It is an exciting moment when we send our children off for their first day of school.
We watch with pride as they skip away with little backpacks to the world where they will to learn to read, write and analyze. They will become critical and independent thinkers. They will participate in the arts and sports in preparation for becoming good members of society.
Yes, it is a heady moment when our children leave for school because we parents are unbiased observers and can already anticipate their future greatness. They are destined to become skilled at an important trade, to study the classics in the hallowed halls of the best colleges or become the next President of the United States.
Just look at how they are holding that crayon and tell us you don’t think they will be another Picasso….
Wait, come back here! You sit down and work on that coloring book we bought you. What do you mean you don’t like coloring? Don’t throw crayons us! Stop! This is the last time we are telling you not to eat the crayons.
On second thought, perhaps we are somewhat biased.
Fortunately, this is where the education system comes in; counteracting parental bias by handing out grades and parts in the play and places on varsity squads to let us know what we are actually good at.
And there is also preparation for what all this schooling leads to – the job search. To steel our children for this time-consuming, gut-wrenching and generally awful process, schools have an ingenious educational tool, the ultimate template for failure:
The junior high dance.
This is the premiere early training event for today’s job search process.
We spend hours dressing up in our best outfit and fixing our hair. We practice talking out of the corner of our mouth so that nobody will see our braces and keeping the side of our face with the pimple out of view, not realizing this makes us appear to be from a different planet. As grown-ups, we will spend the same amount of time on similarly ill-fitting disguises – resumes and cover letters stuffed with lingo designed to hide our desperation. Perhaps if we say we have experience as “a senior paper office coordinator,” nobody will realize we just restocked the toilet paper rolls on occasion.
If only one person will like me, we think, both then and now. Just one.
When we arrive at the dance, we huddle in groups of like-minded people and analyze the situation. We scan the floor, pretending we will soon venture out to talk to other groups in a direct parallel to business networking events.
Like grown-up job searches, in which we to pretend that we don’t care what the salary is until the interview process is almost over, we act like we are not thinking about how high up the coolness chain we can aim our dance requests. We repeat to ourselves what our parents said about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but our minds whirr with calculations. If Justin of the coolest group dances with Erin of the second coolest group, will Matt of the second coolest group be able to dance with Meredith of the coolest group?
We make our calculations and then dispatch an ambassador party to approach the partner of choice with a request to dance. Just like today’s businesses, direct contact between parties is not allowed. We are asked to submit our best possible pitch in a 20-page online questionnaire with a 5,000-word essay section, but we should not under any circumstances try to look up a phone number or seek out any human contact at this organization. This includes the parking lot attendant.
Following the application, a discussion period begins.
The ambassador party waits while the dance partner candidate is considered in a human-resources-department sort of way. The recipient of the request must consult with their friends (or later, colleagues). If I dance with this person, what will my commitment to them be? Will we be an official couple? Could I possibly get a candidate with better credentials if I wait for awhile or this my best opportunity for a dance partner? If they are lower than me on the coolness chain, will I be ruining my chances to attract other quality applicants?
Rejections and acceptance messages are then conveyed through the ambassador party. When we receive the former, our friends console us by telling us that we really didn’t want to dance with so-and-so anyway because they aren’t nearly as cool as we discussed five minutes ago and besides, have you seen the shoes they are wearing? Nobody wears those anymore.
We regroup and begin again.
It was the late 1990s when Amanda and I were standing in the gymnasium-turned-dance-hall at our junior high, watching those of our friends who had been lucky enough to find someone to dance with. We clung to hopes of success, even though the more pragmatic people in our group had already bailed for less embarrassing and more fun opportunities elsewhere. The DJ announced the last slow song of the night, and Amanda pointed out two boys standing nervously by themselves.
“They are pretty cute, let’s ask them to dance,” she said.
“No way,” I replied, feeling my face burst into an unflattering shade of tomato red. “We can’t just ask them ourselves. That’s not allowed. And they are out of our league.”
“Well, it’s the last song, who cares,” she said, marching confidently toward the boys.
I stared after her in awe, stunned by her bravery. She’s right, forget the rules, I thought. Valor and confidence will win the day after all.
She arrived in the boys’ corner of the gym, reached out her hand to tap one of them on the shoulder, and the song ended.