At 37, I’m nowhere near where I imagined I’d be as a child. From the time I was 4, I declared that I was going to be a veterinarian, like my godfather. I spent the next 14 years with that blind desire. I was a good student through high school, attending a variety of public and private schools, in rural, small-town, and suburban areas, in wealthy communities as well as poverty-striken areas, as my parents moved us around. My dad was former military, but the reason we moved is because he was continuing his education, as a teacher and then administrator, and taking jobs with more and more responsibility. Moving so often was hard, but it opened my eyes in ways I didn’t understand until much later. I was exposed to cultures, religions, and just absorbed them, in the way that children do, accepting the differences in my friends as no more than one having brown eyes and the next, green. I had a friend from Nigeria with coal black skin – I remember she was the first girl in my class to need a training bra. My sister & I were friends with a brother & sister who were Jewish – I remember once trying to ask what growing up Jewish was like, and wondering how different it must be to grow up in Israel – but in my clumsiness, only managed to ask what “real Jewish people” were like – my mother was horrified and embarrassed, but it didn’t seem to offend my friends. They were probably just as confused about some of the traditions of the Catholic church my family attended. We’ve recently gotten back in touch via Facebook, and although we haven’t yet met up in person, I’m sure we will – I wonder what odd things they’ll remember about our childhood friendship.
The realization of just how different my life view was, compared to my peers, came to me in full force my senior year in high school, when a couple classmates were making racial slurs. By this time we were in a small town in northern Indiana. There were farmers, of course, but there were also a number of factories producing goods, and providing jobs to those in the community. There were no black students in the high school, and I don’t think there were any hispanics or Asians, either. I asked my classmates if they’d even ever met a black person, and they responded no, why would they want to? It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered bigotry, but I’d deluded myself into thinking bigotry only existed in low-income areas with poor education. Not so, I found out. I’m pretty sure I made a weak comment about them being stupid, and I think the subject changed fairly quickly after that.
My college experience was vastly different from school up to that point – it was my first time not having my dad in the same school system (which often meant in the same building) as me, and I cut loose. I lost my partial scholarship because I didn’t keep my grades up, and after a dismal freshman year, was sent to summer school and then to a junior college. At the junior college I buckled down, got my grades up, but didn’t get into veterinary school when I applied (by this time I knew that chances were slim, because only 30 Indiana students are accepted into Purdue’s program each year), and when I returned to Purdue, it was no longer as a pre-vet (a label that tends to get a lot of derision, rolled eyes, and “you’ll change your mind” from faculty, grad students, and upper classmen), but in the department of forestry & natural resources.
While I very much enjoyed my second foray on Purdue’s campus, it still had many of the same distractions that had led to my abysmal grades my freshman year, and I began to struggle again. I was no longer one face among hundreds in my classes – no, my teachers knew my name & noticed when I was absent. The classes were much more interesting as well – we went from basic concepts to applying what we’d learned. I got a bit of flak from my computer science friends, that some of my labs consisted of “walking around in the woods for a few hours,” because they didn’t understand how many things we were expected to synthesize while there – topography, vegetation, etc. One of my favorite professors told us the first day of class that no matter what grade we earned, we’d never look at trees the same way again, and it’s absolutely true. I have forgotten most of the scientific names I memorized in Dendrology, and a number of the common names, but I still recognize features in trees that I’d never before even noticed.
I eventually earned my bachelor’s degree and, unlike many of my classmates, did not immediately go into a master’s program. I volunteered at Acadia National Park the summer after graduation, and left that position a week early for an interview at a zoo in southern Indiana. I got the job, my first “real” job, with a salary and benefits, and worked my ass off for 15 months. I learned how unions can influence companies, that my employer took advantage of my naivete by never granting me comp time after working extra hours to prepare for a special event, and that sometimes politics that have nothing whatsoever to do with your day-to-day existence can knock you on your ass.
I thought then that this was going to be my life – working in environmental education, teaching children and families about wildlife and conservation. I never dreamed that I wouldn’t get my next job as easily as I’d gotten my first, that in between “real” jobs I’d work as a server at a restaurant, attempt to sell Tupperware to people who felt that was “beneath” me, and even go temp-to-perm at a factory.
The factory position was difficult – not the actual responsibilities, which weren’t bad, except for dragging myself out of bed at an early hour (I’ve never been a “morning” person). No, the main difficulty was the internal dialogue that was my constant companion during my shift. Factories are noisy places, and often you’re given a task, then left to do the task, and depending how the facility is set up, you may be on your own. This gives you plenty of time to think, because the tasks tended to be monotonous. I most often argued about whether the job I had was “beneath” me, as a college graduate; the flip side being that it’s a perfectly acceptable living, with benefits & (most) weekends off, and who was I to think I was better than any of my coworkers, just because I’d spent time in college?
I eventually escaped the factory, working reception at a county office, assisting farmers in joining programs to protect their lands & livelihoods. I was back living with my parents, again, and after some time, the stress of that grew to be too much, so I moved out, and in with a girl I’d met a few months prior. I took a retail job at a clothing store first, and moved with her to the DC area, certain I’d find more opportunities out here.
And I did, but not where I expected. I worked as a pet sitter, then because I was looking for more hours, took a position at a holistic pet supply store. There I had my eyes opened to pet nutrition, something I remain passionate about.
I left the pet store to open a pet sitting franchise with a friend, but after a year, the friendship had fizzled, and we parted ways. I’d taken a position at another pet supply store, and am about to start as assistant manager at their original store, which does almost twice the sales volume as the location I’ve been working at.
So at 37, I’m still taking care of animals, both my own, and by helping people find healthy foods for their pets. It feels really good, knowing I’m making a difference in their lives – talking to them as they come back, sharing how much better their animals are feeling once they’re on a food that works for them. I live for the puppy kisses and tail wags when people bring their dogs in to shop, and love the rare purrs when a cat comes into our store.
I’ve never been married, I don’t have any kids. I’d like to have that “someone special” in my life, but it hasn’t happened yet.
It’s not the life I envisioned – I certainly couldn’t have imagined all the twists and turns I’ve taken to get here, and I’m sure there are more to come.