When Life Is Smarter Than You Are
A Personal Look At The Long Way Around
How’s this for a segue?
Being pregnant at 16 has its challenges.
Now that we have that out of the way, fast forward a few more years. Now with two young children, barely in my 20s, the financial pressure began to mount for me to find a job to help pay for our growing family.
It wasn’t as if I wasn’t contributing, and it wasn’t as if I was afraid of hard work. Throughout high school, I had worked after school and weekends to pay for my car and extra expenses that come with cheerleading, track and just being a teenager. It took a lot of gas to defrost a car that had ice coating its interior windshield on those Indiana winter mornings. That’s what happens when there’s a hole the size of Texas in your floorboard that allows moisture to enter. All my friends knew not to put valuables on that floor in case I hit one of the many potholes prevalent on the backroads of Indiana.
I’m not complaining. I loved that car, and I loved being a teenager in southern Indiana. But I also loved being a mom, although I was young and incredibly naive about what it meant to be a mom, let alone a supportive and loving wife to my young husband, barely a year my senior.
We were young and thought teenage love could equate to a lifetime together. We would eventually discover that teenage love could only survive seven years, and a “lifetime together” needed more than what a love story that began in high school could carry. It isn’t that it doesn’t happen. There are many people who make it to the 50-year anniversary after meeting in high school.
Just not us.
For several years, life in our little 2-bedroom trailer, parked in a trailer court on the edge of town was good. We had what we needed financially, and my extra income from babysitting and teaching exercise classes (dance aerobics was the craze and I was the queen!) helped. But with the second baby came extra expenses, and with the extra expenses came the need for more money.
With only a high school education, employment opportunities were slim. It was fast-food or factory work—neither of which are bad in and of themselves, but being that I would still carry the responsibility for home duties, child care and school and babysitter arrangements, I refused to enter the workforce carrying those responsibilities and a full-time job that had zero flexibility and little pay.
Looking back, I can see that I was willing even then to fight a deeply patriarchal system that was part of our indoctrination in our family and religious structure—a structure where women held a full-time job and all the responsibilities at home. I had seen it with my own mother. I have images of being lifted out of bed, early in the morning and deposited on the back seat of a car, headed to a babysitter so she could head to 1st shift at her job. I have memories of her then picking us up and instead of heading home, driving straight to the laundry mat where we would watch her do laundry until it was dark again outside. Once home, it was time to make supper, then bed.
Then do it all over again the next day.
She wasn’t afraid of hard work either. No doubt that is where I got my strong work ethic. No one ever questioned that the system in which we were all struggling to survive was broken. Eventually you get to the place where a generation begins to push back and say, “I’m no longer serving a patriarchal system that demands that I make myself so small that I can no longer be seen.”
Which is what I did. I know I’m not the first. History is filled with women who decried misogyny in a system that openly paid women less in a society that devalued the work they did in both the home and in the workplace.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I stood firm in my demand that I go to school before going to work. It would be tight, and I would need to babysit more to make it happen, but we could afford it. Within a few months, I was registered at our state college, and if all went as planned, I’d graduate in 18 months with an A.S. in secretarial sciences.
In the 70s and 80s that was a legit degree, and I was thrilled to be receiving it.
It was a challenge to juggle class work, studies, home life and two young children, but it was worth it. I loved being a student, and I loved making friends—some of whom are still friends 40 years later.
And it went by in the blink of an eye. As graduation neared, our class advisors began to contact us about jobs that were available. Students graduating with a degree in secretarial sciences were sought after, because we were the first group trained in the up-and-coming technology.
The personal computer.
We would be entering the job market being hired by bosses who had no idea what to do with these “computing machines”—as they were often referred to by those skeptical of their value and power. We know the rest of the story about their value and power, but back then they were intimidating with some people certain they’d be relics collecting dust in the corner of the office within 5 years.
It was in that era that I was entering the job market. Young, eager and educated, I was at the top of my class. I “got” computers so much that before long, I was being taken out of classes to help the teachers boot up systems, enter DOS commands and explain for the 10,000th time that the computer will not run without the floppy disk inserted into it.
Another hint that teaching came naturally for me.
You can see where this story is going.
