Losing My Way:

An unnecessarily long cautionary tale of eclectic resumes, hostile attribution bias, and not listening to one’s inner voice.

Twenty years ago, I was a college freshman majoring in journalism. To my father’s chagrin, my dream was to be on the radio. I was a permanent fixture outside the campus radio station, and though I never had my own shift, I shadowed our station’s program director and eventually wrote and did voiceovers for our basketball team’s radio commercials. It was fun, but I always held out hope that a spot would open up just for me (it didn’t). Somewhere along the way, I decided to move off campus and play at being an adult, and with that came the need for money. After a few months of writing ad copy on a freelance basis, I accepted an invitation to join a small local agency as a full-time copywriter.

Mistake number one.

I had never had any real interest in going into advertising, but it seemed that my ability to quickly crank out dozens of catchy radio spots each day translated well into writing on-hold messages (yes, on-hold messages); the format is nearly identical. Many of our clients wanted something creative to entertain callers while they waited. Others were start-up businesses in need of a brand, and I was allowed the opportunity to help with that. By the time I was 21, I was promoted to Production Director, and I left school because there just wasn’t time for both work and my studies. Plus, the pay was more than either of my parents had ever made. My job was to oversee the entire creative process: writing, editing, voiceovers, and sound engineering. I had cross-trained on literally everything we did and could (and frequently did) shift gears at a moment’s notice. I was hungry. I wanted to excel, even if this tiny voice in my head was telling me, “Dana… this wasn’t what you wanted.” Eventually, that voice grew louder, and I eventually had no choice but to listen. I reenrolled in college, this time to pursue a previous dream to go to medical school (Dad was happy again). I learned German and took a month-long trip to Germany… only to come back to a demotion.

As it turned out, my decision not to take vacations for four years straight was the only reason I’d never felt the hatchet blows from above.

Fortunately, I didn’t lose any pay, but some of my responsibilities were transferred to the junior copywriter, a friend from high school I’d hired as a favor. While I was initially happy about the reduction in responsibility, I quickly grew disillusioned with how the company was run, as well as with the perks our sales director enjoyed versus the offensively low amount of work he put in. During one of his many vacations, a call came through from a potential multi-location client who had been chasing us down to sign a contract, but he could never get the director to return his calls. I asked my boss if I could take it from there, even offering to waive the commission if I could just get this guy signed that day. Happily, he agreed. By the close of business, I had eight freshly signed contracts and was ready to sit down with our brand-new client to discuss copy points. The following week, an angry sales director marched into my office demanding to know why I was taking food off his table. A shouting match ensued, during which I said some very regrettable things that I knew were not exactly compatible with my continued employment there.

The week after that, I was out of a job.

That whole story included mistakes number two through at least four or five. The moral: I screwed up. What I should’ve done was get the hell out of there before I allowed the dissatisfaction to overtake my drive to do well for my company. Instead, just before the blowout argument, I let some of my time-sensitive copy run past its expiration date, which was absolutely on me. I had never slipped up before that point, however, and my direct supervisor didn’t necessarily want to let me go. As I understood it, I was a money taker, while the sales guy was a money maker. His voice was worth more to the company than mine, and when he threatened to walk unless I was let go, well… they found a way to make it happen.

Me in 1992 as a budding journalist. I may have peaked at 15; we’ll see.

The next few months were spent searching desperately for jobs that were relevant to my skills and experience. Unfortunately, because on-hold advertising was so niche, nobody understood how it was relevant to writing anything else, and my lack of a college degree made most hiring managers unwilling to even read my resume. I was able to drum up enough freelance work initially to keep a roof over my head, but that eventually dried up. Out of sheer desperation, I accepted a job working as a registration clerk at a local hospital.

Mistake number… six, maybe? I mean, I needed money, so it was at least a necessary mistake, but it derailed me pretty hard.

I couldn’t afford school then, and I was so distracted by having lost such a huge part of my identity AND by having to fake it to keep the survival job that I wouldn’t have been a good student, anyway. The bar was ridiculously low at the hospital, however, and within two years, I was in a middle management position working in administration. My job: reviewing emergency room charts for documentation that would support level charges. Sounds boring, right? It was. So tedious was that job, in fact, that I’m not even going to waste energy explaining it. Suffice it to say that it could not have had any less to do with what I wanted to do with my life. Of course, by that point, I’d begun to lose sight of what that even was. All I knew was that I needed to find a way to finish my degree; I’d figure out everything else along the way.

Getting back on track

My job had one definite perk: a flexible schedule. That meant that I was open to take classes anytime they were offered, and with a little more money in the bank, I did so. Quickly, I realized that the Psychology department was where I belonged. I had hitched myself firmly onto a professor’s star and rapidly rose through the ranks, eventually landing a coveted spot as one of the only undergraduates allowed on his research team. I took up a second major in English, primarily because I enjoyed reading and writing, and I knew that’s where I’d be able to do more of it than anywhere else.

