Stepping into my college library one autumn Sunday, I heard an officer’s police radio crackle to life: “Girl missing, left Manhattan dorm to teach class in Brooklyn this morning, never arrived.” It took only a few seconds to realize the girl was me.
The year was 1980, and I was a freshman. I had awoken earlier that morning terrified at the thought of going to my part-time job teaching 12-year-olds about the Holocaust at a Hebrew school in Brooklyn, a position I’d talked myself into in August but was utterly unqualified for. So I decided to skip work.
That morning, I’d pretended to head to the job, bidding my roommates farewell with a backpack slung over my shoulder. But instead of catching the subway to Brooklyn as I normally did, I walked to a diner and lingered for hours at a scratched Formica table, eating scrambled eggs, sipping free coffee refills from a chipped ceramic mug and completing the easy answers in the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, ones with clues like “________ the Hun.”
When I didn’t show up at the Hebrew school, the principal called my dorm. My roommates said I had left as usual. Someone telephoned my mother in Rockaway, and she called the police.
I ducked into the library phone booth and dialed the Hebrew school. “Train was stuck for a couple hours,” I said. “It was awful. See you next week?” I hoped they would fire me, but they didn’t.
That wasn’t the last time I skipped work out of fear. I struggled to improve my work ethic, starting a half-dozen jobs over the next several years. Yet each time, confronted with ordinary challenges, lacking skills and knowledge as a beginner, I took off.
Handwringing over young people’s failure to launch has dominated the news media for years now. Millennials are the “anxious generation,” headlines say, overwhelmed by too much choice and unprepared for adulthood after years of helicopter parenting. Economically, they’re sunk: They make too little money and don’t save enough of it. They need more real-world experience; they “aren’t ready for real careers,” possibly because they’re “among the world’s least skilled.”
But in many ways, this is a much older story. Structural changes in the economy have complicated finding a job at age 22, but there have always been individuals for whom finding the right job has not been easy. Some people need to try on different hats before finding a good fit. Others have to develop workplace skills. Still others may not have met a great boss, one willing to take them under her wing. These difficulties are not unusual, nor are they insurmountable. I know — it took me a half-dozen jobs and one patient boss to finally get on track.
I could have just called in sick to Hebrew school that Sunday or at least told my roommates I wasn’t going in, but I was too ashamed of my incompetence, and the shame was paralyzing. I didn’t know how to teach the Holocaust or anything else. My idea of a lesson plan was to read aloud from the grim textbook while students rested their heads on the graffitied desks. They knew I was clueless.
Growing up, I had been a good student, one who rarely struggled or needed to ask for help. Whatever assistance I required, I found in books. The strategy worked in school but left me ill-prepared for the challenges I faced as an adult. New at work, I needed help from co-workers and bosses, to learn the skills of the job, where the bathroom was, how to work the copier. When I found myself struggling, I felt ashamed. I feared my incompetence meant that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t realize everyone needs help at some point to learn.
In January, the Hebrew school didn’t renew my contract. But I was hired at a preschool in Manhattan as a part-time teacher’s assistant. One afternoon, I stood over a pink-cheeked 4-year-old as she waved a paintbrush in joyful arcs, spattering green paint the texture of yogurt everywhere. The paint hit the teacher, the blackboard, the tiny maple tables and chairs, and the occupants of those chairs, who began to cry. The 4-year-old screamed ecstatically, overcome by her own creative instincts, a budding Jackson Pollock. I should have taken the paintbrush away. Instead, I explained to the child that she was using her outside voice. It never occurred to me to request help from the teacher. A few days later, I stopped showing up. No one called the police. I imagine the teacher was relieved. It became clear to me that I wasn’t cut out to be an educator.
In 1982, I dropped out of college. A publishing firm in New Jersey hired me to copy-edit engineering articles. Here’s a tip about copy-editing: It helps to speak the language. Even after I looked up words such as “phase angle” and “phase modulation,” they meant nothing to me. I called my mother. I don’t know what I was hoping, perhaps that she would give me a pep talk or encourage me to re-enroll in college. Instead, she and my father drove down from New York with some Valium from their stockpile. When they arrived, I swallowed a little blue pill, dry, before returning to the copy desk. For one afternoon, I stopped freaking out about copy-editing. I also stopped doing anything. It was like wearing one of those snowsuits they dress you in as a kid. It keeps you dry and a bit too warm and you can do nothing while wearing it but wobble into your fort and wait for snowballs to begin pelting you. When the drug wore off, the work was still there. I wondered how the other copy editors had made friends with “capacitors” and “resistors,” but I was too embarrassed to ask.
A few days later, as I was eating lunch outside, I saw a group of children waiting to board a public bus after school. They swung their book bags like shot putters warming up for the toss and shouted one another’s names. I longed to join them, to go back to a time when what was expected of me — adding a few fractions, writing a book report — didn’t roil my pulse. The next day, around noon, I climbed on a bus to Manhattan. Not wanting anyone to call the police, I went to a Western Union office upon arrival and sent the publishing firm a two-word telegram ending my employment.
I suppose I might have gone on quitting forever, afraid to look ignorant upon receiving the first assignment I didn’t know how to do. Or like a cousin of mine who moved back in with his mother, I might have given up and moved back in with mine. That is, if I hadn’t gotten a job working for an editorial director at a New York publisher who I’ll call Barbara. She had short brown hair, a beaklike nose, and had gone to a prestigious Ivy League college, one that had turned me down. And she had passion — particularly for the All American Girls’ Professional Baseball League, which flourished during World War II. She was in love with all the old players, went to their reunions, and wrote articles and a book about them.
Barbara figured out pretty fast how much I didn’t know. She taught me to write and to edit without waiting for me to ask. She wielded a red pen and an attitude that what we produced didn’t have to start out excellent but had to end up there. She tightened my sentences and tore up my layouts. She shouted and banged her fist on the desk when a typo appeared in a final proof. At some point, I realized she wouldn’t think less of me if I asked for direction. On the contrary, she appreciated my desire to improve. The job was a good fit for me. I had always loved to read, had always wanted to be a writer. I rose from production editor to editor in six years.
It took a half-dozen jobs for me to land the right one, to find a boss willing to teach and mentor me. Thanks to Barbara, I discovered it was okay to demonstrate my ignorance in order to learn. I’ll never be able to repay her, so I pay it forward, mentoring others who are early in their careers, letting them know what it took me years to understand: There’s no shame in being a beginner. I hope new graduates let themselves off the hook if they need to try a few jobs to find a good fit. Those of us already in the workforce owe them a hand up. I hope, like Barbara, we give it.