I was twenty-one years old and it was a Thursday when I realized I had made a complete shit storm of my life.
A few months prior, I'd made a choice that, at the time, had seemed to me rather adult: defer enrolling in the Master's program in Film Theory and Criticism at the University of Miami to instead to gain some "practical experience" working in production. This was actuality an idiotic idea for several reasons, the most significant being that I had no desire to actually make films and I never had. My passion was in studying Film. I wanted to end up in an academic setting, not on a film set. My hey-I-should-become-a-production-assistant-they-get-paid-nothing-and-work-round-the-clock-and-wouldn't-being-treated-like-a-minion-be-kind-of-fun idea made zero sense, and I couldn't believe I had gotten myself into such a ridiculous situation that began so early in the morning.
"How would you feel if you had to work on holidays?" two of the producers asked me during round three of my interview for a job that would require that I learn how to make coffee.
"I think it would be character-building," I told them, already knowing that I'd fake my own death if necessary to make sure I'd be celebrating Christmas chomping down on a chocolate Santa in my parents' living room, not working on some bullshit commercial on a holy day. And I'm Jewish.
I got the job, and the sinking realization that I was on the wrong path -- one I'd paved myself out of fear and really bad decisions -- was made worse that, for me, entry-level “working in film” had translated into being asked to go on location to Nowhere, PA. (Going on location was also deemed "character-building" by me in a different interview round, and this time they called my bluff.) We were there to do commercials for a then-new cholesterol-lowering pill for Merck. The only positive thing about any of it was the salad bar in the cafeteria on the bottom floor of the behemoth that was the pharmaceutical's headquarters. That salad bar kept me sane. It had really good artichokes.
But back to The Day.
It was January and it was freezing and my immediate boss was in LA discussing future bullshit commercials to push towards production, carefully figuring in my slave labor wages to make sure the budget would allow for her hourly lattes.
I sat in an empty conference room with no windows and went through my options. Jump? I was only on the 2nd floor; it hardly seemed worth it. Go to graduate school? That one was possible, and I knew this because I had the benefit of a mother -- who I'll give credit for trying very hard to not pull the "I told you so" card -- who was a college Dean of Students. She told me about some concept that would allow me to start graduate school unmatriculated. In my hysteria, I couldn’t see the logistics of non- matriculated enrollment, but I knew it added up to me getting me the fuck out of an office in Pennsylvania and into a setting that didn’t threaten that I could one day go on a conference room shooting spree or vote Republican.
Miami for Film was out until September. I'd formally deferred for a year, so I called a university close to my home on Long Island, found out their semester began in one week, discovered I could start a Master’s program in Education without being officially accepted, called the Vice-President of the company I was working for in NYC, and told him over the phone that this production assistant work was not where my passions lay and that I was giving him notice that I was leaving.
How much notice? Twenty minutes, tops.
I thanked him for understanding my need to move forward. His response to me was that he did not understand and he did not wish me well. Realizing he was a true cock and that I seriously did not belong in corporate America and would never need his recommendation letter for a job anyway, I told him that if he had paid me fairly for the job that I did, this event would not be transpiring, and, by the way, his rudeness was one of the reasons turnover in the company was so high. Then I hung up, packed up the blueberry muffin that was going to be the high point of my day, and got the hell out of Merck headquarters before security escorted me out…though now I think that the added element of being forced out might have made for a better story.
There was an ice storm outside, a literal fucking ice storm. Marble-sized cubes rained upon me as I skidded the two miles to the condo they had put me up in during the on-location job that they had said would last three weeks. I packed all that I'd accumulated over the actual three months I'd spent living in the middle of nowhere – shoes, clothing, Tylenol PM, that book about finding my parachute – threw it all in my Pathfinder, took the key to the condo off my key ring, left it on the counter in the kitchen in a moment that felt both final and dramatic, and I walked outside. I slipped on my way to the car, fell down, and saw I had ripped my jeans and my knee was all bloody. I wiped some ice from the door handle over my wound, got into my car -- and suddenly realized I had no idea how to get back to New York. Now, this was quite a few years ago, pre-GPS. I knew how to get from New York to Pennsylvania, but I’d always followed my boss’s car back home and I'd just eventually merge right when she’d make her way left towards the Holland Tunnel.