This is where the story should have ended. Well, not ended, because that would mean that I died. But I should’ve stuck with it, graduated, gone onto a reputable graduate program in experimental psychology (I had no interest in clinical work), and churned out articles in children’s peer relations like there was no tomorrow.

I did not, which was mistake number seven.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had this issue with feeling unliked and unwanted. I managed to quash my inner Negative Nancy while I was a go-getter in high school and during my brief copywriting career, but I was over 30 by this point in my already-too-long story, and I was being pushed around by the grad school alphas overseeing the research lab where I volunteered. I felt clumsy, too old, like I didn’t fit in. And why this mattered to me, I’ll never understand. But I gave up. Feeling dejected, I dropped the psych major and never looked back. My studies in English were going extraordinarily well, by comparison, and with a reasonable graduation timeframe nearing, I just told myself that I’d finish there; any degree is better than no degree, right?

Along the way, something extraordinary happened: I took a Linguistics class. I learned about linguistic reconstruction and sentence trees and phonemes and dialect contact… I was hooked. Hooked like I’d never been hooked before. My mentor, a Linguistics professor whose own background was in sociolinguistics, took me under her wing and helped me write an undergraduate thesis on the intersection between gendered linguistic markers and lack of face-time in video game voice interaction (translation: I watched a shit-ton of Twitch videos of people playing Left 4 Dead 2 and tried to determine whether or not “talking like a girl” in the game had the same consequences as it did offline). I applied to our MA program in Linguistics and was readily accepted. I was set, ready to embark on an academic career as a sociolinguist.

Then it happened again.

My mentor, who had been so excited to work with me previously, left me to my own devices when I needed her guidance the most. Well, that’s not entirely true. Publish or perish is the way of the Ivory Tower, and she had her own fish to fry. I was just added work; as an undergraduate, my research, though it investigated a phenomenon that hadn’t yet been addressed in any of the literature I could find, wasn’t publishable on its own. I had no credentials. Her graduate students did, however, and they got the bulk of her attention. I get it. In my rational mind, it makes sense. I’m not a terribly rational person, though, and I got butthurt. I interpreted this as a lack of belief in my abilities, and I FUCKING SCRAPPED IT ALL. Okay, not all; I finished the thesis and graduated with an honors degree in English, but I let go of my plan. Before the ink was dry on my diploma, I was hired to teach high school English.

Mistake number… oh, who fucking cares? It was a mistake.

It wasn’t a mistake because the job was a mistake. It was a mistake to put on the rose-colored glasses donned by all idealistic first-year teachers and think that my career would blossom just like Erin Gruwell’s when I didn’t have the cojones to stand up for myself at the first sign of push-back from my students — or, as the case actually was for me, my fellow teachers.

Unlikely Denouement

I walked into my classroom on the first day expecting to find children of varying skill levels, most of whom were ambivalent about English, at best, but each of whom had a seed inside them I could nurture and help grow into adept, if not fantastic, writers and lovers of language. The reality: ninety-two percent of my students were not anywhere near grade level in reading. The remaining eight percent were within a year or two of where they needed to be, and one of those students was actually advanced. One. My work was cut out for me, but I was in it to win it. I spent every single moment of my spare time looking for relevant reading material to get them hooked; say what you will, but a child who has spent most of his or her life fending off near-constant recruitment efforts by street gangs has no time or use for Shakespeare, at least not until good reading habits are established. When I realized that none of my students could read critically, I found a passage from a semi-autobiographical book written by Curtis Jackson III — that’s 50 Cent to you and me — to jumpstart our foray into more difficult texts. Seems like an obvious, perhaps even shameful ploy to establish in-group status with my kids, but what happened that week was something that still gives me goosebumps when I think about it: They LOVED it. They loved READING. They were learning to tease information out of the text that wasn’t explicitly spelled out on the page. It was almost as if they had learned magic. And the next week, I had my first observation by the head of the English department.

She was not impressed.

