Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I am officially a waitress with a master's degree

It's no coincidence that my last post was months ago, right before the start of spring semester. Every time I had an interesting encounter at work that would have lent itself to an interesting post, there was always a paper or student or work shift that took precedent. This crazy final semester put an exclamation point at the end of the absolute hardest year of my life in all ways imaginable, down to the very metaphysical aspects -- a wonderfully awful life detour that allowed just enough time to really think about what led me here and who I will be at the end of this process.

I was thinking about some of these heady and heavy things while sitting in my seat at graduation on Saturday. I was handed my empty diploma case (the real one doesn't come for six weeks), and I shook a few hands on stage, and I heard my family and friends clapping and "Woo"ing at the back of the auditorium, and it was suddenly very official and exhilarating: I had EARNED a master's degree. I did it. It was so hard, but I did it, and it was over. As I took my seat, I surprised myself with how proud I was of what I had achieved. I also surprised myself with quite a healthy dose of self-acceptance. I had thought for months about all the things you're supposed to think when any kind of graduation is on the horizon: "What comes next? Who am I supposed to be now? What will people expect?" I fully realized at that moment that those answers can't be rushed, and it didn't matter at all what other people expect.

That's really what this blog has been about: managing expectations. The premise was interesting: a grad student in her mid-30s leaving a white-collar career to wait tables again. My mistake in this little sociocultural experiment has been focusing those expectations outward. Case in point: Several months ago, a girl in my high school class was sitting at the bar one night with a wedding party. It should be noted, during the six years we went to school together, we never once spoke. I don't even remember an instance of eye contact. Yet, when she saw me in my uniform, a Ranch dressing stain on my apron, filling up a glass with Coke, she locked eyes with me and gave me the most supercilious, disdainful look. (Women, you will probably understand this look much more than men.) My initial response was to smile and laugh it off. (I'm actually quite proud of that; I think it shows a level of comfort in one's own skin that comes with age.) But, of course, the desire to save face inevitably kicked in. I wanted to somehow have the opportunity to explain myself, to tell her that I'm not just a waitress, that I'm almost done with my master's, and that I had a whole career before this that was filled with excitement and (at times) prestige and that was surely better than anything she had accomplished. So there!

I, of course, did not get that opportunity. This woman left the restaurant thinking whatever it was that she was thinking after that one glance. And I'm actually fine with it, especially now. Because what I'm doing now is just fine. I am a waitress with a master's degree. It doesn't matter if anyone else has a problem with that. For now, it's who I want to be.

Many people have been asking the natural "what next?" kind of questions, and I have had no qualms with giving them the honest answer: I plan to spend a good part of summer drinking, not thinking, and doing some leisurely reading. In short, I'm going to take a minute. How many adults get to just take some time to meditate on the future? To carefully think about their next move? And most importantly, to ENJOY who they are and what they have achieved?

Sounds like a good plan to me.