Between college and high school, I lived a dark, strange year at home, working a variety of serving jobs and moping around our house, a moppet of misery. I had to defer admission to college due to a financial aid keruffle, and I was full of vitriol; I was a miserable 18-year-old convinced that this minor injustice was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I don’t remember much about that year—maybe, because my memory is notoriously bad, or because I willfully tamped it down into the box of things I’d rather not think about—but at some point my father made me apply to a state school.
I have always done my taxes myself, because for a long time, they were very simple. I had one job, or maybe two jobs, depending on the year, and a student loan interest form that I always lost the minute it was mailed to me. Doing my taxes is exciting, because I get to fill in the numbers, check off the boxes, and watch the amount of money that I’m going to get back from the government grow. One year, I did my taxes at the end of January, got my refund by the first week of February, and booked a plane ticket to New Orleans for Jazzfest with the proceeds. Another year, I put some of the money aside in savings and spent the rest on a Coach bag, convinced that I would have it for decades, telling myself that I deserved the purchase because that was money I worked for.
I don’t really buy much online, though I always intend to start. It’s on my mental to-do list of things I should do to save money, like doing my own laundry instead of dropping it off, or cooking every single meal at home. Everyone I know swears by it. “You don’t have to go to the store! You don’t have to deal!” they say as they open boxes full of new things from the comfort of their own home.
I worked at the Center for Performing Arts in my hometown of Rhinebeck, New York for two summers. It’s now a big red barn, set off Route 308, that we pass on the way home from the train station, but that first summer, it was a big white tent. We were loosely interested in musical theater then, only because there was little else to do, and it was the thing that everyone else was doing, so the job was perfect. That summer, we put on an especially inspired performance of Bells Are Ringing. On closing night, Natalie Merchant was in the audience, and if you watch the performance, immortalized forever on an aging VHS in Sonia’s parent’s house, you can hear her whooping cheers over the earnest applause of our parents.
Officially, we were interns, hired with the express purpose of giving us something to do for the summer, and to also maybe get some insight on how to run a performing arts space. Really, we answered the phones, set aside reserved tickets and worked the concession stands. The first summer, we spent a lot of time lying about the office and eating ice cream. I’m not entirely sure how helpful we were, but it was exciting enough. For nerdy musical theater kids who didn’t know any better, it was a sweet gig.
College does a fantastic job of teaching you how to properly roll a joint while sitting on a curb outside a frat house, and how to get more time to turn in your term paper. It teaches you valuable lessons about the impermanence of friendships, and how to negotiate yourself in social situations that make you intensely uncomfortable. Depending on what you studied, you learned how to talk about your feelings, to dissect other people’s work, and to take criticism in a manner that is cool, calm and collected. Where it fails is in giving you any reasonable skills that prepare you for an environment where you have to be professional.
Here are some things I have been told are professional. Blazers. Pants that are not jeans. Wearing pants while you work. Having an email signature, even on your personal email. Knowing how to dial in on a conference call. Org charts. Not panicking every time your boss asks you to step into her office. Hearing the words “Can I see you for a sec?” and not asking immediately if you’re about to be fired.
Being professional is really just maturity in a setting where you don’t know anyone else, like going to someone else’s family reunion, and being unfailingly polite. It’s having an innate understanding of how to run a business, and knowing how to treat your employees with the kindness they deserve. As an employee, being professional is just showing up and doing your job, and doing it well. It’s less about knowing the “right” things to say, and more about doing what you came to do—your work. The stilted social interactions that pepper most offices aren’t necessary anymore, but understanding the boundaries in an office where everyone seems equal is hard at first.