I wouldn’t say that I am exactly at a crossroads in my life, but I am coming up on a few pretty quickly. These are usually very anxious times for me, they require choices, choices I’m learning I’d prefer not to make. I seem to have rather let life just happen to me in a lot ways. Let’s take career choices, for instance. First, some background.
I spent my senior year in high school on exchange in Argentina. It was and remains by far one of the most glorious experiences of my life. It was a risk, it was intentional, it was adventurous, it was passionate. I loved doing it and even more I love THAT I did it. I was a black girl in a country of very, very few people of African decent and in the town I lived in, I was the only black person most had ever seen. Maybe I was naive, but I interpreted what many would have considered racism to be mere ignorance (in the lack of exposure sense of the word) and was content to educate. I let strangers touch my hair (which was a sight to behold given that my relaxers were delayed in the mail by 4 months!). And I had to explain to countless others that in fact, no, I did not know Patrick, the other black person in Mendoza, who was from Miami and there to play basketball for an international league. (Eventually, I walked up to him in the plaza and introduced myself. I said, “listen, everybody here seems to think we should know each other from back home, somehow…so, since we don’t – imagine that-I’m Alexis. I’m from D.C. Now when they ask if we know each other, I can just say yes and move on.”) Little did I know that then all the girls would want me to introduce them to him! Oh, and how could I forget being offered money on a daily basis by dirty men on the street who assumed, naturally, that I was a Brazilian prostitute (who else could I possibly be?)! It was an experience to beat all.
The racial dynamics weren’t the only ones to make this experience so memorable. I was challenged every step of the way to shine. I had to survive in a country whose language I was learning (my Spanish was pretty good when I went…I’d studied since 1st grade), and oh yeah, manage to graduate high school there. I was unlike most exchange students who had put their education on hold for this enrichment experience. No sir, not me! I was going to graduate with my class, and in order to do that I had to pass trigonometry, history (of Argentina btw), and chemistry en castellano!! I thought, hey, I can read if nothing else. I’ll spend my evenings trying to read what went over my head in class and get by. Well….that was until I got to school the first day and realized that there were no textbooks to read. Only the teachers had the books and they dictated from them for 2 hours a day. That’s right, talk about total immersion. Not only was I expected to understand what they said, if I wanted to study, I had to write it down and hope for the best when I looked at my notes again that night. It was an adventure every step of the way. And, (it kills me to write this sentence) my Spanish rocks because of it!
I learned so much, came back to the states and majored in Spanish Language and Literature in undergrad. Now, what will one do to feed herself with such a degree, one might ask. That brings us back to the career discussion. I knew I wanted to anything but teach! You already know where this is going, but indulge me so that you can see what I mean by just letting life happen to me. I graduated from college in December of ’95. For Christmas that year my parents bought me business suits and diamond stud earrings (for your interviews, they prodded). I knew there was no breathing time built in here, so I’d better get to job hunting right away. I think I may have set up an interview somewhere within a week, but before that interview happened, the Blizzard of ’96 happened. The world came to a halt, at least the DC Metropolitan area, and so did my interviews. My brother had interviewed with the school system in a neighboring county a few weeks before and he took my resume, just in case. Now, remember, I did not want to teach, so who knows why I agreed to give it to him, but I did. Two weeks into January the phone rings, a Spanish teacher at Calvert High School had gone into labor prematurely. She’d be out for the rest of the year. Did I want to interview? I did. I got the job. I actually enjoyed teaching highschoolers. And that’s how I became a teacher. Fast forward…I switched to a DC Charter School and then an elementary school in my county to be closer to home. Teaching little kids, that’s how I stopped being a teacher!
This teaching thing was stifling my passion for the language and the culture. All the lesson plans, behavior reports, behavior management, behavior disorders….oh, sorry. All the other stuff about teaching was making teaching Spanish a drag. I wanted to be immersed in what I loved and this was not it!! I couldn’t see any further than teaching big people, so I start a graduate program in Spanish so that I could teach college Spanish (can you feel the passion?) Yawn!!! I did that for a couple of summers. I have 4 classes left and I can have my M.A., but in the meantime, my personal life was standing in the way of going back to Vermont for another summer. So it’s still dangling out there unfinished. (I enjoyed the program; it’s the prospects – teaching – that make me yawn.)
