You feel furthest from a functioning adult when you find yourself hiding away in the bathroom of DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids bawling your eyes out.
Let’s back up to how I ended up in that bathroom stall, pathetically watching the mascara run down my face in the mirror.
It’s funny how things sort of
when it was never a part of the plan.
Somehow, I survived my first year of teaching. And the thought of returning in the Fall was almost nauseating.
I remember standing in the back lawn of the high school as kids hurriedly and excitedly boarded the busses for the final time that year. I forced a smile and waved at those I knew (but didn’t really like).
“One year down…. 30 to go…” and I clenched my fists to avoid groaning out loud. “It’s going to get better, right?”
I held up send-off and well-wishes signs with the other teachers and cheered as the buses made a grand exit. My sign said “Read! :)”. But really, I wanted it to say “GTFO!”
I wasn’t a social butterfly with the other teachers, so I walked back to my room alone once silence flooded the school grounds and there was only the distant diesel hum of the buses from the next street over.
I counted the dusty steps as I ascended to the second floor, running my hand over the railing, my mind desperately searching my soul for an ounce of excitement about the career I chose.
There wasn’t any.
I stood in the center of my room, taking in all the debris scattered across the floor and the awful scent of pubescent adolescents. At least I had all my Spanish 1 lesson plans… next year would be significantly less time consuming.
I plopped into my chair and fired up my Gmail.
An email from the head of the foreign language department. Subject: 2015-Next Year’s Assignments.
I opened it.
Amy – Spanish 1
Ginger- Spanish 3 & 4
Kaitlin- Spanish 2.
Spanish 2? You’ve got to be kidding me.
More lesson planning. And worse? The same assholes in class.
I could have pulled my hair out.
I can’t do this….
Negative self-talk never got anyone anywhere, but I was feeling so utterly defeated and burnt out… after year one. How do people do this their whole lives?
To mask my frustrations and busy my mind, I hopped onto Glassdoor to search for paying summer internships to earn some experience toward my master’s degree. That was my only way out. Two years of studying while working full-time. Hard work. #adulting.
Fate, luck, whatever, I found myself working the summer for a company called NHA. I would work in their IT department making course revisions for their internal E-learning modules.
It was temporary.
Until I met Cindy.
Here’s where the fate comes in.
Cindy’s associate resigned the same day Cindy and I met.
That’s just too spooky to be coincidence.
Half-way through my internship with NHA, I was assigned a project for the Director of Special Education for the entire organization (84 charter schools across 9 states at the time). She needed 13 engaging e-learning modules created from a horrible lawyer presentation about Section 504, and that was up to me.
I walked into an empty conference room five minutes before our meeting. I didn’t know it yet, but Cindy was almost always late. I took a seat on the far side of the table and worked to hook my laptop up to the TV display at the end of the table.
She came in like wind, almost silently and quickly, seamlessly and confidently. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, blonde hair cut short with brilliant blue eyes. She wore an expensive orange blazer over a floral blouse. She sat in the chair adjacent to me with perfect poster, and I couldn’t help but notice her long pale pink nails and a massive marquise-shaped wedding diamond on her left finger. She smiled at me before confidently extending a hand across the table for me to take.
She introduced herself with pride. I took her hand and consciously shook it firmly. I gave her my name, forcing a smile to hide my nerves.
“So nice to meet you.” Cindy opened her laptop and set her iPhone aside. It was far enough from her to not be rude, yet close enough to remain in her peripheral vision, in case she was to get an imperative call or message.
This lady is important.
“How long have you been with us?” She asked, making small talk as I prepared to begin.
“Just over a month,” I responded, looking up at her. She was gazing right into my eyes fearlessly. Suddenly a wave of intimidation swept over me. What was I doing?
“And how long will you be with us?”
“Until the end of the summer. I’m a teacher,” I explained.
“Wonderful! In one of our NHA schools?”
“No,” I admitted, breaking eye contact to glance at my screen. “Public school.” I told her I taught Spanish.
