How well I remember my first day. Buttons flashing incessantly, others blinking, persistent ringing intermingled with beeps and clamoring voices. It was my first encounter with a 60-line switchboard, just one of the many dragons I would slay at my first post-college job. I had tried vainly to impress my qualifications upon various companies, but it seemed that I was overwhelmingly good at talking to people and answering phones.
Administrative assistant, secretary, receptionist, office manager—implied in each of these titles is a certain stinging subservience. If you spend your mornings filing and word processing and your afternoons licking envelopes, forging your boss’s signature and muttering oaths as you battle paper jams in the rebel copier, this one’s for you. We are the pencil-skirted, pony-tailed minions of the working world, clenching our teeth during hours of slavery to mundane but necessary tasks that nobody else wants to think about. We are absolutely indispensable to our employers, as indicated by the response we get when calling in sick. Without a worker of faxes, phone calls and database management, no important decisions could be made and no deals could go down.
When I’m not the full-time “receptionist extraordinaire,” I’m a fairly smart and savvy 24-year-old with a healthy dose of “sic ‘em!” willpower. In fact, within the next year I’d like to make a smooth transition to the editorial staff of a magazine. But that’s where it gets tricky. Entry level seems to be permanently emblazoned on my forehead, and nobody wants to hire someone with heaps of administrative experience for a coveted journalism job. I’ve heard time and time again that administrative jobs are a black hole, but what can I really do about it? Quit and go live under a bridge? I am uncomfortably lodged between dreams and reality—a bitter dalliance in that which pays the bills—and trying to capitalize on next-to-no experience and lots of raw talent.
To be fair, administrative work can serve a purpose. It counts as “professional experience,” and it may provide an opportunity to weasel into a higher place in the company. A life of administration is one of high “wpm,” illicit flings with instant messenger, cold, hard organizational skills and headache-inducing detail orientation. Unless you thrive under such conditions, in which you are allowed just enough freedom to go to the bathroom and trusted with the responsibility of brewing coffee, you are on your way to somewhere else. And in that place, creativity, project supervision and voicemail will reign.
There must be a road, however unmarked, leading to Creative Director, Editor, Managing Member or Producer. A respite surely awaits after I have drunk deep from the cup of “Unfortunately, we have no positions available at this time.” I wonder if I’m completely alone in trying to escape this entry-level indignity. Perhaps others can relate to the frustration of sending out resumes on the sly, hoping that the boss isn’t reading your email and having friends and family wonder aloud what you’re really doing with your college degree. Meanwhile, I keep pulling sheaves of warm paper off the copier and deciphering illegible handwriting on memos.
I am fully aware that at some point in the previous rant I have probably come off as a snob. Apparently I think I’m too good to perform basic tasks. This may well be the case, but something else should be noted: the frustration of living with a dream, which seems to rise up against my present situation and cry “Murder!” I imagine myself penning sardonic editorials in a small window office instead of jabbing the hold button over and over. However, I must harness this dissatisfaction to make me even more dogged in the pursuit of my goal. I refuse to give up my dream of soaring above the confines of corporate infrastructure to grasp freedom and creativity in my fumbling fingers. In an entry-level 8-5, I am slowly and painfully beginning this process.
The word process has a particular dull, brassy ring to me, like someone has just clanged two stainless steel pots together. Not exactly melodically inviting. But it is certainly true that life takes place within the process instead of the arrival at a far-off destination. Our dreams change with us, adding strategic bits of shape and color, as we grow in knowledge and experience during our “terrible twenties.” In these early stages when everything seems bleak, I keep my sanity by writing a little each day and reminding myself that I am a writer who currently has an administrative job. Although I exhale mournfully each time I shake the coffee grains into the white paper filter, I believe that one day my true identity will be manifested.
Until then, I’m going to look pretty darn good in my headset.
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