I really was not interested in teaching, even with the degree and the big people. I wanted to do something more sophisticated (sorry teachers), more sexy, more…fun! I found a program that certified simultaneous interpreters! Now we’re talking. It cost an arm and a leg (mom’s arm and leg because I never could have paid for it) but it was the most thrilling experience of my life since Argentina. I actually interpreted for our graduation at the World Bank. I was so excited about the new skill, about the profession and the prospects, but my life was sucking the life out of me. I had no motivation to jump into the market and sell myself. I had no energy to make a name for myself. My self-worth was through the toilet and my passion and excitement for interpreting went with it.
I thought I’d feel more I alive if I were doing work that made a difference. I wanted to help someone, to see that my work mattered. Some friends of mine were experiencing things in their marriages that gave me the accelerated course in Domestic Violence 101. I started working for a DV organization. By now, my personal life was spiraling downward fast. The scales were falling off of my eyes about my own marriage faster than I could contain them and I chose to do the vicarious work of helping other people in crisis rather than deal with my own. This job choice was a lot less intentional than I care to admit. In my mind it was about calling to help hurting women….yeah, it was about calling all right…but the hurting woman was me! Needless to say social work burned me out fast. I had 600 client contacts in 9 months, and with the hell that was going on at home, I couldn’t continue at this pace. I needed another job. I took the first one that I was offered.
It was with a Sexual Assault organization. Part of my story is that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Most people who work in the field are survivors or at least love someone who is. I was beginning to learn to appreciate my story and who I am becoming and intended to be in spite of it, but in a lot of ways this work is all wrong for me. I am passionate about awareness and prevention of CSA. I will forever be an advocate and a mouthpiece for those who fear breaking the silence, but doing this work 40 hrs. a week still does not come close to the passion I feel about Spanish, about language, about words…about interpreting!!!
So……you’re all caught up now and I can say what I intended to say when I started writing this morning.
I ran into one of my interpretation professors at a Cuban restaurant near my job last week. He looked at me with such disappointment. “Alexis,” he says in his beautiful cuban Spanish, “what are you doing with yourself? Where are you working and why? You are so good. Why haven’t you sat for the exam at the UN by now?” He then turns to the waiter and says, “this is a serious woman right here, so don’t you even think about asking her out to go dancing . She is one of the best students I’ve ever had. She’s American but her Spanish is better than a lot of hispanos (his word choice, not mine).” I don’t know if I can explain the feelings I had at that moment, but I’ll try. I felt alive and invigorated at being seen and having my value affirmed. I felt embarassed and humiliated at the same. I wanted to cover my face and beg him to be quiet. I knew he was right, but I didn’t want anyone else to know. What is that about? [ASIDE: why was he blocking on the dancing invite?] He invited me to come back to the class to brush up on my skills anytime. I went on Thursday. He introduced me to the new class as one of the best students to every graduate from the program. I wanted to RUN!!! And then, he put me on the spot. He sent me to the booth to interpret. I had no warning. I had no idea what the topic would be….and there I am, knocking off the cobwebs at first, but then settling in to interpreting his speech about a fishing agreement between Morroco and the European Union. I was back in my element. It felt like an old shoe. And it forces me to see the crossroads that is waiting up ahead…
Why am I so afraid to do what I do best and to do it well?
Can anyone explain the fear of success? I seem to think it is rooted in the fear of being rejected for who you really are. Any thoughts?
I am on the verge of being able to start over completely as an adult. It is so exciting most days. It’s scary on others. I have no desire to go backwards, that’s for sure. But the future is so uncertain. I have sooo many choices. I can live and work anywhere in the world should I choose this path. That’s exciting…it feels like 1991 all over again.
I’m approaching a crossroads with more anticipation than I have in the last 15 years. Which road will I take? What should factor into my decision?
Wow, I’m actually considering the choices, not waiting for the choices to be made for me.