“You’re bilingual! That’s amazing. Spanish sure comes in handy. My husband and I run an orphanage in Mexico. Do you like it? Teaching?”
There was something about her staring at me in that moment that told me it was okay to tell her the truth. “No.”
She nodded. “Shall we begin?”
I kicked off the meeting, pitching my ideas to her, showing her all the “fancy” things I had learned PowerPoint can do that summer.
I’ve always been a decent public speaker, ushering my “teacher” voice from somewhere deep within. But something about Cindy made me a little nervous that day. Maybe it was her stature, maybe her demeanor, maybe her title and reputation. Regardless, I was nervous as hell running a meeting with her. I tried my hardest to seem professional, but still felt like a child playing dress-up.
As I concluded, Cindy didn’t say much, but she seemed satisfied.
“I’m excited,” she finally said after processing a moment. “This has been a long time in the making, and I am so pleased to see these 13 learning modules are going to come to life.”
I blushed and began packing my things. “I can get started right away, and perhaps we can have weekly touch-bases for you to review the content and—”
“Are you looking for a job?” Cindy cut me off.
“I’m sorry?” I was caught off-guard… I would soon learn Cindy had a special way of doing that to me.
“Are you looking for a job?” She repeated, a slight smile playing across her thin pink lips.
“Um,” I hadn’t given it too much thought—I didn’t want to let myself believe this position at NHA could turn into anything permanent, granting me escape from the classroom much earlier than anticipated. “I mean,” I stammered, suddenly not sounding so professional nor confident. “I am always looking,” I finally spit out, though I instantly wanted to facepalm. I resisted. “Yeah…if I found something I could do and that paid well enough…”
“My girl just resigned.”
…what just happened?
Cindy understood my expression and continued. “Right before I walked in here. And I just love her, she does such a great job. But it really blindsided me! I am so sad she is leaving in two weeks.”
“So, there’s an opening,” Cindy continued as she started to pack her things. “Think about it, Kaitlin. Maybe we can meet again to discuss the job further. Especially if you’re not all that thrilled with teaching.” And at that, she left, just as swiftly as she had come in.
What just HAPPENED?
She gave me a shot. She even helped me write my letter of resignation to the school. Resigning from a job isn’t easy. Writing a letter to the principal and superintendent to announce you’ve basically found something better and doing it in a pleasant and professional way is certainly #adulting.
There was something about her the moment I met her, and it went deeper than the first impression of intimidation followed by “I think I like this human.”
“I think I connect with this human.”
Cindy, Director of Special Education.
I often joked that I was in love with my boss and would marry her if I could. I was just so enamored by everything she did and could do. She was, in my opinion and perception, the perfect adult. She passionately ran an entire special education program for 84 charter schools across the United States. She never backed down for what she believed in, and by golly your fancy law degree scares her not. She built an orphanage in Mexico with her husband and to this day gives those kids the life they all deserve.
She is a mother and a grandmother. She has history. She is the image of professionalism and still manages to maintain a sense of humor. She cared about her employees as people.
She cared about me.
Once I finally completed my master’s degree (#adulting!!!!!), the thought of searching for my next growth opportunity played in the back of my mind. I searched casually for jobs, more the “dream come true” type. Just in case. But I loved my job. I loved working for Cindy. We were the dream team, man! I was so good with her, I could predict what she needed before she even asked for it. I understood her brain and I respected the hell out of her.
The thought of leaving Cindy and the Special Education Team I came to love like family sort of made me want to barf. So, I never looked for my next career all that hard. I just knew someday, somehow, I would need to spread my wings. Like we all must at some point… that inevitable leap of faith one must take before the comfort seeps too deep. But for the time being, my connection with Cindy, the Team, and NHA’s mission was enough for me.
Cindy’s resignation two years into our adventure altered my entire reality.
We were sitting in a small room at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids. Leadership Summit was the biggest event of the year for the organization, and the team was preparing Cindy for her big presentation.