And there was an ice storm still happening.
And my gas tank was half empty.
I could have, I suppose, seen it as half full, but I wasn’t really in the mood.
I drove to a gas station. My tank was frozen shut. I had to chip away with my car key for almost five minutes to get it to pop, filled my car while not wearing gloves, watched my fingers turn the most alarming shade of mauve, got back in the car, and realized that I did know how to get to Delaware. I’d spent a bunch of weekends while trying to exist in Pennsylvania going to visit my friends who were still in school and living in my old house. Also something to remember: not only was this pre-GPS, but it was before cell phones. Nobody knew where I was. The last person I had spoken to was the VP who wanted me dead. The person I spoke to before that was my mother, who probably feared I was in the middle of the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I’d ever experienced. I hadn’t called her back; I just wanted to get out. So, with no definite plans made and no warnings to anyone that I was safe, I set out in an ice blizzard to Delaware.
The night I was there is a blur now. I know I was warmly received. I know I eventually called my family. I know I drank (MANY) Captain and Diet Cokes. I know the band I had all but been a groupie for when I was a senior in college was playing my favorite bar that night. I know the guitarist, who'd become a good friend of mine, told me giving a boss 20 minutes notice was all kinds of fucked up. I don’t know where I slept that night. I think that, at some point, ice stopped falling from the sky.
I started grad school for teaching that week. I learned almost nothing in class. To this day, I feel like I bought my degree. I never felt inspired. I didn’t feel a swell of expectations for the future. I never considered what my one-day classroom would look like, except I did know I wouldn’t keep the desks in rows -- so not me. But I did know that if I was in one of those classrooms, I would not be in a cubicle or a conference room somewhere, and that was all I needed.
I signed up late for all of the required teaching tests. My procrastination at that point in my life knew no bounds. Instead of taking the ATS-W in Suffolk county, like I should have, I signed up late and had to pay extra and drive to Nassau county to take it, along all the Nassau residents and the Suffolk fuck-ups like myself. I took the tests in the basement of Nassau Coliseum. It did not hold the excitement it did when seeing the team skate on the next floor up, and there were no nachos with bright orange cheese sold anywhere in sight. Instead, some state worker took my fingerprints and I got ink all over a test I couldn't believe I had to pay to take. It all sucked, every bit of it.
I passed, as I figured I would. I knew one day I’d have to take the content test, which everyone said was hard, but now it was about finishing student teaching. I was 23 years old then, cute, and was told by my awesome cooperating teacher to not feel like I had to look conservative to be taken seriously. I just had to create good lessons. The first time I taught, I held on to the desk the entire time. It was 40 minutes of me not moving. I figured that if I was near the desk, I was near my notes, and if I got lost, I could get myself back to the lesson. The kids looked at me strangely the whole time. Most answered the questions I posed, but, even then, I could tell that they did it because they felt badly for me that I was so scared. I think the ones in front were afraid I would throw up on them, so they answered questions before I finished asking them. When the bell rang, the kids left quietly, and Mike, my cooperating teacher, said, “Um…” and then burst into laughter. I laughed too -- at the sheer amount of suckiness I had just thrown into the world --but the next day was better. I actually moved around the room, an accomplishment of sorts.
And then came that day that I hadn’t expected. I got home from student teaching, heard a voice on my answering machine say she was from a high school, they had an opening in the English department, and she wanted to schedule an interview. It was December. I was graduating in January. I figured I’d sub for half a year, a prospect that gave me nightmares at least three times a week. I didn't have a finished resume, and I'd never done one of those mock interview things because I'd never volunteered in class to be the interviewee. I just sat there and judged the people who did volunteer, which frankly seemed more fun at the time.
