I had a chance to catch up with a high school friend yesterday. What started as a few random texts and an accidental butt-dial turned into an hour-long conversation catching up on major life events and commiserating about the challenges of adult life. At one point she commented on how nice it was that, even though we haven’t talked in years, we could still be on the same page and vent about similar topics. The mark of a true friendship, right?
(For instance, here’s one complaint we had in common: Unless she brings up the topic first, please don’t ever ask a married-but-childless woman if/when she’s planning on having kids. While the question seems innocent enough, the answer is often far too private and intimate for casual conversation. It opens the door to personal, financial, and medical issues – all of which are emotionally charged topics. After fielding that question for seven years myself, I more than understand my friend’s frustrations. Dear world, unless we broach the topic first, please stop putting us through those awkward conversations! OK, sidebar rant complete.)
After we finished comparing stories of uncomfortable conversations about family plans, the topic shifted to the working world. Now, my friend has made a choice to not be active in social media or the internet in general. I doubt she even knows that I have a blog, much less the content of it. And yet, there she was, ranting on about all the educational lines we were fed and how little they matched reality. She was saying all the things I’ve been saying for two years, with her own spin, of course.
Her take was how inaccurately our particular educational background prepared girls and young women for the real world. The private schools and church communities we were raised in taught us to be good at academics and good at relationships, to prepare for marriage and families as we also showed off our intellectual capabilities in the classroom. We’d go to college, graduate, find a job, get married, have kids. That was the life plan we were taught to anticipate.
Our school didn’t prepare us for the struggle of early adulthood. They didn’t tell us that getting any job right out of college would be hard – much less finding the ideal job that played to our strengths or even related to our degree. They didn’t tell us that when it comes to finding work, experience (and connections) matters a lot more than a good GPA, that many students who graduate with academic honors will still struggle a lot to find a job because they lack that oh-so-illusive experience. Our school didn’t teach us about paying our dues, working the grind, building a resume one less-than-ideal job at a time. They also didn’t tell us that many women who want to be stay-at-home-moms wouldn’t be able to afford to live on one salary, so not working wouldn’t be an option for them.
No, we were told that we could do whatever we wanted. We were told that a college degree would be enough to get a good job. And for some reason, kids are still being fed that line. She told me about a conversation she’d had with a recent college graduate who was waiting for the “right” job. This girl had turned down one or two offers already because they didn’t fit exactly what she wanted. My friend was flabbergasted. And she’d had other conversations with college students, strongly urging them to get a job or an internship while still in college so that they could build experience. They told her no, they were going to focus on academics because “that’s what’s really important” right now. Work would just come after.
My friend couldn’t wrap her brain around the idea of passing up a job offer simply because it didn’t mesh exactly with their dreams. She didn’t know how to make these students understand that few employers will care about grades, and that jobs are don’t always “just come” after graduation.
“They’re so used to having things handed to them,” I replied. “They’re told that they can be whatever they want, that they’re inherently something special. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t just hand you success, and not everyone gets to be something special!”
“Or you might be something special,” she chimed in, “but you have to work your a** off to get there.”
And that’s just it. You can be special. You can be great. But it takes work. Years of it. It takes time in jobs that are long and frustrating, hours spent on often menial tasks that may seem below your abilities. When you plan on climbing the ladder, remember you have to start at the bottom and then work your butt off for each step up.
So you take the low-paying teaching job in a stressful demographic, building experience until you find the job that fits your niche better. Or you spend 60 hours a week as an office assistant, possibly for years, until you earn the promotion to title with more responsibility.
One of the reasons my friend and I get along so well is that we’re both no strangers to hard work. We figured it out. We buckled down and put in our time in frustrating, stressful jobs in order to pay the bills. She’s currently working a grueling 60-80 hours a week, but after five years at her company (which initially hired her because she’d worked full-time throughout college and so had the experience they wanted), she’s finally in line to receive the promotion she’s been hoping for and working towards. And the only reason I have the experience I do is through tenacity, fighting for work in each place I’ve lived, taking less-than-ideal jobs when the teaching jobs I wanted weren’t available. I paid the bills that way and supported my husband while he worked his butt off to get to where he wanted to be, too.
Living that way isn’t all bad and frustrating, either. With that work comes pride. For my husband, it’s pride in finally landing the kind of job his work deserves, where his talents will be used and appreciated. For me, it’s pride in a unique skill set and abilities, though I’m still waiting and searching for my ideal niche. For my friend, it’s pride in soon becoming one of the youngest people in her office to achieve a certain job title.
So teachers, when we talk to our students, are we really preparing them for a world after academics? For the work ethic that is required, and the willingness to put in time on the bottom rungs of the ladder? Or are we still telling them that a college degree is enough for them to do whatever they want to do?
Students, pursue your dreams. Work your butt off for them. You can do great things, but don’t assume great things will simply drop into your lap.
It was nice to have that conversation with someone completely unconnected from everything I’ve been doing and saying here. While I already knew I wasn’t alone in these ideas, it was refreshing confirmation that I’m not the only person who thinks the education system failed to prepare my generation for the real world. It’s nice to know that it’s not just me.