Looking back… there were signs. She glanced at her phone frequently that morning…more frequently than usual. She was unusually worried about the whereabouts of her boss…And there was an awkwardly placed slide in her presentation entitled
“personal professional announcement”.
In a way, I wonder if she left that slide in there as a purposeful foreshadowing… just for me… as I edited her presentation for her.
But I didn’t pick up on it.
Not until she sighed at the end of her practice presentation.
And her boss stepped into the room.
Then I knew.
“I need… to make an announcement…” she started.
“This is probably the hardest professional decision I’ve ever made.”
Shit. Shit. Shit.
She teared up. “I have made the decision…”
“…to leave NHA.”
I felt as though something was being stolen from me…but unsure what that was. My entire job stood before me announcing her resignation. My emotional attachment to her burned behind my eyes and I bit my lip, struggling to keep my shit together.
She was my professional everything.
“I need to seek greater work-life balance in my life. I can’t keep living the way I’m living… I can’t keep working this many hours and drowning in my work. I need to be with my grandkids… I need to be a part of my family’s life. I’ve accepted a position with Grand Valley State University as a professor of Educational Leadership.
I cried. I wasn’t the only one. The entire room was a storm of saltwater.
“No,” Cindy demanded between her own tears. “You all have to keep going. We have worked too fucking hard to go back now!” She fired up, red-faced, passionate, fists clenching. I would expect nothing less of her. “We have helped so many kids. I have been so blessed to work with such a fine group of professionals in it for all the right reasons.”
And I can’t remember the rest.
I can only remember the relentless tears rolling down my cheeks, and then….
then the inexplicable sudden wave of cold fear.
Like being slapped in the face with an ice block.
What does this mean for me?
What happens to me?
What about me?
Me, me, me, me, ME, MEEEEEEH!
I had selfish feelings as I drowned in emotional silence. I didn’t feel much like an adult. An adult would be able to keep her shit together and stand up and applaud Cindy’s accomplishments and be happy for her.
And I was happy for her.
Somewhere deep, deep,
All of our experiences were flashing before my eyes, from the time I picked her up off the side of the road because her husband was too late to take her all the way to work, to the time she handed me her personal credit card and told me to go buy myself a pair of shorts that fit because I lost so much weight. There was so much more between us than just a boss-assistant relationship. And now I was faced with losing that connection, and just plain couldn’t freaking handle it.
We adjourned the meeting, and everyone rushed to hug her and congratulate her. I hung back and waited a moment, fighting for some composure, still struggling to understand why I felt the way I felt.
“I’m so pissed at you!” I said to Cindy as I embraced her. We cried together a moment, and I didn’t want to let her go. “But I really am happy for you,” I whispered.
I had a complete meltdown in the DeVos bathroom shortly after that moment.
And was caught.
“She’s my entire job,” I tried to explain.
I stood beside Cindy just hours later as her audience filed in for the big presentation. I worked her laptop for her, preparing the presentation and ensuring all audio settings were perfect. I watched Cindy out of the corner of my eye with vague fascination. What must be going through her head? She was about to announce her resignation to over 100 people in person.
“Doing okay?” I asked, touching her arm.
“Oh yeah,” she said, forcing a smile across her face. “And you?”
“Not really,” I said honestly, also forcing a smile.
“You’re funny,” she said. She said this to me often.
“But it’s true,” I admitted.
Did she, though?
“You know,” she began, staring off into space. For a moment, I thought shit was about to get philosophical. “I forgot to wear a slip under my dress.”
I paused a moment to study her before laughing. She wore the same floral dress she had worn to my wedding a year prior.
“Well,” I offered, “the only one who knows that is you. …And me. Now I know. Totally judging you.”
She giggled with me and brushed her blonde hair behind her ear. “Okay. Ready?”
She was flawless. And when she announced her resignation to the entire room, I felt my emotions spiraling out all over again. The crowd gave her a standing ovation as she signed off, and she cried.
