Regina kept her office door ajar. She was bent over some paperwork as I stepped forward and gently rapped on her door with my knuckles. She looked up and smiled.
“Hello Regina,” I said, eyebrows raised.
“Hey Eze,” said Regina.
“I’m not bothering you am I? Cause if I am I can come back at a better time.”
“Oh no. You’re not bothering me at all. What’s up?”
My reason for interrupting Regina: to inform her of my interest in the clinical case manager job that had just become available. Because after nearly a year of being employed as a peer worker with the Mental Health Center, I was itching to take on new and interesting challenges. My credentials were somewhat formidable. I’d obtained a college degree from an east coast university and was in possession of very transferable job skills. I’d been stable for more than two years while keeping my own apartment. I was liked by the other MHC employees. And I knew I could act as a role model for my peers, severely mentally ill people who counted on the Mental Health Center for essential social services.
“I know that I can do this job,” I said.
Regina hadn’t been prepared for my genuine expression of interest . Still, she kept smiling as she waved me forward. As I lowered myself onto the chair, my eyes became fixed on the diplomas that rested on the wall behind her. There were three of them all together, one bachelor’s degree and two advanced degrees, representations of her immense education and prodigious intellect. Anyone who doubted the intelligence of this young woman before entering her office was immediately set straight by these symbols of her mental acuity.
I wanted what Regina had, which was the respect and confidence of her peers. Her weekends were probably spent at fancy parties, where she was hobnobbing with the other intellectuals. I wanted that too. Each of her college diplomas were encompassed in polished wooden frames. I didn’t need glasses back then to focus. I squinted to read what had been inscribed on the parchments. Regina earned her first degree from Holy Cross, the second from the University of Georgia, and the third from Emory University. That was three degrees from three different colleges. Regina was barely twenty-nine years old. My breath was temporarily taken.
“Can you remind me of your qualifications?” asked Regina. “Do you have a background in psychology or social work?”
Of course I didn’t have recent experience in those fields, but that would not stop me from touting my experiences in research and home health care. And I reminded her of the degree that I’d earned at Boston University seven years earlier, proof that I have the capacity to learn something new.
After I finished giving her my pitch, I sat back and waited as she formulated her response. My eyes reverted back to the hanging diplomas. I felt comfortable enough to point my finger at her wall . “When did you find the time to get all of those?”
She jabbed her thumb at the wall. “Oh those,” she said. “I just kept going to school. I’m just really interested in learning new things.”
“It’s impressive,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Let’s talk about the job.”
The job was not offered to me, but I was able to secure a recommendation from Regina, which I used to gain acceptance from the CU Denver Graduate School of Education. When I was hired eighteen months later as an elementary school teacher at a school situated not too far from my childhood home, I was ecstatic for more than a few reasons, the most prominent being that I’d come full circle. I’d morphed from homeless wanderer in Portland in 2005 to a teacher in Denver, my hometown, in just over four years. I was thirty-three years old, and yet, I remained a starry eyed idealist. I knew that if I could enact such drastic changes in my own life, then I could plant the seeds for change to take place throughout the rest of the world.
That was before I was hit by a cold and bitter dose of reality.
The principal who’d hired me during the summer retired before the advent of the next school year, and was replaced by a woman who could barely hide her disdain for me. She seemed to frown every time she laid eyes upon me, and as she looked me up and down, I could tell that she was stacking deficiencies on top of each other in her disapproving mind. She threatened to end my nascent teaching career after she observed me perform in the classroom for the first time in September. So for the next nine months I taught children with the threat of my extermination hanging over my head like a thick black cloud. It was very stressful.
By the end of the year, after working twelve to fourteen hours a day every day for the entire school year, I’d finally gained the principal’s respect. She even renewed me for my second year of teaching. I know that I should have been ecstatic and invigorated with the affirmation, but I was a ghost of who I was at the beginning of the school year. My once starry eyes had lost their shine to become dim and my eye lids remained heavy from accumulated lack of sleep — I’d wake up at 2:00 in the morning to create lesson plans. I’d shed a few pounds from working under constant stress, but I was still strong enough to carry a healthy amount of resentment for the principal. I just couldn’t get over the way she’d treated me at the beginning of the year. So, I put forth my resignation one month before the beginning of the next school year.
My next teaching job lasted a couple of weeks before I was let go for reasons that were suspicious.
Rebuilding my life again would not be as difficult or time consuming as before. But I needed some time. I was lucky enough to be living at home with supportive and caring family members. And so, I knew that I would be given enough time — I spent the next few months recovering from being told that I was not good enough — to plan my next move.
