When Lady Gaga told this year’s SxSW crowd “don’t sell out, sell in,” I laughed out loud. Like many, I wasn’t sure that her words meant anything at all.
During the few college summers that I worked at the Meijer One-Hour Photo Lab, I left the house each day in khakis and a white T-shirt. Upon arriving at work, I would retrieve my mint-green, black-collared jacket from the floor of the car and slip into it as I walked across the parking lot, fastening the last button as I cruised through the automatic doors.
My coworker Lisa put her jacket on at home as part of her outfit. Her hair was curled, her makeup was carefully applied, and her name tag was neatly clipped just over her right breast.
I was a little embarrassed for her. The jacket and the name tag, to me, were nothing but evidence that I was owned for eight hours a day by a corporate overlord. I loved developing photos, but I loathed customer service. I brought books to read on my breaks (and at a few low points, even read when I was on the clock). As a college student, I got a lot of attention from my coworkers each time I turned up on a school break. A surprising number of my colleagues in the photo lab were former stay-at-home moms who’d been dumped by their husbands. They supported my education and my ambitions. Because of these women, it was a warm, fun work environment.
Still, I wanted above everything to be independent. In the long run, I swore, I would never be labeled by my workplace. I might sell my work or sell my talents, but I would never sell myself for a paycheck. I sniggered at businesspeople who wore IDs clipped to their belts as they ordered deli sandwiches and nurses who ran errands in their dumpy scrubs.
After college, I made my career in education. As a university writing instructor, my ID card stayed safely nestled into my wallet, and my wardrobe choices were entirely my own. I designed the courses I taught and rarely exchanged words with a supervisor. In that sense, it was my perfect job. I was happy to announce my institutional affiliation, but no one at the institution expected me to, or paid me much attention on a daily basis.
The year I turned 30, I moved to K-12 schools and earned a yoga teacher certification. Despite flaws in the system, I was completely won over to public education. It is our most important democratic endeavor. The same realization happened when I was hired to teach yoga at the YMCA—suddenly I had students of all ages, races, body types, and socioeconomic statuses. I began to question universities, private schools, and yoga studios that limit their services to those who can foot a large bill. My younger self would be proud. There were more rules I had to follow at these jobs, but I still felt free to be creative. No one made me wear ugly jackets or tote identification around all day.
After the Sandy Hook shootings, the ID policy at my day job changed. School administration decided that students and staff should wear picture IDs at all times. I grudgingly had my picture taken and groaned at the tedium of writing up students who defaced their IDs, traded them with friends, or neglected to wear one at all. However, a change happened quickly in the atmosphere of the school. Anyone who didn’t have an ID was suspect. On the surface, the suspicion teetered a little too close to paranoia, but it belied, at least on my part, a sense of protectiveness. The school I work at is large and diverse. It’s public education at its best. The first few times I walked off campus and forgot to take off my ID, I felt silly. Eventually those feelings evolved into pride. Yes, I work for this kickass institution. Ask me about it!
Shortly after school IDs became mandatory, my supervisor at the Y announced that all group exercise instructors were now required to wear a magnetic name badge at all times while in the building. This time my inner groan was even louder. I didn’t want members approaching me in the locker room or asking me questions I don’t know the answer to. I knew I’d lose or forget to wear my name tag regularly. It was just another thing to keep track of.
I’m halfway through a new master’s degree, and spend quite a bit of time in the car as I bounce from job to job to class. In a callback to my younger years, I keep my school ID and my YMCA name badge in the cup holder and put them on while I’m walking into work. As I plan my next career move, I’ve started thinking forward to the day when I won’t wear these IDs anymore. I’ll miss them. I’m fortunate to work for organizations I believe in. I don’t know if that’s what Gaga meant, but if so, she was right—there is nothing better than selling in.
Rachel Mack lives in Louisville, KY.