I think I understand why people stay, even though the pay’s never going to be great and sometimes dealing with the public can really get to you. One of the last real conversations I had with Stephanie, months ago, touched on a subject that comes up in the lives of Engineers’ Wives, and it hinged on a very simple idea: for most people, a job is just employment. There aren’t many real, consuming professions left these days. The fact that someone is an administrative assistant, for example, says little about someone’s personality, but say the word ‘engineer’ and a specific mindset, an outlook, comes to mind. While there are always exceptions, it’s generally true; an engineer isn’t just a profession, but an archetype.
For those of us who wander from job to job, looking for the right ‘fit’ at the right place, it’s easy to envy people like engineers, doctors, nurses, lawyers. Unlike us, they know what they are, and they just do it. It must be a kind of serenity, she and I agreed. Or, like we said in that conversation: “I don’t want to just do something, I want to be something.”
When I learned the difference, it shook me.
I’d been observing at the youth services desk, sitting with and talking with several of the children’s librarians, when a girl approached the desk with an armload of books and a library card. She didn’t know I was an observer. To her, I looked like any other librarian. She might have been six.
I took her card, checked out her books, and handed them back to her. I smiled at her, suddenly remembering the hundreds of smiles I got as a child from the librarians from across another desk, across a span of states and years. Every week, when I checked out my card’s limit on books, I remembered thinking that librarians might not know everything, but they knew how to find just about anything, and while they might not necessarily be the smartest people in the room, they could be the most knowledgeable.
Without expectation or plan, I’d closed a circle I hadn’t even realized was open inside me, and it was like a bolt snapping home. I made certain to smile at her, to wish her enjoyment of her books, and the smile shone like a benediction on the child I once was. I remembered how the heavy textured plastic of the books felt in my hands all those years ago, sticky and friendly, even as I watched her go. I remembered, and wondered why in the world it had never occurred to me to look to the place I had loved since childhood to find the next chapter in my adult life.
I have co-workers who talk about this place like it’s a job, and some who speak of it with a reverence and passion that I’ve only seen in some of my engineer friends. They say things like this:
“My goal is to see a child go to college because of me, a child that otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed of bigger and better things.”
That’s not something you can easily wrap up before lunch. If you get to lunch.
This place can swallow you whole, body and soul. It’s work that’s never finished. There’s always another person who needs to learn how to use a computer; another child to be read to; another IT miracle to perform sans funding, labor, materials, and time. People burn out in this field. The rat race for funding never ends. But at the end of the day, you walk out knowing that because of what you did that day, someone read, someone learned, someone sought knowledge and found it, and despite the mental exhaustion, it is beyond me to walk out unmoved and unchanged.
This is what it is to not just do something, but be something.
This is where I’ve been, and as far as I can tell, this is where I’ve always been going. I just hadn’t seen it yet.