Christina Brandon, 9/30/2013

Current Occupation: Editor

Former Occupation: English Teacher (in China)

Contact Information: Christina Brandon lives in Chicago, where she writes about food and drink for Chicago-based gapersblock.com. She's finishing a memoir about those two years she taught English to a bunch of curious, if taciturn, university students in China.

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Key Skills

The image of my nemesis grows sharper in my mind with each form-email rejection. I can’t quite make out her face, but I see her tall frame in a stylish pencil skirt, a designer bag slung over her shoulder. She’s age about 30, has a degree in business, communications, or marketing, probably from a Big Ten school, and an MBA from the University of Chicago. She has superb Excel skills and lots of experience on the phone, including cold calling, a task I’m too shy and nervous to do. She interned at some business firm in college and found a job right after graduating, doing marketing or sales for some third-rate company. But she kept at it, taking on more assignments, working more, checking emails at home after dinner, paying her dues.

She could be at that same company she started with or maybe she’s moved on to a new one, but her salary and status have steadily increased while I’ve bounced between three completely different jobs. She’s on the managerial track. She takes long vacations to warm, sandy beaches. She’s currently looking to buy a condo, and goes out to Alinea and other upscale restaurants I read about but can’t afford.

Sometimes I wonder where our paths diverged—our majors in college, our first jobs, our high school activities—or is it more fundamental than that? Are we just different people?

 

I thought the interview went well. For a combined hour and a half I kept up a conversation with the two women who were separately interviewing me for an open position in recruiting at the same company I had clawed my way into after returning from two years teaching in China. I listened attentively; I explained, using examples from my professional history, why I’d be a good fit, how I have great communication skills, am highly organized, capable of balancing multiple projects with varying deadlines with ease. I asked smart questions. I thought for sure I’d get a second interview and had high expectations for getting the position. Instead, three days after the interview, I got the rejection email.

The department head I interviewed with was kind enough to call and offer feedback, which I eagerly accepted. In seven months of job rejection, no one had done this. “You were very personable,” she told me, “but we decided to go with a candidate who had more client-facing experience. Who had more experience on the phone.”

My nemesis won again. She had all the right “key skills.” She spent a couple years in a position where she often called clients; I spent a couple years in front of classes of Chinese students. Maybe I’m just too weird for business, my experience not perfectly meshing to that world. I studied history, I haven’t done any internships and I’m uninterested in a higher business degree. Instead of steadily working up the corporate ladder, I held a nice, dull, office job for two years doing research where I could wear jeans to work before ditching to teach in China for another couple years. I thought international experience would look good on a resume, but for a teacher, it’s really just a good ice breaker.

 

My resume has been ignored plenty of times so rejection should be in my bones by now. But this one hurt. Hurt because I thought my chances were so good. Hurt because I’m stuck at an entry level position, stuck at the professional level I was at five years ago. Hurt because I’m sure I’ve earned more, proven I’m more capable than this repetitive, data entry job, haven’t I?

I’m ashamed to say the rejection email made me cry. Ashamed because I didn’t think this new job meant so much to me. I had told myself it was just new job, a much needed change of pace with better pay.

Taking the bus home from the office on the day of that email, I read an essay about a woman grieving over the loss of her mother. My grief and her grief were not the same but it still tapped into some kernel of sadness and frustration that’s been lodged inside me. Not about this job specifically, but about the months and months of searching, the self-doubt, the fear that my current entry-level existence is the best I can do. Am I doing something wrong? For the umpteenth time that day, I nearly cried in public.

 

My nemesis. I hate her. I’m jealous of her. I want to be her. I want to kick her and punch her and yell at her to help me, please help me. How did she get to be where she is? Should I have taken that sales job I applied for right out of college even if I would have hated it, skipped China and found a job where I had to wear pencil skirts to the office every day? Yes, she tells me, because on paper, I am too weird for business. I don’t look like a person who could work in recruiting or advertising or event planning or, or, or. Skills don’t transfer, because every industry is so highly specialized you can’t learn new things, and even if you could, no one would bother to train you, even though your resume shows you’re very trainable. How do people switch? Who do you have to know; how can I get to know them?

Maybe I should have listened to—was it my father?—who encouraged me to study business. If I could have known how important laying the groundwork was, even before I understood what I wanted to do or what my own abilities were, would my decisions have been different? Yes, I want to say, they would have. But I struggle to imagine myself investing time and energy studying for four years a subject I’m just not interested in, in the hopes of getting the right job.

How could I have convinced my 20 year-old self to make a different decision when it’s impossible to make a truly informed one when you don’t know what’s going to happen in ten years. My 20-year old self didn’t know what she wanted to do. She knew it wasn’t teaching, which was the obvious thing with a History degree. She knew she liked to write and read, so maybe studying English or Journalism would have directed her down a better path, though maybe not considering the volume of newspapers and magazines that have closed or let go of staff.

Maybe taking that more applicable Business degree would have been best after all since that seems to be what the world wants. I could be making more money now and have a higher professional status. Would I be satisfied with my job if I was my nemesis, if I wore uncomfortable clothes all day and worked from home at night? I have to remind myself that no, probably not, before I slip into a spiral of regret.

I don’t know where I’ll be in the next ten years, but I do know that I can’t keep chasing my nemesis, can’t keep trying to find where our paths diverged. It’s like chasing a ghost. It’s time to focus on a different path.

 

 

One comment on “Christina Brandon, 9/30/2013
  1. Spey Rod says:

    Christina Brandon,

    I respect the brutal honesty in your work.

    I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but you could have been one of the few “lucky” tenured winners, who was promised a good life if you accepted a position, and instead found yourself working about 70 hours a week for 7 years as your cowed colleagues suffered in silence, one with a nervous breakdown, another with quadruple bypass surgery, a third with internal bleeding, and others taking mind-numbing prozac just to keep up marathon paper grading sessions. Welcome to success in America. The problem is our country that spends 4 trillion on a war we didn’t need, and has a religion of exploitation of tenured and adjunct teachers. In comparison, look at a place like Finland, with some of the best test scores in the world, and some of the best-treated teachers too, where individuality is celebrated instead of destroyed. The magic of life is in community, not in silencing workers, and especially not in forced competition. I mean no disrespect to Holocaust survivors who went through the most extreme form of exploitation, and I do not feel my situation as a teacher can ever compare to theirs, but I am troubled by any society’s tactic of worker vs. worker the same way I am troubled by the plight of Jewish boxer Salamo Arouch who was forced to fight other Auschwitz internees whom would be executed if they lost. I have gratitude to you for writing “Key Skills,” and to Work Literary Magazine for providing a place to turn social truth into art.

    Spey Rod has spoken

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