TODAY'S PAPER
Scattered Clouds 41° Good Evening
Scattered Clouds 41° Good Evening
OpinionCommentary

What your first real job says about you

Not your first paycheck or your first title: The job that taught you about who you are as a working person.

A Help Wanted sign in the window of

A Help Wanted sign in the window of a deli in Southampton on June 7, 2006. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

How did you get your first real job? When I say “real job” I mean the job that gives you more than a paycheck: I’m talking about the first work that’s became part of your life’s central story.

I’m not talking about a high-paying job or one with a prestigious title; unless you took over the family business, that’s unlikely. And I’m not talking about discovering your vocation, learning to express the artistry within yourself or working with your whole heart and soul, either.

I’m interested in the job that taught you about who you are as a working person.

My husband’s first real job, for example, was one he got in high school and kept through his four years as an undergraduate. He worked in an ice-cream parlor. He became an English professor, author and editor, but he says he learned how to work hard at Bischoff’s in Teaneck, N.J.

My brother, now an attorney with an MBA who is writing a doctoral dissertation, once drove a taxi. Here’s his story about how he got his first real job: “I was looking under ‘Comparative Literature’ in The New York Times’ want ads and found a listing for ‘Cab Driver.’ It was the closest thing.”

My friend, editor and author Hara Marano, started out in publishing after college. Her real break, however, came through a friend in the music industry to whom an aspiring singer said, “You have to listen to my demo record. I just quit my day job as a copy editor.” Hara’s friend tipped her off to the possibly open editing job and she applied. The publication asked Hara to work temporarily but she wasn’t there more than an hour when she caught an error everyone else had missed. She was hired on the spot.

I worked as a playground counselor (the asphalt version of being a camp counselor). I also worked in bookstores, in department stores and tutored in my college’s writing center.

Having always been hard working, I nevertheless graduated with no idea what I’d do for a living.

So I wrote letters with “personal” written across the envelope to the heads of radio and television stations. One of those letters got me an interview, which led to a job simply because the head of a major station wanted to meet the girl who had the chutzpah to write to him directly.

I worked there for eight months then started teaching writing, in the evenings after work, as a replacement adjunct (the most tentative of positions) at Queens College.

And I fell in love with teaching. I backed into my doctorate the way you might back into a parking space. Once in the program, I fell in love with research and writing as well.

I got lucky.

As of this semester, I’ll have been at the same job at the same place for 30 years. My students, current and former, can’t believe such a thing is possible. For them, it’s unlikely, but I would have found the story impossible to believe when I was their age, too.

My students have been asking to hear these stories because the topic of finding, switching and quitting jobs inevitably comes up as we slide toward the end of summer. September’s approach makes some people feel they’re ready to start over — and get it right this time.

The very whiff of a new school year still prompts life-questioning and impulsive career-based decision making. While New Year’s Eve might force people to makes lists of resolutions, shorter afternoons and longer, cooler evenings make many people want to buy new notebooks and fresh writing supplies.

Folks of all ages long to flip to a new clean page, and begin a sentence with “Today I started … “ even if they’re now writing that sentence on a new laptop instead of in a composition notebook.

Blank pieces of paper and blank screens are thrilling because they are invitations to begin; they are simultaneously unnerving because they remind us that if we don’t begin, the rest will remain blank.

The same feeling can attach itself to searching for new jobs: What else is out there, the searcher wonders.

What new story can I begin today?

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books.

Columns