Jobs Where You Can Succeed Even If You’re Awful

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 5.55.40 AMI do a lot of career counseling, even though I’m technically a social studies teacher. Students ask what they should do with their lives. They seek validation and a good plan. Many come to me far too late. I’ve been trying to have this personalized conversation for anywhere from four to six years.

“What’re you doing next year?” I ask.

“I’m going to RISD.” Rhode Island School of Design–the Yale of Art Schools.  I ask more questions.

“Did you apply?”

“I’m going to apply.”  Well, it’s May. If the app isn’t in yet, you’re not going. I follow up with, “Can I see your portfolio?”

“What?” Never a good sign. It indicates the student doesn’t know what a portfolio is. Game over. No RISD. It makes me sad. Someone needs to prepare students for short and long-term planning--to navigate the system.

Sometimes it’s not their fault. There’s a lot of red tape, expense, and logistics involved in getting into school. This is one of the reasons to hit this message hard freshman year. “What do you want to do?” becomes a four-year goal check in. For students who are ready to listen, this is critical. For the ones that think they’ll deal with this in June, the results are often heartbreaking.

Even those of us who understood “the system” make these mistakes. Heck, I back-doored my way onto one of the nation’s best music schools, and I can barely read a note. It was a disaster. I’m empathetic. Today, I offer options. Careers where anyone can succeed, whether you’re the top 20% or the bottom 80%. Better yet–careers where, even if you’re terrible, you have a great chance at success.

Writing The best writers are famous. You’ve read them. But there’s a job for the worst writers, too. At Hallmark.

Photography Good photographers get hired by National Geographic and Discovery. Bad ones by the DMV. Or you can do “abstract” work in a New York gallery, say your blur is “a representation of the contrast between dark and light–a lesson in how we should see the universe.” Sell it for six figures. If working at the DMV, your only responsibility will be to take the worst possible photo of your subjects so they can be grateful those holiday pictures on Facebook look pretty good after all.

Acting Good actors win Oscars. They get rich, develop drug habits, go to rehab, and get free publicity. Bad actors get hired for reenactments on cable TV shows and for medical commercials. “Hey, that’s the Viagra guy!” Instant fame either way.

Weather forecaster It’s harder to fake this and succeed due to accurate computer models, but don’t be discouraged. You can always throw out a “30% chance” “el nino,” “Polar ice caps” “Al Gore came out of hibernation early,” “cataclysmic jet stream” or some other global disaster. If you’re not sure, simply tell people to go shopping for emergency supplies. It helps the economy.

Teaching If you’re a bad teacher you’ve got it made as long as you can make lots of charts and graphs and administer super long tests using acronyms people don’t understand. Because tests are going digital, you can actually use UStream to proctor while you go out for coffee. Don’t dismay–there are still jobs out there for good teachers–waitressing and bartending. It’s just like the classroom, you get to serve a lot of kool-aide, and there is still math involved when you add up the bill. But you need fewer graphs and don’t take ten hours of work home.

Economists–These guys never, ever have to be right–a beautiful thing. Imagine your day–wake up, drink coffee, turn on CNN, roll dice, and make up stock predictions. Maybe you prefer dart boards instead.  Either way, say something no one understands, insert charts and graphs stolen from the teacher who served your last beer, say “billion” three times in the conversation, and you’re golden. Ruin a sector or two of the economy, and you might even get an award.

Politicians This is a career where being good gets you put out of a job. Just go to Washington, check out your new office, and ask people for money for the rest of your term. That’s not too hard, especially if you have experience selling Girl Scout Cookies outside of stores.

Foodies We love celebrity chefs, but if you can’t cook or blog you can do Vitamix demos in Whole Foods or serve side-orders of fried potatoes next to quarter pounds burgers.

It may be a tough economy, but there are indeed jobs for everyone. I hope my students reach the stars, but even if they’re fabricating predictions about when the next one will crash to Earth, as long as someone eventually pays them, I’ll be proud.