I enrolled at Regis University, my father’s alma mater, the following winter. Occupying the role of graduate student at Regis was easier than occupying the role of graduate student at the teaching school, as students at Regis were older and a bit more diverse, which made me feel less out of place. And I had a true interest in the administration of health services policy, especially after the recent passage of the Affordable Care Act through congress. So, learning about the inner workings of healthcare policy didn’t feel like drag to me. I graduated from Regis University with honors — I carried a 3.97 average through two years. Though I wasn’t employed by the time I graduated, I assumed that I wouldn’t have to wait too long for a job to fall into my lap.
Six months passed before I received an offer from a hospital.
I hadn’t been expecting to don scrubs for a health administration job. But if I wanted to work in a clinical laboratory, I had to wear them. So every day before my shift I put on my blue scrubs, tennis shoes, and lab coat.
I trudged through my eight hour shift for fifteen dollars an hour. Fifteen Dollars and Hour. I’d accrued a mountain of debt as large as Pikes Peak — tens of thousands of dollars — and I was earning just over thirty-one thousand dollars per year.
Another six months went by before I was notified of a potential transfer to the client services department. Some people would have perceived the transfer as a demotion. So did I at the beginning. The client services department didn’t have a sterling reputation inside the hospital at that point in time. I initially resisted the move, as I’d associated accepting a premature transfer with accepting that I’d failed at my job. However, the women in the client services department enthusiastically recruited me despite my obvious hesitancy. The department manager insisted that I’d be a perfect fit for the department. She told me that “I wouldn’t regret switching” and “everyone in the department would love to have you!” It felt good to know that I was wanted somewhere, thus the transfer became somewhat of a no-brainer.
I spent the next seven years building the department into what it is today, which is a respected part of the hospital laboratory. Many people have come and gone, but I’ve remained a consistent and steady presence, someone that the hospital can rely upon. I’m generally respected, have been promoted once, and enjoy a firm sense of stability. Still, I am still somewhat dismayed at the lack of faith that has been extended to me by my bosses, because I’ve applied for the supervisory position three times and have been told each time that I wasn’t good enough. “You’re not there yet,” is what the director told me twice. And so she has passed me over for candidates with one third of the education that I possess.
I’ve been answering telephones at the hospital for seven long years. I’m growing tired of the exercise. My anger flairs up each time I hear the telephone ring. I’m forty-three years old now, approaching middle age, and constantly wondering if this is the best that I’m going to be able to do. My first job after graduating with an undergraduate degree required that I answer incoming calls from customers. Twenty-years and two degrees later, I’m still responding to phone calls.
I know what some of you are thinking: If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, then change it. My response is that I would if I could. But we are living through a once in a lifetime pandemic with no end in sight, one that has killed one-hundred fifty thousand Americans and caused tens of millions of people to lose their livelihoods. The bread lines are growing, evictions are set to encompass a broad swath of the country, and there are not enough jobs to replace the ones that are being lost every single day. I don’t want to jeopardize my hard won security for something that may or may not work. I don’t want to spend the next year or two having to rebuild my reputation with new co-workers who might dismiss my credentials.
My belief is that I’ve proven myself a good enough employee to rise high within my current place of employment. It is unfortunate that I have to remind my superiors of my value and importance to the company. Perhaps I should to think of a new strategy to get what I know I deserve. Because working hard, showing up to work on time, and being generally reliable does not seem to be working in my favor.
I only know where one of my diplomas is located, nudged beneath a stack of books situated on a makeshift bookcase. The other two are off somewhere else molding and gathering dust. I’ve often mused about collecting all three of my degrees, framing them, and then hanging them just above the entrance to my bedroom since I still don’t have an office. After waking up from sleep in the morning, I could turn to those degrees and inhale a long breath as I am reminded of what I’ve done, which is to earn three degrees in three separate disciplines from three separate schools. On my way out the door, I’d reach up to touch each degree as I girded myself to take on the rest of the day.
But after I take my place at the bottom of the work social hierarchy, I am reminded of the fact that my degrees don’t matter right now. All anyone will really look to is my current experience, and think that I am where I belong. Or perhaps I am thought of as some sort of weird underachiever, and that something must be off about me. Could that be it? Does the discrepancy between my level of education and my lack of professional success throw off people’s perception of me?
All together I’ve spent a total of eight years pursuing college degrees. I’ve often wondered where I’d be if I spent half of those years focused on living instead of schooling. I’m grateful to have discovered writing though. Perhaps if I keep on building my writing skills, I’ll be able to achieve the kind of success that is more representative of my education. And then perhaps I will be able to put those degrees on full display.