I’ve been job hunting, and I can’t tell you how much fun it isn’t. One of the worst parts is writing what is politely termed the “Professional Title and Summary,” a few words that define my worth in the marketplace. It’s certainly not an unreasonable request. As a business owner myself, I absolutely needed a quick summation of what you could do to improve my bottom line. I imagine it’s not so bad if you’ve graduated in accounting or human resources, or have ten years as an administrative assistant, then you have something to stamp on the line. If you happened to graduate in something like English, and took a non-traditional career path, you kind of wonder if titles and summaries can actually be true.
In practice my Professional Title and Summary changes from resume to resume, to satisfy the metrics laid out in the job description. If I were to tell the real story my Professional Summary would look something like this:
I graduated in fashion design and mastered in English; taught English at BYU; taught English as a second language to executives in Brazil; became a mother; a top 500 seller on Ebay; took care of kids; co-founded a board game publishing company; taught my kids to read and reason; wrote a book; grew the business worldwide; taught my kids summer school; wrote and edited product packaging and materials; supplemented my kids’ education with every tool I could acquire; lived, did business, and raised children in China; and underwent a divorce, holding the fort while I was dealing with breast cancer because everything I’d built had been blown into the stratosphere.
That sentence is not fit for a resume for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that most of the marketplace bits had to happen while my kids were napping, at school, or in bed because they were first priority. But you can’t put Mother on a resume, it makes you look bad.
Here’s my favorite interview question: “Why are you changing direction?” The answer is obvious.
“I want you to know that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.” But I don’t say that because I never know when I might be face to face with someone who has never seen Steel Magnolias.
Who am I? I used to know, and could care less what anyone else thought. But now my world has upended, and new judges have been thrown into the mix. I must pay attention to these employers because it appears that eating is still a thing for myself and my children, so I have to pause and ask some hard questions. Who am I? What do I look like from the outside? How do I express all I have learned, and the skills I had to acquire to do what I have done? What do I have that might be worth anything?
Last semester my son, Porter, and his beautiful baritenor voice, played the bishop in Les Misérables, so naturally I saw it several times in a row. I keep thinking about the main character, Jean Valjean, who begins the play nearly feral from years of prison and abuse, and steals from the bishop who is stupid enough to trust him. But here is the point upon which all turns. Rather than seeking the justice which was his right, the bishop not only shows Valjean mercy, but gives what little he has to allow the thief an opportunity to change direction. Confronted with the shock of mercy, Valjean had to ask himself, “Who am I?” Notice the bishop didn’t have the power to change Valjean; Valjean himself had make that choice. In answer he picked a new Professional Title, jumping parole, changing his name, and rising to become a benevolent factory owner, and the mayor of the town, creating an entirely new Professional Summary and pretending his sordid past never existed.
For a moment it all seems very fairy tale, but only for a moment. At every crossroads of his life, Valjean must again ask the same question: “Who am I?” Each time the answer becomes more murky and complicated as layers of experience bleed into each other. How can he be an employer, a mayor, a beloved and needed father, and still be Prisoner 24601. What is his Professional Title and Summary? Can he truly do justice to one part of his life without having mercy for the other?
Valjean’s question is finally answered the night the life of Inspector Javier falls into his hands. Javier is his jailor and lifelong persecutor, and his death would have effectively buried Valjean’s past forever. But Valjean has recognized that to truly be an Honorable Man, he must also accept his alter ego, Prisoner 24601. Rather than allowing the inspector to be executed, Valjean spares him.
“Who am I?” Valjean no longer has to ask because in claiming both his past and his present, he shows himself both justice and a merciful acceptance, two sides of the same coin.
Inspector Javier is not so lucky. In sparing his life Valjean offered the inspector the same moment of choice once offered to him by the bishop, but Javier has spent his life running from his origins in the slums, attempting to be perfect to satisfy a vengeful god who requires justice without mercy. He doesn’t even know to ask “Who am I?” He only knows he had no mercy for Valjean, therefore justice requires that he can have none for himself. He takes his own life.
This is all very high falutin considering I’m apply for a job rather than attempting the definitive answer to the great existential questions, but still, I have to ask, “Who am I?”
I’m changing direction because, in spite of all my care and planning, my life has blown up in my face and I am starting over. I don’t know what my Professional Title might be because I haven’t spent the last twenty years with a single title, except Mother. If you read the second paragraph, you’ll notice that Mother remained constant throughout all my endeavors, and trumped everything else I did, costing me more stamina and ingenuity than any other role in my life. It also left me professionally and financially vulnerable.
Mother underpins everything I am, but I can’t put her on my resume. Given my current situation, it would be easy to look back at my life lamenting the focused career I could have had, the one that would have made it so easy to write my Professional Title and slide right into the Paula-shaped slot in the Marketplace, but would lopping off or diminishing that crucial part of my life do justice to who I am, or allow me to show myself mercy as I struggle, or is it just another chance to beat myself up? Because I put Mother first, I don’t have a single monumental Professional Title. Instead I have crumbles of many things: I am a writer, editor, and teacher, with an eye for design, keen attention to detail, understanding of people and cultures, and a healthy dollop of horse sense in domestic and international business, but none of these things would have been so rich or fulfilling without the quantity time I lavished on my children. In spite of the obstacles I now face, I can never regret my choices because they have all contributed to who I have become.
Who am I?
I am the girl who built her house on a rock, and though the earth shakes and the lightning strikes, I will not run.