As the days got closer to graduation, I had been selected to interview for several positions. I declined them all. The work would require me to be away from home for too many hours, or the pay was ridiculously low. Until one day, my advisor called me in to tell me that I and one other student were being invited to interview for a prestigious position that paid well, had good benefits, offered a predictable schedule and was an easy commute.
The Social Security Administration.
I’m not kidding when I say I cried at being offered this opportunity. This was exactly my dream job. I would be able to still have flexibility to take my children to school and have time off if they needed me. I wouldn’t be expected to work overtime, and I would be paid a wage that at the time was good.
I really wanted this job.
The interview went well, thanks to a degree that included interview preparedness. I knew how to sit, what to say, and when to pause and take notes to show my eagerness for the position. The head of the SSA branch interviewed me. A man in his 50s who was a seasoned, no-nonsense governmental official. But there was also something different about him. He listened as I answered his questions, never interrupting me, and never once giving me a hint of distractedness or impatience. Looking back, I can now see what an anomaly he was for this deeply sexist time in America. He was different because most men were—to put it bluntly—jerks. Women were seen as second-class citizens, and we knew it. We were used to men being distracted when speaking to us, interrupting us when we were talking and mansplaining every flippin’ thing.
It has never occurred to me that after all these years I still hold in my memory the kindness and respect this man showed me when in reality that kindness and respect should be the bare minimum of what we should expect for simply being human. I don’t think any of us who came of age drowning in a patriarchal system ever stops processing the impact it had on us.
And this isn’t even the end of the story.
Because it was what this man did the next day that this story is about. My advisor called me in and said that the SSA branch manager that I interviewed with would like me to return to his office. Does this mean I got the job?! You can imagine how excited I was. If texting was an option at that time, I would have blasted a group text to everyone that I had been called back for a second meeting! The payphone that was in our cafeteria would have taken too many of my dimes, so I opted to keep the news to myself.
After class, I rushed to the SSA office, where I was greeted personally by the manager. Oh, this is a good sign!
He escorted me to his office, offered me a seat and a glass of water, both of which I accepted and both indicative of more good signs!
When he sat down behind his desk, he looked at me and said, “This is the first time in my 30 years that I have ever done this.”
Okay, now I’m confused, because certainly he’s offered jobs to other people, right? Where’s the good sign in this?
He continued, “I want to start out by saying that you aren’t getting the job. But Karla, I want to tell you why you aren’t getting it.”
My heart fell to the floor.
He could tell I was upset, but he assured me that what he had to say next would be important for my life in the future.
He said, “I’ve never felt compelled to call back in, someone that I interviewed to tell them why they weren’t getting the job.”
I really wish you hadn’t called me in to tell me this.
“Karla, you are a unique person.”
No, I’m not. I’m just a young mother trying to get ahead.
“You have a gift that goes far beyond the work that you would do here at SSA. “
You’re wrong. It’s exactly the work that I need!
“You wouldn’t stay here.”
Yes, I would! I’ll stay forever!
“You wouldn’t be happy with the routine, and I think you need to continue your education and discover what else life has to offer you.”
Dude, I just want to make my Chevette payment!
“I hope someday you remember what I said so you can realize your full potential.”
No, I have to go home and tell my husband that I didn’t get the job of my dreams and now I don’t know what I’m going to do.
I don’t remember leaving his office. I cried all the way home, completely ignoring everything he said and wondering what I did wrong in the interview that would make him come to these crazy conclusions about me. How could this man assume so much from a one-hour meeting with someone?
It would be years before I would revisit that conversation—decades actually.
And a lifetime of experiences that would ultimately lead me to….
finishing my education
going to seminary
teaching people how to deconstruct from indoctrinated beliefs and heal from the damage patriarchal systems have inflicted upon them.
So, maybe he was right.
I just took the long way to get here.
I don’t know what happened to that man. That was almost 40 years ago.
After years of dismissing that experience as an example of one of my embarrassing failures, I now see that there was a man who too rejected the normative standards that gave him power that he refused to yield.
And he paused for a moment in his life to speak truth to a young woman who was fighting to be seen in a system that demanded that she be invisible.
Wherever he is, I think he knows it.
And I hope he knows I now believe him.
May someone see you for who you truly are.
And when they do, may you believe them.