So, in the fall of 1994 I was twenty one. I had just gotten back to Massachusetts after having spent the summer at the Grand Canyon. I almost immediately got a job near Faneuil Hall in Boston, and found an apartment in a student slum in Brighton, where I used to catch the 57 bus to get to the Green line.
Not long after getting settled, I switched jobs and began working at a famous restaurant chain where they play music really loudly. Really loudly. I worked as a hostess, and eventually began waiting tables. This was my job for the next five years.
Working in a restaurant accommodates many basic needs in a young person’s life. For all intents and purposes, it became an all encompassing social life. It was easy to make friends, it was easy to spend daily tips on drinking, it was easy to run yourself ragged and do it all again the next day. And because working in restaurants is generally a low investment job, and the stakes were so low, the politics and pressure was actually similar to a war room. On a busy night, with the kitchen falling apart, and the music blaring, and management squawking, and customers hungry and furious, it was no wonder why so many waiters and chefs were alcoholics.
I knew I wasn’t going to be doing this forever. By this point in my professional career, after five years of various jobs, I had been a pot washer in my first restaurant, then a dessert maker, then a grocery store cashier, then a caramel apple maker (on an apple farm, the best job ever), a pots and pans salesperson (among the worst jobs ever), a busser, a shop girl in a retail store, a hostess, and now a waitress.
I hadn’t been thinking about school. But I knew I didn’t want to wait on Aerosmith and Bob Seger fans for the rest of my life. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I had held enough jobs to know what I DIDN’T want to do. I didn’t want to be a bitter, shriveled up old waitress for the rest of my life.
I began looking at schools. I looked at art schools, primarily. I had a portfolio of artwork from high school. I just had a hard time looking at what classes were going to cost, without having a clear idea of what I was going to do after I graduated. I was still young and idealistic and optimistic, but I knew there were no jobs for sculptors or painters after art school. I’d probably have to keep waiting tables. I didn’t want that.
I also had the problem of my not so great grades. By the time I left the state school years earlier, my grades were average, which was an improvement. They didn’t put me at an advantage if I had to apply to get into a school, and get recommendations, and jump through hoops, and sacrifice goats in order to be accepted.
I had heard about the Harvard Extension School. It was some “mythical” back door to get into Harvard. I almost didn’t bother looking into it because it seemed totally implausible. Classes were cheap. At the time, most classes were $285. Anyone could take them. If you took three classes and maintained a required GPA, you could apply to become a matriculated student.
That’s it. No huge application process. No shit tons of money. No super smarty brain. No elite uppercrustiness. I took three classes, and made the grade. That was the key to get in. I became a Harvard student. The classes were held at night, and most were taught by the same professors as the day school. The students were mostly adults. Some professionals, some older adults, and some youngsters. I found myself in a situation where I walked into a room, and there were many, many people smarter than me. Somehow, it felt like a relief.
The classes weren’t easy. They were in the same old halls as the Harvard of legend. I remember being amused by a desktop where some ivy hoodlum had scratched “Fuck Aristotle.” I took literature, writing, and whatever classes I could find on religion and mythology. I took classes like “European Culture in the Latin Middle Ages,” and “Comparative Religious Ethics,” and “History and Structure of the English Language,” and “Irish Myth and Folklore,” which was my only “A” grade at Harvard.
I still didn’t know what I was going to do after school. But I knew I wanted to write. And I took whatever classes I thought might make me a better story teller. For this round of schooling, I was much more serious about my grades. For one, I was paying for it myself. I was making next to nothing as a waitress, so I got scholarships that paid for half. But I was also a bit older, and I had some work experience that made me realize I didn’t want to have service jobs for the rest of my life.
I continued to wait tables and I had other jobs in art stores as I took classes. I grew tired of the circus lifestyle of the restaurant and eventually left to begin a job at the accounting department of the university. Because I worked for Harvard, I got free classes. So by the time I was wrapping up my degree, I was going to school and paying nothing. NOTHING. I was going to Harvard for FREE. Remember what I said about being lucky?
I was lucky to be living in Boston, with Harvard right across the river. I probably never would have heard about the Extension School if it wasn’t local. I graduated Cum Laude. Not bad for a girl who had a hard time raising her hand to speak.