Glitter, Garbage and Gratitude

Yesterday I made a strategic error in lesson planning.  I wanted some old-school fun that disguised learning. Some “edutainment.”  I needed the quickest of projects that showed mastery of the Bill of Rights, synthesized some research, and didn’t look like it sucked. Since the next item on the agenda is Midterm Review–which isn’t a trip to Disneyland even in Casey’s World–I wanted a lesson guaranteed to make us smile.

I got an idea–I would use glitter.

I haven’t really done any of these old-school crayon, glue, glitter projects lately since I got all tech-drunk. Instead, we do blogs and infographics and tweets and comments.  Certainly technology is productive and fun, but in my day we used glue. I am a history teacher, not to mention a relic thereof, so I decided to take off the tech-gloves and unleash some good old-fashioned old-school paper and glue fun. With glitter.

What a disaster.  First off, I remembered why I love tech in the first place.  You don’t have to say a million times to high-schoolers “Scissor safety! Do NOT pretend to cut her hair.”

This isn’t their fault. Despite my decrees and rules that materials should be used appropriately, kids don’t really get enough art time in schools, so hands on supplies become a novelty. They’re excited. I don’t blame them.

When teaching with technology, you don’t have to say, “You are using the glue on your project. Not making hand gloves.” Secretly, I smile at this one, remembering with nostalgia how many times have I slathered Elmer’s glue on my hand, let it dry, and peeled it off saying, “LOOK, I’m MELTING!”  Maybe that’s a bit of an elementary school thing, but when you break out the glue, we’re all kids at heart.

When using technology in the classroom, you certainly do NOT have to say, “Please don’t waste the paper and supplies. I have to buy these myself and they have to last for eight classes. Use them wisely,” as five thousand confetti pieces of various colors and sizes fly through the air because someone needs red.

But the GLITTER.  That was just a Jeff Foxworthy “Here’s your sign!” teaching moment.  At first, it seemed great. Tons of kids passing around bottles and cups of shiny stuff, gluing words like “Freedom of speech” onto little holiday ornaments, synthesizing their  research into holiday decorations.

But then, the mess crept in.

And I remembered why I don’t use glitter.  Probably half of the educational technology out there was inspired by people who used glitter in class. They said, “I’m gonna make an app for that because I am NOT getting glitter all over my clothes again!” And thus, Silicon Valley ed tech was born.

After about five minutes, the hypnotic spell of the glitter wore off, and a kid got the idea that it would look great in the hair of a girl he probably wanted to date. Guys in the 14 to 16-year-old range aren’t smart enough to realize that chucking stuff in the perfectly arranged hair of a girl they like gets them farther from the end goal of her being impressed with him.  So, I had a couple of cases of “misuse of classroom resources,” to deal with followed up by a student “my bad,” the universally accepted apology.

Behavior corrected, I got the projects I wanted.  Things went well for a couple of classes. Then I got a case of the human  .

“Are you out of your MIND? What possessed you to throw that glitter up in the air?”

“Miss, it’s snowing!” Okay, so it hasn’t snowed here. Truth is, I’m getting worried, though I’m enjoying the pink roses in my front yard. I think the Mayas or Al Gore might be right–this weather is freakish.  I decided to be forgiving. In true Arlo Guthrie style, I made him pick up the garbage and get back to work.  And I managed to get a nice project once again.

By the end of the day, however, the room was destroyed. I had swept, straightened, and arranged all day. My idea of a peaceful holiday-music craft session with kids who never get to do crafts turned into an energetic “constructive chaos” free for all.  Highly productive, tons of fun, but zero of the holiday zen for which I had hoped.

And the glitter.  Glitter, you may not know, is the only inanimate substance capable of reproducing when let out of the container. I bought one container of gold glitter.  It reproduced like a virus until my room was covered three feet thick. It really did look like a snow globe.  I stepped back. I snapped a picture. I froze the moment in my mind and decided if I couldn’t have snow on the ground for December, this would do just fine.

