every table. Summer classes are still in session.

Coffee in hand, I stepped outside to look at the campus. It’s pretty, I’ll give you that. I’ve driven by and around this university my whole life. My grandma lives right down the street, and several family members are Aztecs. SDSU has always felt like the family school, but this was my first time on the campus grounds. This was the first time I realized it would be my school.

A tour was in progress and I found myself side-stepping quickly to avoid getting dragged along by the group of gangling looking 18-year-olds. College is an adventure to them. To me, it’s just another brick to lay in this life I’m building.

Caffeine helped me survive the rest of morning orientation. They announced lunch and excused us by our colleges. On the way out, I recognized an old friend from high school. She was one of a handful of people who sent me a care package while I was living in Prague. Even though we don’t see each other often, I count her among the friends I most respect.

She lit up with a beautifully freckled smile when she saw me. We commiserated slightly, fell in line with the rest of the Arts and Letters transfer students for our meal tickets and then, finally, found seats on a shady curb in the courtyard.

She’s had a journey similar to mine. Similar in that it is far, far removed from the regular course of college goers. We’re both language majors who fell into our degrees of choice somewhat by accident. We both have international experience, a burden for bi-cultural communities here at home, and zero tolerance for how drippy the watermelon served with our lunch ended up being.

“I’m trying not to be too excited about this,” I told her. “This whole experience. I feel like I should be too old for this by now, you know?”

“What, you’re not going to go to the keg parties?” she laughed.

For a minute, we both could have been high school girls again, eating our lunches on the ground, talking about the future and our place in it. The part of me that wanted to be happy to be here, that had been trying so hard to enjoy this day, lifted her tired head and listened.

Breezes chimed against golden sunshine. Shadows danced along the sidewalk from the branches of sprawling trees. Gentle chatter floated around us. This was nice.

Lunch ended and we joined our college of Arts and Letter group into a smaller lecture hall to meet with our dean and then into even smaller groups to meet with course advisors. If all went well, in three hours we’d be registering for our first semester of classes.

“You okay?” my friend asked as we took our seats.

“I’m trying to play it cool,” I said, suppressing a girlish squeak. My inner cynic was becoming complacent, now well-fed and ready for an afternoon nap.

Our small groups narrowed the fifty or so people in the room down to groups comprised of single digits. There were seven in mine, and one of them I already knew! A woman from my last Spanish class at Southwestern. She’s a mom and wife going back to school. One man was a Chilean-Canadian transplant looking to get into interpreting for the UN someday. Another just got out of the Navy. Everyone had a different story and a different goal. But we were all here, and we were all going to study Spanish.

It took a while for the ice to break, but there’s not a lot that can’t be done in three hours. By the time we were set to register for our classes, it seemed like we were best friends.

We were giddy as we trekked through campus to find the computer lab so we could meet up with the rest of the Arts and Letters students. We got lost along the way, which only bonded us further.

Registered, ID cards picked up, and a long day behind us, we stood awkwardly for a minute on the white plaster balcony of the student services building.

“I guess we’ll be seeing each other in a couple weeks,” someone said. The pressure diffused and a few of us laughed.

This isn’t the end of anything, just a beginning.

And even though I’m used to beginnings, I’ve lived a life full of changes, I’ve faced my share of challenging experiences, this one is new for me. I haven’t ever attended a university and it’s something I’m genuinely so excited and so grateful to be able to do. It would be a pity not to see the adventure in it all.

I said my goodbyes and slung my drawstring over my shoulder. The walk back to the car was a quiet one. All the greeters had left. The late afternoon sun was silent and warm. My inner cynic had settled down peacefully, unable to criticize anything on our walk back to the car, and the part of me that was excited to be here was fully awake, uncontested, blinking in wonder at the new day.

Advertisements

blue collar princess

IMG_0617.JPGIf I close my eyes, I can still feel Irish winds blowing my hair atop the bulwarks of Blarney Castle.

Two days into a nine-day trip where I traversed the Emerald Isle with nothing but a few bus tickets and a backpack, my inner nomad was already climbing high upon a throne of wanderlust. Through rain slicks, three days of fever, the moaning grey ghosts of the Irish winterlands and countless pubs in search of the Golden Harp, I reveled in the challenge and the bliss of the open road. That was three years ago. I’ve been there and back and elsewhere, since.