It’s amazing what a little liquid courage will do for you. I sat at the team dinner later that evening, my head slightly spinning. The bar tender asked what I was having.
“Whatever can take away the devastation of my boss’s resignation,” I said.
Still not really sure what he gave me.
“I’m gonna give a speech,” I thought to myself half-drunkenly somewhere after two drinks and before the arrival of the dinner plates (as a rule, an adult should never have two drinks before eating… especially at a corporate event. To think I would have learned my lesson at this point… but a corporate Christmas party a few years later sure knocked me on my ass. Literally.) I awkwardly stood, taking my beer and a knife in my hand.
I clinked my glass with the knife at the head of the long outdoor table for attention. Cindy sat at the head just beside where I stood.
“We need to acknowledge the woman of the hour,” I began, gripping my beer glass tighter to hide the shaking in my fingers. Cindy reached up and took the knife from my other hand, laughing and joking about fearing for her life.
“Don’t worry, I’m already passed the anger stage in the stages of grief!” I razzed. “I am so honored to be standing here with a team of amazing people. And we can all agree the most amazing of us all is Cindy.” There was a round of applause in agreement, and I realized other tables around us were now silent and listening to what I was saying. “We are so happy for you. We have this awkward mixture of excitement and devastation that makes us all want to barf, but we are happy for you.” I paused as the team laughed, and I relaxed a little. “Really, though, I have one question for you… Are you breaking up with me?” The team laughed again, Cindy too, and she shook her head. “Never!” she said. I smiled.
“You are on a new adventure and you will be terribly missed.” I looked up to address the team. “So, if you all are, like me, #teamshinsky4life, raise your glass! Cheers, Cindy!” And glasses clinked. I bent down and air-kissed Cindy’s cheek saying, “I love you.”
And I meant it.
I resigned two weeks later.
I told everyone, myself included, that my resignation wasn’t related to Cindy’s departure. But part of adulting is being honest with yourself. And to be honest, I did leave in part because Cindy resigned. It’s true I needed to grow and move up and really start my career… you cannot remain in an associate position if you want to be a leader… but I didn’t have any desire to go to that office every day if Cindy wasn’t going to be in it.
Don’t get me wrong– Cindy wasn’t the only one I cared about at that office. I made some lifelong friends there. But between the hours of eight and five Monday through Friday, Cindy was my entire world. And if my entire world was going to shift, I might as well be moving up and out of it.
Loving and respecting another adult for what she’s done and how she handles herself is part of #adulting. Dealing with the hurt of my mentor moving on and making the decision to move on myself was #adulting. As pathetically devastated as I was, this was a huge growth moment for me and pushed me toward success.
Don’t ever feel pathetic…the way I felt pathetic… when feeling emotion. It’s okay. You’re not the only one. Emotion is this annoying tag-along to our humanity, and it’s not always convenient and it is not always simple. But it’s always there, this glistening apparition trudging at our sides, something we always feel but can never touch. We drag it everywhere and we learn to cope, even when we don’t want to. Cope the best way you can, but don’t seal it up. Feel it, let it flow through your veins and remind yourself this is who you are, and this is okay to feel.
To this day I still rely on Cindy for advice and comfort. Perhaps I use her as a sort of “crutch”, a small piece of comfort zone to retreat to… perhaps it would be more #adulting to let her go completely.
But I can’t.
She was key in my adult development, and I can’t picture life without her in it.
“I’m not sure that I love it as much as I loved NHA,” I wrote in an email to Cindy several weeks later, after we both moved on and began our new jobs. “But I am going to focus on moving up and being successful. I am going to focus on being the ‘Cindy’ to a team like ours one day.”
Cindy replied almost instantly. “You want to be the ‘Kaitlin’ to the team. Not me. You will pave your own way. You are strong. You are woman!”
Connect with a “Cindy”. Find someone who will always encourage you and push you forward as an adult and as a professional. Find your mentor. Find someone to coach you in adult situations when you are lost in the dark. Find someone.
All of these and more.
#adulting doesn’t mean going at it alone.