Labor Pains

I’d never cried before over not getting a job. I’ve been rejected from jobs in the past- getting that call that they’ve decided to go in another direction, sending out resumes and perfectly crafted cover letters and never hearing back-just like everyone else. I didn’t worry about it too much though. Even in my most desperate time, the summer after I graduated from college, with my rent two months overdue and my internet cut off and living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cereal, I shrugged off the fifty resumes I’d sent out and the two interviews that hadn’t panned out. It was all part of the job hunt. There’s always one more place to apply. Something will work out.

So I’m not exactly sure what was different about this latest rejection. It had the same language every other rejection contained (“Going in another direction” is basically the “we’re not hiring you” euphemism of choice). I was warned in the interview that while they really liked me and I was almost exactly what they were lookingan there were no guarantees. But they found exactly what they were looking for, and I found myself the odd one out. The rejection email came in at 8:15 AM, on my way to my temp job. I called Amber, and told her about how sad and frustrated I felt. She gave me all the support I could ask for, and I went into work, feeling okay I thought. Before I knew it, I was weeping at my desk while my supervisor was consoling me.

Maybe it’s because it comes on the heels of other devastating failures. I left my job in January to start at a new position, one which offered me more responsibility and more pay. And I completely flamed out. My former boss is a wonderful woman who I’m still friends with, but the job itself was diametrically opposed to who I am. The stress was so high and the atmosphere was so oppressive, despite everyone around me being genuinely kind and helpful. It was the jump from the laid-back world of academia to the pressure-cooker of corporate America at the highest levels, and it boiled me. I lasted two months before my boss offered me a parachute, a way to leave without shame or recrimination, and I took it. I took it because I thought I was walking into another job. It was the job I’d been dreaming of, where I would be paid to write. I interviewed twice for that job, and heard that it would be a few weeks before anything was finalized, but that I was basically in there. So I waited. And waited. And waited, until it became apparent that my dream job had evaporated. By the time I heard that the position had been filled internally, two months had passed and it served only to confirm what I already knew: no one would be paying me to write full time. Those decisions- to leave job after job- made sense at the time, and they all look completely insane in retrospect. I find myself in my temp job because of those choices, making just enough money to constantly be at the end of my rope.

This was on top of the resumes and cover letters I’d begun mass-producing again. Not a single call back. I know this is something that many job-seekers experience, but I began to wonder. Why is no one calling me back? A few weeks ago, I heard a story on NPR about racism in Airbnb, where people with distinctly African-American sounding names had a harder time renting a room than people with white-sounding names. That made me think about the studies I’d seen which discussed this phenomenon when it comes to job applications and resumes as well. I once made a joke about this name issue. My professor had invited me and two of my classmates to his home for dinner. They were both white, and we were standing next to each other. He offhandedly introduced us to his wife by saying, “This is Max, Jamil and Blake.” She said, “Thanks, but can you tell me who is who?” I replied, while pointing at my white classmate, “Yeah, because his name is Jamil.” I have a name that immediately identifies me as nonwhite, but I never thought about what that actually meant for me until this latest round of applications vanished. I think about all of the resumes I’ve sent out since 2013, and now I ask myself how many of those went into the garbage as soon as they saw Jamil R. Ragland in bold at the top.

Maybe it’s because I really, really wanted this job. I’d worked with the organization in a freelance capacity before. I absolutely loved it. If I couldn’t be a writer, then I wanted to do this. I wanted to be in that building and to be around those people full-time. I was sure, so sure, that my history with the organization gave me an inside track on the job. I’d been told by more than one person in the organization to apply for the job. I’m given to exaggeration for the sake of a good story, but when I tell you that I knocked that interview out of the park, I sent it into McCovey Cove. All of which made this more than just another rejection. It crushed me. I told my brother after the interview, “I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I feel like this job was made for me. The only way that I don’t get this job is if they find someone they like as much as me, but who has better skills than me. Short of that, I’m in there.” And that’s literally what happened.

Or maybe it’s because it all feels fucking pointless. After spending ten years and a small fortune in grants, loans and my own money, my college degree is supposed to mean something, right? No one told me that employers don’t give a damn about your GPA, or your department awards, or your status as an honors graduate. What they’re looking for are skills. As a friend of mine put it recently, I “kicked school’s ass” and came out of it with no skills that mean anything to anyone. All those jobs I worked during my undergrad years to have the time to go to school-the shit jobs in gas stations and grocery stores and on campus-don’t mean anything to anyone either. My resume essentially doesn’t start until 2013 as far as any place I’d like to work is concerned.

Those networks they tell you to build? You know, the ones where you make connections with professional people and hand out your business card and you take theirs and click the “Add” button on LinkedIn and exchange pleasantries about the weather at networking events because you have nothing in common with anyone in that room? As it turns out, those are worth zero when it’s hiring time. They get you a phone call or a personalized email when the axe falls, and a lot of compliments thrown your way. They don’t get you a job. Those skills you didn’t learn in your overpriced liberal arts college, THOSE are what get you a job.

And in the end, that’s my fault. No one told me to fuck up and go to a college I couldn’t afford when I was 17. No one told me to have a son at 21. It’s no one’s fault but my own that my resume is full of low-skill work, the work I had to do to provide for my son, instead of unpaid internships and summer excursions. I should have known better than to get a degree in some academic bullshit where, whenever someone asks, I have to explain what it is because it’s not readily apparent what my major means, not even to me sometimes. I should have my masters by now. Or my PhD. I should have realized that the only place for someone like me is in a school somewhere, peddling esoteric nonsense at the 300 level or giving the lie to a bunch of high school kids that being smart and having knowledge matters or is a qualification for anything later in your life.

I cried when that job passed over me, not just because of the job itself. I cried because my son wants to play baseball. It’s been hard for me to find something that he’s interested in besides videogames, but he asks me on the weekends if we can go outside and play baseball. I grab the wiffle ball and bat, and we play, with bases and ghost runners and his eight year old way of running outside the imaginary baselines to avoid getting tagged out. He’s going to be nine in less than two months. It’s time to put the little kid stuff away and get him a glove and a real bat. I cried because I can’t do that now, and I was so certain that in two or three weeks, with my first paycheck from this job I knew I had, a glove was going to be one of the first things I was going to buy. If I ask, his mother will get him the glove. But he didn’t tell her he wanted to play baseball. He told me. And now I have to tell him, “Just wait a little longer.” It’s only a glove- he still eats and has clothes and has a roof over his head. But it’s one more thing I can’t do for him, or for Amber, or for the other people that I care about. That fucking sucks.

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