Narnia v. Ohio

Posted on August 22, 2010


I don’t talk about my job much here, both because blogging about your job is not very smart and because I know I’m damn lucky to have it.  It’s the best job anyone in my family has probably ever had, and while I do occasionally find myself crying in the bathroom from frustration, it’s not a hard job.  Factory jobs are hard.  Fourteen-hour shifts waiting tables are hard.  Tedious meetings are (many negative adjectives), but they’re not hard.

But this week a new opportunity fell into my lap, and the brief and wild flare of elation I felt when it looked like it was going to work out reminded me that I’m not exactly thrilled with my day-to-day.  But this isn’t about that.  It’s about the phone call I got when the new possibility fell through, and how quickly I went from being so excited at the prospect of new challenges, new office culture to learn, new colleagues, and new surroundings to being utterly gutted and miserable when they rejected me because I don’t have my degree.  Sometimes I feel like I’m nothing more than a mass of insecurity on legs, but that particular bugaboo is a deep one.  It never came up during my (excellent, amazing) interview, and I’m the one who pointed it out to the HR rep.  But still, I thought it was obvious that I was an excellent candidate for the position, I had a great rapport with my interviewers, and they had already talked to my references.  They all but showed me my office on the way out.  And then, the 5 o’clock phone call; we loved you, but the lack of degree is a dealbreaker for the big boss.

I get it, I guess.  I don’t think 30 credit hours in sociology count for much weighed against ten years of communications experience, but I’m not the one who gets to decide, so.  But being forced to realize how deep the shame of not having my degree goes, of how much I shy away from poking my head up for that very reason, has made for a lousy weekend.

When I talk about the huge change in my life that moving from Ohio to DC was, I shorthand it by referencing Thai food and lattes and public transportation, but it was much more than that. I was raised middle class by my hometown standards, but solidly lower-middle class by the standards of the country, and even that was a step up from the previous generation. So far, no one in my mother’s family, the one that shaped and defined me, has attained a bachelor’s degree–and there are a lot of us. The truth is you don’t need a degree to get a job in the industrial park or the family business, and college simply is not part of our culture. No one cared what my grades were; grades were supposed to measure how smart you were, and my teachers agreed that I was plenty smart. This was the golden age of the talented and gifted programs, and while participating in them was good for me in a lot of ways, it also gave me an automatic pass on proving myself. If I liked the teacher and the subject, I got A’s. If I didn’t, I just didn’t participate and earned D’s. No one cared, really, and it was never clear to me why I should spend my time doing homework when I had a job and a social life to attend to.

I didn’t do extracurricular activities with an eye on college. I didn’t choose classes with transcripts in mind. I think I vaguely assumed that I would go to Ohio State, somehow, but I never had any clear idea what I would study, or what kind of job that studying might yield. The PSAT was administered to us in English class, with no advance warning that I recall. I had no idea what it was, had literally never heard of it. When our results came in, the kid who sat in front of me in Psychology class had to explain to me what it meant to be a Commended Scholar. When the crates and crates of college materials started arriving in the mail, I had to scramble to come up to speed on the whole process. I did zero school visits–the first time I ever saw Washington was freshman orientation. I applied to two schools, and when my acceptance letter from GW arrived I sobbed for hours, sure that there was no way I would ever get to go, that the dreams I had just begun to dream with clarity would never take shape in the daylight.

When I did get to enroll, and when I moved to DC, it was like going through the back of the wardrobe and living in Narnia…but more of a culture shock. I had $50 a week–my child support payment–and my work-study money to live on. No one else I knew had a job, though many people had internships. The idea of unpaid work seemed utterly insane to me, though no more insane than the fact that my friends casually paid for everything with credit cards underwritten by mommy and daddy, and flew home for the weekend when they felt like it. I didn’t even know there really were people in the world whose parents could write a check for $25,000 of tuition and not feel it, and I’d certainly never been around those people. I had never been to the Gap before, for the love of God.  Academically…pffft. I had never written a real paper, never really done research, never been on the internet (though it barely existed in 1993), never, ever been challenged. In my classes, listening to smart, worldly people debate ideas blew my mind. I had never been around kids who were intensely, competitively smart, and ambitious. I still had no idea what I could be when I graduated; I was hanging on by my fingernails, exhilarated and soaking it up like a starved desert flower in a monsoon.

I felt like I’d been living my life in black and white for 18 years and it had suddenly burst into riotous, blazing color. (And I was living in a dorm, for Christ’s sake. Co-ed though!) When my mom and stepfather told me over spring break that they weren’t sending me back for sophomore year (they were buying a boat instead) the bottom dropped out of my world, leaving a yawning chasm in its place. I felt like I’d been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Ohio-itis, a fatal case of being forced to spend the rest of your life around bland white people who still eat vegetables out of cans and have never heard of the New Yorker. Fatal for those who have lost immunity by living elsewhere.

I clawed my way back to DC in time for what would have been my junior year, and did well for a while, but I never really got my feet under me again. My already slim parental support got slimmer and slimmer, and by the middle of my would-be senior year I was working two jobs and facing the graduation of my peers and just too, too sad.  I was so far behind it seemed I had no choice but to drop out, and once I started making some money (and you know, eating and stuff) I felt like I needed some breathing room before I went back.  And in the ensuing years I could never get quite enough air, somehow.

The smart thing to do would be to move to Maryland or Virginia and establish residency and finish there, now that I’ve finally paid off the student loans that kept me from doing so for years.  Or I could have gone home for a couple of years, sucked it up, lived at home and knocked out a BA.  But after all it took to get me here, I’m nearly phobic about moving.  They lost Narnia, you know, and it ruined the rest of their lives.

If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d quit my job and travel the world with my friends for six months.  And then I would move to some college town and rent an apartment with creaky wooden floors and built-in bookcases and I’d get a Master’s, maybe in public policy, maybe in social work. Maybe, if I were already rich, I’d just do what I really want and get an MFA.  I dream about it every fall, the smell of a new backpack and the utter luxury of a life spent in jeans and a hoodie, reading.  I’d be the most obnoxious student, showing up to shoot the shit at every office hours and organizing study groups and waving my arm in the air like Horshack.  I’d try, for once.

In the non-lottery world I have…I don’t know what to do.  It will cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 to finish my degree as a DC resident; we have no state schools, and adults don’t benefit from the reciprocal arrangements that DC high schoolers enjoy.  I’ve already paid tens of thousands of dollars in student loans back once.  I’m single and 35, and that ominous ticking sound you hear is my biological clock; I have about ten minutes left to get knocked up, which almost certainly means that I will be a single mother.   What’s the best use of my time and resources? What will I regret not doing in ten years?  How much battery can my self-esteem take from people judging me for not having a bachelor’s degree?  How smart do you have to be to realize that you’ve made some really dumb decisions that perhaps can’t be undone at this stage?  I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.  But I suspect it’s going to be a long week while I try again to puzzle out the answers.