I’m not going to sit here and honestly suggest that my methods were beyond reproach. I was a first-year teacher with zero pedagogical training (hello, transitional licensure!), learning the ropes as I worked. In my post-observation discussion, I learned what my primary task was for that year: getting the kids to do well enough on their end-of-course (EOC) exam to improve the ENTIRE SCHOOL’S LITERACY SCORE. If it didn’t look specifically like I was teaching to the test, the kids would fail, and the school would fall prey to the Achievement District, which is what happens when schools here can’t keep their test scores up high enough to continue making decisions about their own staffing. Textbook usage was discouraged, as was the use of any outside material. My Bible, the department head told me, was the previous year’s EOC booklet. Each day, I was expected to drill the kids from that book. “Okay… ‘teach to the test.’ Got it.” I didn’t like it, but I wanted to prove myself. The minute I distributed those booklets to the class, the kids shut down. Completely. Teachers talk about lightbulb moments, when they see kids’ faces light up in recognition that they’d just learned to do something. This was a reverse lightbulb moment, and the classroom went completely dark. I panicked. There was blood in the water, and every single one of my already-jaded high school students descended upon me like sharks to a wounded seal. I kept this up for a few weeks before I dug in my heels: NO, I told myself. This was not me. Not only was this not me, it was WRONG… unethical, morally reprehensible… I wasn’t doing it anymore. As soon as I stopped, I managed to win back most of my kids in the following weeks, and my principal loved what she was seeing. My fellow teachers, on the other hand, were terrified that I was going to sink the already-listing ship. I was told about tracking my students — the politically incorrect explanation is that you determine which kids are the most likely to do well on the test and focus all of your effort on them, while essentially throwing the others to the wolves — and the fact that you cannot issue a failing grade to more than 10% of your students. Even if 100% of them earn an F, only your lowest performing 10% can actually receive one. Don’t give them homework, they said; it’ll never get done. Don’t ask them to read outside of class. I couldn’t help but begin making comparisons to my own children’s schooling, and it wasn’t long before my inner social justice warrior began to rear her head. Why is it that in lily-white suburban schools, the teachers get to create and enact actual lesson plans for their students, while schools in poor, usually Black neighborhoods are inordinately focused on test performance? Why, if you’re actually teaching the kids the skills they need to do well on the test, must your instruction look like test drilling? Not surprisingly (because I lack a spine), rather than go rogue and win the hearts and minds of my students, their families, and my fellow educators just like in the movies, I shut down. Near the end of the first grading period, I tendered my resignation to my principal and left the school two weeks later. On a positive note, my kids raised their test scores significantly on their first discovery exam, which was administered the week after I left. And they did it with a teacher who refused to teach to the test. I felt miserable for having given up, but I needed to be able to sleep at night more than I needed a job.

Mortgages have a funny way of wanting to be paid, so I eventually took another soulless, dead-end job in the health insurance field just to put food on the table while my über-focused husband, himself a career-changer, finished his graduate program and successfully carved out a space for himself in the classroom (he’s not a pushover). Two years later, I’m still doing it. I can’t tell you what I’m doing, exactly, but let’s just say that it requires all the intelligence and creativity of a brick. It’s killing me. My husband told me that I could quit soon and focus on doing freelance work until I’d built up enough of a portfolio to reestablish myself as a professional writer, but I’m forcing myself right this very minute to come face to face with some very uncomfortable truths, lest I make any other missteps that, quite frankly, I cannot afford:

1. I am nearly 40 years old. In terms of lifespan, it’s (hopefully) not even halftime, but in terms of career options, I should be working on strategies for the end of the game.

2. I’m not at management level, or even in an actual career, because I lack one thing that successful people have: intestinal fortitude.

3. Depending on how you look at it, I am either blessed or afflicted with having many interests that could translate into a career.

4. My resume sucks. It’s well written and nicely arranged, but its content blows. Who wants to take a chance on someone who hasn’t written professionally in more than a decade?

5. I am only qualified for entry-level work. My competition? Kids fresh out of college who have no responsibilities, and who can take on internships or really low-paying jobs (I’m not opposed to either, but who wants a 40-year-old intern? I’m nowhere near as cool as Robert DeNiro.)

6. I have some definite ideas of what I’d like to do, but the crux of the issue is that I AM TOO AFRAID OF REJECTION TO TRY.

That’s it. That is the single most pervasive issue that has plagued me my entire adult life. Fear of rejection. Fear of not being liked. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of stepping on the wrong toes. Fear of standing out.

At this point, I’ve come full circle. I’d like to become a journalist, one who focuses on education policy. Why does that feel so weird to write, though? Is it because at my age, I shouldn’t still be talking about what I want to be when I grow up? Or is it because if I give voice to that dream, I’ll actually have to DO something about it, and DOING something might give me the occasion to have someone tell me no, and I’m such a shitty person that that’s all it’ll take to dissuade me once again from what I feel in my bones I’m meant to do? Because I do. I have seen it from the inside, and I walked away from that experience changed for life. I want to shake things up. I want my words to convey underprivileged kids’ desperation to be given something more, something meaningful. I want to put absolute terror into the hearts of lazy, unethical teachers who are just phoning it in until they get that sweet, sweet pension. I want policymakers to take notice of the fact that they’re only paying lip service to the ideas of bridging gaps, moving needles, and other educational jargon du jour. I want to inspire parents to become advocates for their own children’s needs. There’s so much that I’d like to do, and even greater than the fear of rejection is the fear that I’ll never get to do any of it.

Still greater than the fear, though, is the acknowledgement that only one thing has ever stood in my way.