“Are you new here?”
I hear it all the time. Every time, I react the same way. My face gets hot and I try to set my jaw in a display of fake confidence. I’ve been working in the same store for a year and a half now, but it’s still like feeling my way around in the dark every time I’m there. It’s not the worst place to work. Compared to other retail outlets, a bookstore is practically a luxury. But I was originally hired as a holiday employee and was thrown into the deep end the week of Black Friday and training was put on the back burner. I know what I’m doing. Usually. But whenever a customer asks if I’m still learning, or is condescending in the face of my uncertainty, I’m mortified.
I worry that they might be right, and not just about my work skills. There are times when I feel not just new, but raw. I’m a person still on the cusp of existence, and I’m desperately trying to claw my way in. I was never meant to be a salt-of-the-earth hard-worker. Even if I was, it’s hard to sustain that kind of life nowadays. I was the articulate child who earned good grades and was expected to get a degree and do something with it. Working in a store would just be a stepping-stone.
Is it really that simple? Can I get out the cycle of scraping by when it’s all I’ve ever known? A lot of the time, I feel like I’m scaling a steep cliffside trying to make my way to a peak that hasn’t yet come into view. Problems are never just setbacks. They’re critical hits that will send me reeling, distraught and hopeless.
Anxiety will do that to you. It’s treacherous and, to be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing. I have no one else to whom I can compare my journey. I wasn’t born into a family whose ambitions were similar to mine, and the role of environment in shaping identity is often underestimated. My parents didn’t run in academic circles. My house wasn’t alive with political debates or discussions over wrinkled newspapers.
Instead, there were problems; Mom was sick and Dad was drunk. Throughout my teen years, my home life was a constant cycle of tension and drama, all of which I kept to myself as much as possible. In the eyes of peers and teachers, I was a good student, friendly, quiet. I never talked about what I went home to every night. I stayed in my bedroom out of fear, dreading what was going on downstairs. My mother passed away suddenly in my sophomore year of college, and my relationship with my father deteriorated not long after. I’ve been living in my sister’s basement ever since. Still just scraping by, back at square one.
I’ve always walked between the worlds of demanding-yet-honest jobs and of academic careers, but I have remained an outsider in both. I’m not a professional with a lengthy résumé of credentials and honors; I’m a young woman from a working class family with a minimum-wage retail job pursuing a frivolous academic degree. I know I’m treading a precarious path, pitting an innate pressure to make a living against a desire to build a life. Behind my name tag, standing among stacks of books, I know I haven’t gotten very far. I’m in a rut between what I’m escaping and what I want. Every time a customer questions my legitimacy — over things for which I’ve seen my male coworkers go unquestioned — it’s like my efforts have been for nothing, and I am knocked back down to where I started. If I fumble my words nervously, they’re at my throat. If I haven’t read a certain book, they doubt my intelligence. If I can’t answer their question, I’m belittled. I’m not allowed to be fallible. In many ways, I’m dehumanized. Every day presents new embarrassments, each feeling like the end of the world. Every time, red-eared nervous rambling comes at the cost of the work-in-progress identity I’ve been trying to build for myself.
I latch myself onto whatever I’m doing. At any given time, my current position is my achievement, a foothold where I can pause before reaching up for the next new height. Every embarrassing moment puts me dangerously close to plummeting to inevitable failure. I want to prove myself, prove my validity. If there’s no place in this world for me, I will carve one out for myself. Progress begins with fortitude, refusing to be diminished. No matter how difficult it will be, I won’t be destroyed. Not by customers or managers. Not by life. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
For now, I’ll just have to be new.
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