“What High School Students Learned at Career Day, i.e. What I Learned at Career Day”

“If I agree to speak at Career Day, could I get a better interest rate on my house loan?” I asked my banker who was a member of the sponsoring Junior Achievement Board.

“No,” he said good-naturedly. “This is all about your generosity — and the fact that you authored a book.”

I read the Career Day request for an author to speak and what I needed to do to participate.

The organizers requested a career title. Knowing she asked me to attend because I was an author, a writer, I offered a personal detail: “Social artist who writes and travels.“ And indicated my usual author description.

Then I formulated a 30-minute talk to engage high school students while providing suggestions, directions, and a short writing experience. My PowerPoint offered information on income, steps for earning at the highest level, and life hacks — just in case. And yes, it reaffirmed the reason the students attended school for 12 years — to prepare for an occupation that will benefit society. It also acknowledged if they spent 40 years in a career, they should enjoy it, regardless of pay.

The night before Career Day, I felt well-prepared and well-rehearsed.

I planned to wake at 5, be on the road by 6, and arrive by 7. I didn’t, I wasn’t, and I couldn’t. I woke an hour late, realized my mistake mid-shower, and scrambled into the car while re-writing my 30-minute speech into 15.

The cars swarmed the campus as I arrived. The visitor’s lot and nearby parking lots were full. Students, not wanting to be late, walked quickly to the entrance — quiet, still asleep.

Those at the high school’s Career Day saw late risers before. They were ready for those of us who rushed in at the last moment thinking, at mid- or end-of-career, we had something to offer these 14- through 18-year olds about our livelihoods. The organizers met me at the front door with coffee, donuts, and a guide to help me through the maze of hallways to my assigned classroom.

As I stepped over the threshold, I noted that the clock ticked onto the hour: on time with 30 students sitting upright, well-dressed, and attentive.

“Writers write,” said my first image in the PowerPoint presentation. I clicked to my second, which introduced the top salaries of football players. Why I thought my almost all-female audience, save the one male with the man-bun, would relate to this topic now eluded me.

I moved to the next image, indicating that the top writers (JK Rowling and James Patterson), in just one year, doubled Matthew Stanton’s salary for his quarterbacking. And then I hit the numbers that contradicted the first — the average book writer makes around $1000 per year.

I knew my audience. I prepared well. I wrote questions for them, knew how to elicit answers from a crowd that would not naturally participate — I gave hints, grabbed at eyes which sneaked a look at me, agreed with the most outlandish of responses — anything to elicit a laugh.

I asked which professions could use the skills of a writer, waited through the silence. “ALL of THEM!” I shouted excitedly. I worked through the daily strategies that could help an aspiring writer make more money and fulfill the dream of writing.

25 minutes later, on schedule, I reached the Q and A section. No questions except from the history teacher in whose classroom I was speaking. He asked where my travel blog could be found on the Internet. Strange, I thought. I didn’t mention my minimally successful travel blog. A young woman followed his question with, “Where are your favorite places to travel?” Again, I thought the question curious, but answered, “Greece and Egypt.”

I thanked everyone, a few thanked me, and the first group filed out and the next one in. Same slides, same spiel. I hit my stride, slowed the pace, played to their responses.

Group 3 entered and, like the first two, I handed them a sheet, asking them a few questions about the writers they read, whether they liked to write non-fiction or fiction. As I did, I looked at a paper each student carried — a computer printout of the four career-day sessions each chose to attend. I scanned that student’s: 1. Forensic scientist. 2. Physician. 3. Travel blogger.

I don’t remember the fourth because I was stuck on the third — travel blogger. That, theoretically, was ME. I travel. I blog. But that does not a travel blogger make. I remembered the Career Day role to be filled was “Author,” and I thought I agreed to it. I remembered the woman in charge greeting me with the welcoming words, “Your session’s very popular.” Now I understood why.

The clock ticked to the opening of the third session and the history teacher introduced me. While he spoke, I thought about my slides and spiel in contrast with the students’ expectations and questions. Nothing aligned. An OMG moment. The teacher turned the session over to me and I started to say something. I stopped, not at all sure what it was supposed to be. The students remained quiet, looking at me while I continued thinking. The moment became bigger than a pregnant pause.

Finally, I started the session with the question: “How many of you like to write?” Five hands went up. “How many of you like to travel?” 25 hands shot up. Few (5) traveled outside the country. Fewer (2) read a travel blog.

In essence, I had a group of kids who thought they wanted a profession that felt like summer vacation, which I would convince them, in 30 minutes, would take little effort to achieve.

I did my best to readjust my presentation to align with the expected topic of travel blogging. As with my original writing presentation, I encouraged them to start now to pursue the life they wanted, and to recognize they could make more OR spend less, but personal fulfillment (regardless of income) was an objective worth striving for.

After the Q/A section, I reverted back to my original presentation of writing as a profession. I thought a quick writing prompt might prove fun and engaging. I asked them to write a six-word epitaph — i.e. ” what do you want us to remember about you when you’re dead?”

(I did not miss the irony of my “dead-in-the-water” Career Day performance.)

For five minutes, most students concentrated on the task at hand; a few chatted, recognizing the absence of a grade offered them the license to not participate.

Later, I read the six-word epitaphs. Some submitted clever, but unrevealing, self-summaries, like, “I don’t know what to write.” Other submissions were trite, but probably true. The best, “I was late to my funeral.” Some revealed an upbeat teen population, which so often we hear is depressed or anxious: “Live life because it’s worth it.”

Given these same students said their favorite novels were those dark dystopian types, I enjoyed the positive quality of their epitaphs. Equally so, their six words confirmed the attendees to my session included a few travelers: “Traveling seems cool, I’ll do it.” “Want to go somewhere or anywhere.” “Never stop. Keep pursuing every adventure.”

The two epitaphs I appreciated most, the ones for which I got up at six a.m. and braved a speeding ticket:  “Good friend, good draw-er, good writer” and “Always wanting more adventure, experience, words.” I wish I could say that my talk influenced a few of the 120 students, even these two, but I couldn’t be certain it had.

At 10:20 a.m., the last student left my Career Day classroom. As I walked to my car, I remembered why I had not pursued teaching after a short substituting stint — it’s hard, often unrewarding. Although I fulfilled my promise to tell students the positives of a writing career, I felt unfulfilled, flat, drained.

I started the car, mindful there was no longer a reason to speed, and recognized I preferred my profession of writing to all others. As a writer, I don’t always know if I successfully influence others, but I enjoy the writing process so much that I will continuously strive for that effect. I summarize my life of words in these hopeful six: “A creative soul who moved many.”



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About J.O. Haselhoef

J.O. Haselhoef is a social artist who writes and travels. She is the author of Give & Take: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti. Her work appeared in print or online at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Extra Newsfeed, Healthcare in America, Haiti Global and Stuff dot Life, as well as www.JOHaselhoef.com