Letter to Seniors: Kate Owen

Letter to Seniors: Kate Owen

Dear Class of 2020,

If you had asked me, at 18, if I wanted to become a school librarian I would have laughed and looked at you like you were nuts. Who wants to go back to high school when everyone is so desperate to get out of it? Why would anyone ever do that?! 

The answer to what would make someone do that is, of course, you. At least– for me it was. 

I do know some colleagues who always knew they wanted to teach. Some of you already know what you want in life, but I also bet a lot of you are where I was: with absolutely no clue what I wanted to do.

I am here, writing this, because of luck, and a million small and large choices that grew or trimmed the possible branches of my future. 

Oddly enough (?!), my first job that wasn’t for my mother was “library page.” I spent my 12th and 13th summers shelving books at my small town’s library a few hours each week. My first “real” job grew out of a side gig I picked up while I was studying metalsmithing.I had been editor of my high school paper and so, when I got to college and was looking for ways to make connections, I decided joining the student paper was the way to go. I showed up, I did work, and before I knew it I was learning how to use one of the first digital layout programs. A couple of years later I needed a job, saw a job for a typesetter at a newspaper and thought “I can do that!” …and I could.

I have had a lot of jobs in between then and now. I became a production manager at that newspaper. I learned how to make & design webpages. I made jewelry, read contracts for errors, figured out who was really supposed to be billed for something, washed dishes, worked in a photo archive, managed and leased commercial real estate, answered phones, and once spent a gruelling two weeks making hundreds of phone calls a day trying to gather the name and address of every Chief Medical Officer in the United States. 

I got married, had a child, got divorced– and suddenly found myself back in my small hometown, a solo parent who needed to get back to work. It was just luck, really, that the K-12 school I had walked out of some 15 years before desperately needed a librarian in the middle of October. And let me tell you, going back to high school suddenly looked really attractive: “I can do that!” I thought… and I could. 

Here’s what’s going to happen when you first return to TA after you have been gone a long time– you are going to walk into some part of it and the smell will bring back a strong memory/feeling. It will be weird, but also kind of cool.

Similarly, walking back into as school as a teacher was weird, but also kind of cool. I learned I loved your uniqueness, your huge heart and how you hide it, guard it, but also let it shine. I particularly love your curiosity and those moments when figuring something out makes you light up with happiness. 

I also love how– despite your diversity– I know that on graduation day you are also all the same: not a single one of you will feel confident that you know what the future holds.

And here’s a strange truth: you would have felt that uncertainty before Covid-19 just as you feel it now. 

What has changed is your degree of uncertainty. We humans work hard to predict the future, and we work hard to change the future. We are wired to worry because we know we have a better chance of surviving if we do. Yet you have learned quickly what it took me years to understand: our best predictions can be rendered irrelevant in a moment… or as Robert Burns put it: “the best laid plans o’ Mice an’ Men” often go awry.

Try to believe me when I tell you that this doesn’t have to always be bad. 

I’ve seen some stuff. Bad things have arrived out of nowhere and disrupted my life. Sometimes the knowledge that I can’t always know what the future brings fills me with anxiety, and even dread. Mostly, however, I try to remind myself that I have never really known what the future will bring and that so far, I’ve made it through.

Because of this shared and dependable uncertainty, I can offer you the same advice that I would have given you before this pandemic: 

Do what you love and hope that opportunity will come from that. If you want to make art, make art. Join that band, lift the truck, organize an event, create the video game, read the book. You never know when a skill you learned for fun will become something you can get paid to do. 

Be proud of your work but don’t be too proud to do any kind of work. I learned really important skills answering and making (endless!) phone calls. I took plenty of filler jobs to make sure the bills were paid– and stayed in some for years. You will never love all parts of a job, but if you find yourself hating most of it, it’s time to find a new path. 

Be kind to yourself. You may find yourself, like I did, sitting in one of those filler jobs and feeling like a terrible person because you didn’t do better with your life. These feelings are important, because they tell you you need to change– but they are not necessarily true. We are often our own worst critics. Learn to be honest with yourself– and fair– but mostly kind. Being a human is hard. 

And finally, try to learn how to be more and more okay with life’s uncertainty. In Some Good News’ Graduation Special Oprah Winfrey shared a story that illustrates this perfectly. When asked a question about a low point in her life and how she recovered she told the story of how she was discriminated against and fired from her job as a news anchor and demoted to a daytime talk-show host. Like me, she learned that sometimes the worst times in your life end up leading to the best.

Next year you will run into some adult you haven’t seen in a while and they will ask you “What are you doing these days?” and you may squirm with the feeling that whatever it is, it’s not enough. By the third time it happens you will hopefully have an easy answer down pat, but let me help you a bit in advance. You can always say:

“I’m working/studying and hope… but, of course, I’m still exploring the possibilities”

That line has now worked for me for a long time. 

I’m grateful that those possibilities led me to TA and to you. 

Many happy trails, 

Kate