In the end, I was blessed with a senior who came in and took charge of the cleanup. I don’t think she was very happy, because, although she thinks she wants to be a pharmacist, she seems to be headed down the road of becoming a professional organizer.  We have a deal–I help her get into college and look at papers, and she tells me to clean my desk.  She took charge of that cleanup so efficiently that I felt a pang of guilt.  She then issued a proclamation that I will probably obey:

“Mrs. Casey-Rowe,” she said, “There will be no more glitter in this room.” For a moment in time, she held the authority of Commissioner Gist herself. I’m pretty sure I will obey.

But by the time I left school, I was truly overwhelmed, not by the glitter and mess, but by the tragic news feeds from my home state which had been coming in steadily.

I picked up my son from school, and we ran laps around the gazebo, which we do together if he stays “in the green” and has a good day. He did.

“Look, Mommy. It’s your flower.” On the ground, there was a single newly blossomed dandelion. That’s my university’s flower, and Declan knows that. He became a Rochester fan watching the YellowJackets rock “The Singoff.”

He picked the flower and handed it to me. “It’s for you.”

It matched the gold glitter all over my body. At that moment, I knew that my lesson was good. And that life is good, too. I hope that someone went home and told their parents that they got glitter in their hair, or that they got to glue stuff together. I hope it’s one of those lessons that we don’t do often enough but that they never forget.

I’ll clean up the rest on Monday.

This is the single dandelion Declan found.

This is the single dandelion Declan found.



A Tax Primer for Kindergarteners

Today I had a deep and meaningful conversation on the subject about taxes with Declan, my five-year old. He loves money. He counts it, he jingles it, he puts it in and takes it out of his thirty-five year old bank, “Mr. Smiley” who used to gobble up my change when I was five, a relic from when my father came home from trips examining and auditing banks for the Federal Reserve.

“Mommy,” he looked up from the piggy bank he’d emptied all over the floor. Again. “Why are there guys on my money?”

“Oh, that’s a good question,” I replied. “They’re the presidents. Like President Obama. Presidents run the nation—they’re the boss of America.”

“Who are these guys?” he asked, rearranging the nickels.

“Those are some dead presidents. Do you want me to tell you their stories?”  He likes stories about ghosts and dead guys, and not just for Halloween. He arranged the money some more.

“No. Are they made of silver?” He thinks silver is cool. But he doesn’t like gold because we told him the story of King Midas, and he thinks one day, I might get turned into a cold gold statue. Though he will most certainly be able to turn me in for a secure financial future, I won’t be “soft and cuddly” anymore. And I won’t be able to get him snacks or juice.

“No, the economy stinks. People sell and hoard. Silver’s too expensive to use for coins.” I replied.

“But why are these guys on my money?” He was getting upset.  The dead presidents should not be touching his stuff, “unless they ask first.”

I gave it some thought.  “Because ultimately, all money belongs to them and they want you to remember that fact.” It was the best I could do.

“Are they going to take my money?”  I could see the apprehension rise in his voice as he cupped his hand over the pile of pennies. Now you’re getting it, kid.

“Yes.” Sometimes, a kid just has to hear the truth. “They’re going to take your money and maybe fix a road or give a large business a tax break. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, they’ll give it to someone else—someone nice who needs a little money.”  Nice people getting money always makes me smile.

“They’re not going to take my money.” He frowned.

“Well, since you brought it up,” I confessed, “they are.  They take a lot of my money every day.”

He looked from my wallet to me. And back to my wallet, half-waiting for the Washingtons to dance across the room into the hands of “The Guy Who Takes My Money.”  Who, in his mind is probably related to Al Gore, since I invoke the name of Al Gore for all things related to power, environment and recycling.

“Did you turn off that light?  Quick…Al Gore’s going to get you.”  I know you’re not wasting water… Al Gore wouldn’t like that…” Al Gore, in fact, has become the Santa’s evil helper…the guy who puts kids on the list if they toss their peanut butter jars into the common trash or try to get a wasteful bendy straw for their chocolate milk. He’s quite helpful, actually—I’m grateful. And now, I’ve done it again—created another government villain to do my bad parenting for me, “Taxman.” Someone should pass a law against parents like me.