Now I had to go be interviewed for real in a suit that felt weird to wear for a job in a district to which I'd never been. I had heard the first thing asked in an interview would be "What's your philosophy of teaching?" I hadn't figured mine out yet, though I thought it might have to do with providing the students with candy on a regular basis. I decided to just hope that the other 1st potential interview question would be asked: "What's the last book you read?" But then I remembered that the last book I read was The Shining and I tried hard to come up with another book I'd read EVER to use as my answer and my mind was so jumbled that I couldn't remember the title of any of them except Forever, which incidentally is the book that taught me that guys sometimes name their dicks.
The person who interviewed me, Nina, looked at the resume I had pleaded with my professor to proofread and she read the letter from my cooperating teacher. Then she threw me a curveball, asking me what was not on my resume that she should know, and I told her that my undergrad degree was in Film and I believed it was as important to teach and study Film as it was any other form of art. She looked up from my credentials and said that they did teach Film in that school — and the teacher who taught it was retiring in June. It was like the jumbled shards of my once-broken universe suddenly morphed into one solid, beautiful image. Everything settled into place for me in that interview. It was a true life-changing moment.
I did the demo lessons, two of them, back to back. One to 11th grade honors kids, one to 9th graders who were the illiterate children of felons. Really. I did a lesson where they wrote postcards from the perspective of a character from Lord of the Flies and, when it came time for each to read what they'd written, I passed out marshmallows and told them to imagine they were around a bonfire on the isolated island. Moral? Candy does fucking work. Got the job.
Except for one thing. Nina needed my Delaware transcript to prove I had over a 3.0 undergrad, which was a district requirement. I had a 3.8 in grad school, but nobody cared about that. And, oh, by the way, I hardly went to class until 2nd semester of sophomore year and I wasn't sure I even had a 3.0 at Delaware. I hadn't been off Dean's List since the end of my 2nd year, but there were three semesters prior to that and all I remembered about them were the ridiculous sorority songs I'd learned during that time. And yes, writing that sentence even now embarrasses me.
Nina needed a copy of my transcript for the following day at 4pm for a Board meeting. I went through my files and could not find one. I called Student Services in Delaware and was put on hold for so long that I almost lost consciousness. All I could think was that I fucked up early college and now that was going to derail my only chance at a job and, perhaps if I weren't such a slob, I would be able to locate the documents needed instead of being on hold until the end of time, driven mad by the song Breakfast at Tiffany's that was playing on repeat. (Totally true, by the way. I remember every millisecond of the experience.)
The lady who finally answered my call told me there was no way she could fax me a transcript or tell me my GPA over the phone as it was a violation of confidentiality. I told her I appreciated the school's discretionary practices, but she had my permission to violate my own confidentiality, and would she like my mother's maiden name or perhaps the name of the town where I was born? I just needed to know; a job was on the line, and I'd paid $14,000 a year to that school to one day get a job and please, after giggling over the irony, could she please just tell me my own grades? She wouldn't -- but she agreed that I could guess and she would tell me if I was right. And, no joke, I played the most idiotic game of higher/lower with a stranger and finally found out my final GPA was 2.99. I called Nina who said that was close enough and then told me to get her a copy of my OFFICIAL transcript by the next afternoon, a transcript I didn't have. I just said sure, no problem! Then I got off the phone tried to figure out what the hell to do.
What to do? Drive to Delaware at 6 am, get there by 10, pick up an official transcript, drive back to Long Island, get stuck in gridlock on the Belt Pkwy, and skid into the school parking lot at 3:45, just as Nina was leaving to go present me as a competent professional before the Board. And because the entire story led in every way back to my lack of organization, I told almost nobody.
I got the job. I love the job. And yet, at this point, I'm trying to figure out if this is what I want to do forever, because I'm just not sure anymore. I was absolutely certain about it once, but I can't let go of the idea that there's an adventure waiting out there for me -- and it might be time for me to go claim it.
But the moral, for those of you still searching, is this: nothing that will lead you to happiness is easy and there will always be levels of frustration. But you'll get there. And then, like I do, you'll want more.