When I gazed inside the HR office, one late-summer morning, over 23 years ago, a wish shot up from deep within me: I want to work here.
I was dropping off my application packet. It contained my resume, transcripts, letters of reference, the application form, and a letter, in which I tried to express all the ways that my own particular experience, training, skills, and interests made me a good fit for this position. It felt like posing, but it also felt that, just maybe, it could be also be true.
I had watched people, in suits and business dresses, walk into the building. They seemed professional but also relaxed, comfortable. They walked with an attitude of belonging, and I wanted to belong there, too.
I practiced their walk through the foyer, to the HR office, trying on that comfortable sense of being where I am supposed to be.
I tried the feeling on for size. That was always how I judged what schools, jobs, homes, even friendships were right for me. I tried on the feeling of belonging, and if it fit, or if it asked me to grow in a way that I wanted to, then I judged it right.
Six months before, I’d wished for a job like this. At the time, I was a full-time instructor at a community college. That had been a job I’d wished for, too, and one I’d worked hard to get. The competition was stiff–over 100 qualified applicants tried for the position I’d ended up getting. It was fulfilling, exhilarating, demanding, exhausting, draining, intensive. I pretty much figured I’d spend my career there, at that very college for the next twenty-five, thirty years. Somehow, I’d figure out a way not to get so drained every semester.
One spring day, walking to the office to make some photocopies, for this was back in the days when education was just beginning to go digital, and paper handouts were still a part of our face-to-face classes, I spotted a flier on the bulletin board.
Hardly any schools had websites back then. I’d been developing webpages for my classes for the past year, but I was the only faculty member in our discipline who had a webpage. I lived and breathed HTML back then, having just learned it. This was HTML 2.0, and in all its simplicity, logic, and structure, it felt like a native language to me.
Even though I was in what I’d thought of as my dream job, even though I felt grateful every day to have been the one selected for that position, even though I figured that I’d find a way to make the job work in the long run, I still was stopped short when I spotted that flier. The school webmaster position barely paid anything, so I didn’t consider it seriously, but I did think, “Man, I would love to be a webmaster for a school.”
A few months later, I left my dream job. My boyfriend got accepted to the university which was in a different city, and though we could live apart while he earned his degree, we didn’t want to. Plus, there were reasons for leaving. I’d had a #MeToo encounter with a supervisor, which I decided to report to the sexual harassment ombudsperson, and that pretty much ensured that my extended tenure there would be a fight. In addition, the building was, literally, toxic. Housed in an old printshop, the fumes throughout our offices were strong enough to induce headaches on a daily basis. Not only that, but two faculty members had died, and three had contracted cancer in the past year. All these added up to more than a sign: It was time to go.
It always feels strange to me to leave jobs. I had loved this job. I’d loved every job I’d had, and most, I’d stayed at for several years. But I was young, the city we were moving to had a lot to offer, my boyfriend was excited and inspired to finish his degree, and I was eager to support him. We’d spent most of our lives together moving, shifting, following the currents to find the place where we could settle, and this felt like one more shift, one more moment of reading the signs and following the signals.
The decision to leave came too late for me to apply for a full-time position with the college in our new city, but I got a part-time position, teaching English composition on the Air Force base in the evenings. I’d read that it typically takes seven months to find a new job, so I wasn’t in a hurry to look for a full-time position. I spent the summer swimming, writing, playing video games, gardening, exploring the city with my boyfriend, and tasting the electric air of summer thunderstorms.
At summer’s end, I began looking for a full-time job. This was so long ago that newspaper listings were the best place to find job openings. I let myself be picky at first–I didn’t want to work for businesses. I wanted to work for nonprofits or educational institutions.
When I saw the listing for this position, my imagination jumped. I could imagine myself in that job! It was listed as a Technical Writer for the public school district, but it required knowledge of HTML and website construction, and one of the job duties would be to update and maintain the school district website. I remembered that wish I’d sent out when I’d seen that flier. Could this answer be in response to that wish?
There’s a kind of happy ache when you want something deeply.
I felt that after I turned in my application packet.
The woman I’d handed it to had been so nice. “Good luck!” she’d said. “Maybe I’ll be your co-worker soon!”
Oh, maybe! I hoped so. By the time I left the building, I could imagine myself there.
I felt I would be so lucky if I were to get that job. I wouldn’t need to keep it forever. Maybe for five years, just to get experience. And then, I could go back to teaching full-time at the community college here.
But wouldn’t it be an amazing five years? Wouldn’t it be something if I were to get that job?
I didn’t realize it then, but the school district takes an inordinate amount of time to fill empty positions. In fact, the position that I’ve left through my retirement is still not filled, though I notified my supervisor and HR of my retirement in October, three months ago.
So after I turned in the application, a month went by before I heard anything. I got worried, and our savings were becoming depleted, so I contacted a temp agency, who was lining up positions for me. One of them was with a missile company, and I knew I couldn’t accept it. I could not work for a company that made weapons for war. I travelled to visit my folks one weekend, figuring I should go before I was working full-time, and that weekend, I thought, well, when I get back, I’ll either hear from the school district, or I’ll have a temp job. Somehow, it will work out.
I tried to hold on to that feeling of belonging that I had when I left after submitting my application. I tried to breathe that mix of longing, confidence, and faith, that life has you, that life will hold you, that it will all work out, and there will be a place for you, a place where you can contribute, a place where you belong.
Authors note: Office Tales is a new autobiographical work I’m writing in which I reflect on my career as a web editor at a large urban school district. I retired three weeks ago, and it feels unreal to me, unfinished somehow, that I’ve left this career. I retired during the pandemic–because of the pandemic–while working at home, so there was no retirement party, only an awkward Zoom meeting with my department early one Monday morning. I emailed those I worked closely with, but I forgot a few. And so many of those faces–and all those lovely office spaces–that I haven’t seen since March and didn’t get to say goodbye to. For closure, and to integrate that experience that I had there, I’m writing this series. I know that writing and telling stories changes things: we select scenes, people, memories, we reshape them, we tease out the significance, and we create something that wasn’t quite what it was, but is, instead, our interpretation of it. But I feel I need this interpretation in order to move into my new life, my life without this full-time job. Writing this is a way, too, to honor and to share love. It’s also a way to come to terms with some of the complexities and some of the challenges and hardships. I’m not sure if this will be interesting to read, but I am completely sure that writing it will be a significant act for me. It will be an act of integration, and right now, I need this wholeness.