I knew exactly how I wanted to get from class to Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor: out of Zankel Hall at Teachers College, left onto Broadway via 120th Street, and another left down to College Walk. I'd stop in Hartley Hall on my way across campus to print out my readings for next week and I'd be set. It was 5 o'clock; I had an hour—definitely plenty of time. I'd budgeted for foot traffic, forgetting something back in the lecture hall, and even printer malfunctions.
I hadn't planned for rain.
I struggled to conjure images of the various awnings across campus in the hope of maybe finding a sheltered path. I tried to remember where trees hung thick overhead, or where buildings reached a little farther toward the street. Mind blank of alternatives, I zipped my bag up, took a deep breath, and started walking down Broadway. Rain or no rain, I was sticking to my plan.
College Walk passed by in a blur of umbrellas I didn't have in my possession, more water in my shoes than I could handle, and the spectacular transformation of my meticulously flat-ironed hair into a damp mess of untameable waves. There went being presentable.
Calves aching from my four-block half-sprint, I entered the Hartley lobby, relieved. It was dry. I could wait out the rain. And, I was still on time. Three-quarters of my printing quota and a half-hearted wave at Officer Murray later, I steeled myself to return to the downpour. To both my delight and frustration, it was barely even drizzling. I travelled my predetermined path across Amsterdam Avenue with a practiced ease, though my stumble into the beer hall was less than graceful—much to the amusement of the friend I was meeting there.
Six o'clock came and went, as did 7. I talked about my summer ESL teaching position in China, how I'd finished my English major requirements, and the fact that I was almost done with the education program at Barnard. My friend talked about his first job after graduation. In the midst of an MBA mixer we'd crashed, we were on a topic I had never thought to dread until that very evening: life post-graduation. We talked about how he had quit his job and his subsequent application to a dual master's and Ph.D. program at Columbia.
"Don't sacrifice your happiness just to stay in a job you loved as an internship. Nine-to-five is different. It's permanent. It's the rest of your life, doing what you do every day."
Those words echoed in my head after we parted ways that evening, and they lingered well into the weekend. I thought of the hours I taught in Shanghai over the summer: a barely manageable 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. day filled with cranky six-year-olds and arrogant preteens. Somewhere between playing sports for "field day" and receiving a drawing of an imaginary dragon that lived in space and ate "clever kids," I fell in love with teaching the same way I had many years ago: watching comprehension break through what once seemed to be an indomitable mask of confusion.
In those six weeks abroad, I revelled in the weekly routine; I sunk into the welcoming embrace of monotony after a chaotic academic term. I had a schedule. It was fixed, just like it would be in the real world.
And, unlike the hectic, unrelenting workload of the Columbia academic year, any work I took home from the job was going above and beyond—pursuing a passion that didn't end with the workday.
The idea that one day I might come to resent this life terrified me. My friend's words kept haunting me. My experience was so different than his—I wasn't about to graduate, take a job with a stellar starting salary after four years of having no money, and hate the grunt work more than I loved the money. I didn't want to hide in grad school to avoid the industry, and I didn't want to go into academia.
What I did want was to go out into the world and do what I'd been spending my undergraduate years preparing for—a career teaching high school English literature. I was ready to get out.
But my friend's words kept haunting me. The self-doubt kept coming: How does knowing exactly what I want to do after graduation mean sacrificing my happiness? How is being lucky enough to find a career I'm passionate about sacrificing anything at all? Am I wrong in thinking I know myself well enough to say teaching is the career path I want to follow? Were the last two years of my undergraduate career for nothing? Will this next one be as well?
I contemplated the prospect of giving up on the faceless kids in my future classroom—and all for what? Agony over a happiness that, up until that conversation, I thought I was well on my way to achieving.
Over the next few days, I reviewed the academic plans I'd made at the beginning of my freshman, sophomore, and junior year. Sure, each spreadsheet of classes looked a little different: a Core Curriculum class instead of an English requirement, two science requirements in a semester instead of spreading it out, Global Core classes done a year ahead of schedule—regardless, they all had me ending up at the same place.
My path to graduation was still the same as it had been four semesters prior. I'm still an English major. I still plan on teaching high school English literature. And yeah, opportunities have come along the way—like studying abroad and volunteer positions with nonprofit organizations. I've taken them, but my direction has stayed the same. Maybe my path is just paved with different stones than I had originally intended. That doesn't change anything—does it?
I realized I had never known the feeling of my plans crumbling before my eyes, and I wondered if I ever would. I'd always been that person with a concrete idea of what they want from life. I take solace in being organized, making lists, marking dates on calendars—with each step laid out before me. I meet with my advisor at the beginning and end of each semester, subscribe to job classifieds mailing lists, and have an application timeline for the Peace Corps and graduate school. I was, and am, fully ready to graduate.
Yet, as I sat on the J train on my way back from Brooklyn—another post-summer catch-up ticked off my list, another maudlin post-graduation, "I-hate-my-first-full-time-position" horror story gnawing at the back of my mind—I was struck by something I hadn't considered before.
I'm not a civil engineer or a Wall Street-bound finance major. I don't love tinkering with steel bridges, experimenting with different materials, or taking chances on the stock market. I don't take risks. I thrive on stability, structure—monotony, even. Call me anxious, call me scared, but that's what makes me happy.
And if I'm happy working a nine-to-five job (or, more specifically, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), I'm totally fine with that. I've heard countless stories about job ventures gone wrong. I can listen to them for weeks on end and lend a sympathetic ear to unhappy workers until it starts to bleed. I still won't be able to imagine how work that brings me so much sheer joy—be it as an internship, part-time job, or even full-time position—could ever lead to my unhappiness, though. I close my eyes and I think of student essays to read, progress reports, a warm cup of tea, and the white noise of some type of fluffy creature purring contently at my side.
Each time I think of greeting a classroom filled with angsty teens, getting ready to teach them about Elie Wiesel's Night or Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, my heart skips a beat. I've known that I wanted red pens, tax-free weekend on back-to-school items, and the smell of dry-erase board cleaner to be staples in my life since the first time I skipped recess to help a teacher grade her papers.
Some may want research journals, tenure track, and academia. And others will cringe at the thought of a pencil-pushing desk job or a room filled with judgmental, hormonal boys and girls who don't know where they stand in the world, but I think I'll be OK.