The manager rummaged through a pile of t-shirts and frowned. “We only have extra larges left,” she said. She grabbed a square of dark blue cotton and handed it to me. I held it up my new uniform. The shirt fell to my knees. It billowed out on either side of my petite frame.
Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, I thought. I didn’t say it out loud. Somehow, I didn’t think the manager of a retail clothing chain would be impressed by the Thoreau reference. I checked my watch. I had a solid hour before my class at the local community college began.
This was not quite how I expected to spend my summer. Or my life.
Every movie I watched, every story I heard, and every lesson taught to me by my parents indicated that I needed to go to college. I believed that was the secret to a successful, happy life. So I did all the right things. I attended and graduated from a highly selective state university. I moved back in with my parents after graduation, so I could avoid having to pay rent. They agreed, but required that I work while taking classes.
I wanted to become a guidance counselor, and in my state, I was required to have a master’s degree. Once I was admitted to a program, the director contacted me. My English major didn’t provide all the necessary prerequisites for my master’s degree, but the per-credit cost at my new private university made me ill. Permission was granted for me to take the courses at a community college. I filled out job applications all over town, but only got one call: Old Navy. I would start off folding their famously inexpensive jeans. Eventually, I might earn the privilege of working a cash register.
Overnight, my life had morphed into something I had been desperately trying to avoid: community college student, living with mommy and dad, and working for a dollar more than the national minimum wage.
Each morning, I dressed in a gigantic t-shirt emblazoned with the Old Navy logo and drove to my new job. Initially, the work was pretty straightforward: keep the clothing racks organized and occasionally fetch something for a customer. I learned to tune out the irritating playlist that ran on an endless loop. I stamped out the urge to hide in a dressing room each time I spied a high school classmate.
And slowly, slowly, I started to like it.
I discovered that I was good at helping other people put an outfit together. I could guess a customer’s size on sight with decent accuracy, and enjoyed advising them on styles that would work for their body type. I was good at discovering what a customer needed, and taking steps to help them find it. My boss watched all this with a smile. “You’re going to make a good counselor someday,” my manager told me. She gave me a raise.
Yes, I eventually moved on. I worked in another clothing store, then as a substitute teacher, and after graduate school I was hired as a guidance counselor in New York City (but those experiences should merit their own posts). Yet I learned a lot in that first job, especially once I started to look at the position as an opportunity instead of a punishment for unknown crimes.
I pass on these life lessons to my graduating students (and now to you, Yahoo readers). Your character is determined by your reaction to unforeseen difficulties, and finding a job out of college usually qualifies. That job might not be what you pictured. Work hard anyway. Each one is a learning experience. Each one presents a chance to grow. Do with it what you will.