But for the last year, I’ve been home and now I’ve got itchy feet again. I’m ready to move. Ready to walk the new road, fight the new fight, claim the new castle. I miss my roustabout days when I could buy a train ticket to Santa Barbara or hop on a flight from Prague to Madrid in just a few hours. Fresh places, fresh faces. A world of people and color at my fingertips.

But losing my teaching position to the school’s closure, a rather undramatic car crash that I do not want to talk about, college bills and a bottomless gas tank have left me absolutely penniless. And you need pennies to travel.

So I’ve spent my summer looking for gainful employment with varying levels of success. And by “varying levels,” I mean, no one would hire me.

I have a weird resume. I’ve never had a blue collar job in my life. I jumped into marketing, politics, journalism and law right after high school. So when I sat down for my interview at Denny’s in June, the manager looked at me with a quizzical tremble of her upper lip and asked, “Why do you want to work here?” And it wasn’t the typical, “tell me what you love about this company” question. She was literally judging my life decisions so hard. It’s hard to go from executive assistant to “I’ve never waited a table before but please hire me anyway.”

Not that I never wanted to be a waitress at a diner or something equally quaint and romantic.

For years, I’ve had this crazy impulse to run away to somewhere exotic and extreme, like Uzbekistan or the Florida Panhandle, and become a bartender. How great, to just be there for people. An entire job centered around making someone’s night better with a smile, an open ear, and a little liquid company.

I would be the world’s greatest bartender, of this I am completely certain.

I have no idea how I’d get to Florida without a car, though, so I’m stuck with the hometown job this summer.

Unfortunately, the temp agencies couldn’t find me a job either. Law firms need someone with a more recent paralegal certification (mine is a couple years old) and everyone else simply looked at the last four years of my work experience (teaching and freelance writing) and said with simpering smiles, “As much as we’d like to stick you in a closet to backfile our employee reports for us, we’d like someone with more filing experience.”

All for the best. I couldn’t spend the summer in a filing closet. I’d go mad.

I nearly gave up on the job search. Maybe, if I just curled up in bed with a good book for the summer, rent and car insurance and my eight dollar Netflix subscription would all just disappear. I had a really good book too! Spain’s Golden Queen Isabella by Iris Noble. Queen Isabella was the last great ruler of the age of chivalry and knights. She was a warrior of a woman, too. By 23, she was already a queen, a general, and a mother besides! She would race across Spain clad in armor with banners flying high, gathering support for the crusades into Andalucia or the war with Portugal. She prized the goodness of mankind, the nobility of the mind and heart, the gentle strength of bravery. And she set the standard with her own courage and conviction.

If I couldn’t let me feet wander the world, maybe I could let my mind go instead. But the sad truth is that you can’t hide from rent.

Desperation is the mother of miracles, so after dropping off my resume at restaurants all morning, I walked into L.A. Fitness. I had left my resume with the club in Eastlake about once every two weeks since late May and hadn’t heard anything, but there’s one much closer to my house that I had never been in before (at least, not with the intention of applying for a job). If being stuck in the Moscow airport for 18 hours taught me anything, it’s that if you don’t ask, you’ll never know whether that guy eating smoked fish out of a plastic bag was aware that he was publically consuming the entire corpse of a once living Oncorhynchus Mykiss, or if he just assumed nobody would mind the smell. Moral of the story: I walked in, flashed a smile, and handed over my application. Two weeks later, I was signing the hiring paperwork and sitting through employee training.

Actually, first they put me through first aid training. That was a long afternoon.

Then they asked me to cover a few shifts in the Kid’s Klub — thirty little kids running around half-crazed because it’s after 6 p.m. and they’re tired and want to be at home. How do you babysit thirty children at once for four hours? You play lava monster. You play a lot of lava monster.

I forgot how much I love tiny people. This last year, I only taught high schoolers. I miss my fourth graders from Prague. I miss their silly games and big opinions and tiny acts of heroism. Kids Klub reminded me just what an adventure the pre-teen world can be. A toy dinosaur can be a monster, a superhero, a truck driver or a baby, depending on whose imagination is at the helm. Hide-seek-can is still exciting enough to invoke shrieks of laughter and screams of terror alike. The world isn’t little to kids, it’s big. And stepping into their world for an evening makes mine seem a little bigger too, even if I’m just here in a playroom in San Diego.