“They’re NOT going to TAKE MY MONEY!”  Quick as a flash, he rose for the broom and brandished it like it was a Revolutionary musket.  “If they try to take my money, I’ll slap them like this.”  He proceeded to slap his own face—pretty hard.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that punching himself out wouldn’t dissuade the IRS.  But he didn’t stop there, “And then I will hit them with this and punch them like this, and I’ll kill them.”  Wow.  Such violent rhetoric coming from the progeny of a Gandhi-loving pacifist like me. Taxes bring out the worst in mankind. Ask Sam Adams or Patrick Henry. They’re available, because they’re not currently guarding any denominations of money.

I probably shouldn’t even write the word “kill” here lest the poor boy’s name be housed somewhere deep in the annals of a Homeland Security watch list at age five…That’s a bit early to start a long career of being tailed. The government resources it’ll take will serve to justify jumping the kid another tax bracket by age six—there’ll be agents at his kindergarten posing as lunch ladies, at the playground, at the local pink ice cream stand.

That’s pretty expensive, and besides, the agents could end up gaining a lot of weight stalking us at ice cream stands, further exasperating the health crisis in the United States. Which would definitely require a new taxpayer-funded government program.  Where would it all end—age eighteen, or when Declan gets a rejection letter from his first job for reading too much Thoreau?

“Wait,” he said, dropping the broom-musket on the floor and running for the silverware drawer. He came out with my grandmother’s antique corn holding spike—the one that was locally crafted five decades before someone in Congress would surely have passed a law prohibiting corn holders with excessively long one-centimeter swordlets. You could lose an eye.

“Mommy…I will kill them with your Swish [sic] Army knife.”

“I don’t like the word kill. You’re not going to kill anyone. Don’t be fresh.” Learn to channel that anger now, boy.  It’s a skill you’ll need.

“I’ll poke a hole in them.” He brandished the corn-knife like a cross between Zorro and Poncho Villa.

“Son, that’s not even long enough to poke a hole in Glenn Beck’s ego. Put that thing down! It’s sharp.”

“Well, they’re not taking my money.” End of story.

The birth of a five-year old conservative. An Alex P. Keaton in training. Where did this come from, I ask myself. Last election cycle, we adventured to political rallies for both parties.  While Huckabee’s was by far the best due to the Governor’s band and the people I thought for sure were carrying automatic weapons touting signs telling me to go ahead and try to take them away…All the rallies had fun signs waving, balloons and people cheering. A good time from both sides of the aisle. And I’m certainly no broom-musket brandishing tax avoider. My husband and I pay tons of taxes. Income taxes, taxes on cars, taxes on stuff we buy, taxes on the business, taxes on things I consider buying, taxes on the taxes paid to other tax collecting agencies.

Since I’m not part of a local militia or the Director of Graft at City Hall, I can only hope at least a modicum of my taxes are going to something good—like paying my friends in the military, fixing the crumbling bridge I stood under last week, or even bribing someone to get something good done.  Because–Machiavelli should run for office–the end “justifies the means (sometimes).”  I’d even settle for someone using my cash to repair a pothole in my honor. I’ll put a plaque on it like the WPA.  It’ll say, “This pothole dedicated to the good citizens by taxpayer Casey” like those bricks you buy on walkways to dedicate to your grandmother or your long-lost cat.

But that’s not how Declan feels. Even as we speak he is rounding up the pennies and nickels with the dead presidents on them and hiding them.  Which means that he won’t be able to invest them to save for an overpriced college education or buy a car to impress the ladies.

But maybe he’ll have the good fortune to win the two-dollar lottery (which, I’ll tell him is a voluntary tax on people).  Then he can buy a plane ticket to Switzerland, where at least he’ll be able to hide his pennies and nickels in a box next to Mitt Romney’s penny and nickel box, where they’ll be safe.  Because nobody’s going to get those, either.