Finally, I got a two-hour employee training session with our amazing operations manager.

The thing about employee training is that it can only prepare you for about two percent of the chaos that actually goes down at work, which is a lot like traveling, if you think about it. You can book all your tickets ahead of time, but if you miss a train or you get lost and can’t find your hostel in the middle of the night in a town where no one speaks any of the one and a half languages you know, you’d better know how to improvise.

They told me how to answer the phone, how to transfer a call, how to check people in and service their accounts. And then they gave me the closing shift on a Saturday night and left me to sink beneath the weight of my own incompetence.

I’ve done that before. Just ask anyone who has ridden a bus with me literally anywhere.

“So sorry to bother you again, but do you know where I get off?”

Anyway, what they didn’t prepare me for was how to pay off multiple accounts at once in cash, how to put a call on hold and pick up the other line without dropping both of them, where the ice packs are when someone drops a weight on their finger, which key unlocks the customer safe, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you over the phone, how to respond when a member starts shouting at you in person, how to respond when a member asks you out on a date, or how to use the intercom system with even the most basic effectiveness.

Actually, they did teach me how to use the intercom. Apparently some skills can only be learned through fire.

“I’m already getting compliments on how friendly you are,” my supervisor said as she showed me for the millionth time how to transfer a phone call.

The affirmation of my front desk persona came as a huge relief because I’m so terrible at the rest of this stuff, I’m going to need all the job security I can get.

Following a particularly bad day during my first week at work, I showed up to my next shift dressed up extra pretty. I did my hair and stole one of my mom’s black cardigans.

“You look nice today,” said one of my coworkers. “Dressing for the job you want?”

“I’m compensating for yesterday,” I told him with an exasperated sigh. “Just dressing for the job I’m desperately trying to keep.”

But I am good at part of this job. I am so, so good at welcoming people. If only I could sit there on my little stool all day and say, “Hi, how are you today?” or, “Bye, have a nice afternoon!” If that were the sum total of the job, I’d be amazing. It’s literally my favorite thing to do. There are so many people who come to this gym. And I love people.

Some of the gym members have started to become familiar. I can feel myself being drawn into this community of gym rats, fitness geeks and old people who just want to use the pool. People will grin back when they see me smile, or actually answer when I ask them how their day is going. Even the people in a hurry are pretty nice. And more than one member has taken the time to stop and compliment my smile. Mom and my dentist would be so proud.

Funny how far a smile can go in someone’s day, especially at a gym.

When you go to the gym, you’re taking a day’s worth of troubles, successes, and distractions with you, and the first person you see is the girl at the front desk. In a way, she’s the bartender. If you want to vent about your day for a minute, she’ll listen. If you want to get straight to business, she won’t take offense. If you sigh a little, she’ll understand. No judgement, just a smile and a sincere, “have a good workout today” as if she’s sliding over a gin and tonic on a cream colored napkin.

It’s been a few weeks. I’m feeling more comfortable behind the desk now. I don’t get rattled as easily. I had my first late-night this week. We close at midnight, so I brought my book about Queen Isabella just in case things got too quiet.

But work is its own little crusade, a challenge to make the day better for everyone who comes through our doors, if even in small measure. As I perched on my stool behind the front desk, like a lady in a tower, smiling on her subjects as they pass, I felt like a princess. Struggling with our computer system and my thin but growing level of competency to answer people’s questions and solve their problems, I imagined myself to be a general, commanding troops and winning wars.

And walking through the dark halls of the gym to close everything down, then locking the doors and stepping into the humid night, I felt like a queen shushing her kingdom into peaceful sleep.

When I lived in Prague, adventure was waiting right outside my door, ready to whisk me away at any moment. But the truth is, that lofty temptress has followed me across the world. Even in San Diego, even in my home neighborhood, even the dull humdrum of daily life, like working shifts at a blue collar job to pay off car repairs and tuition fees, there can be fields of war and palaces of gold. Always, there will be new people to discover.

So here is where I will be. My itchy feet are dancing off their nerves in this castle of new experiences. And proudly, I’ll fly my banner above its bulwarks until the wind catches my wings again and new roads open before me.