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“Here’s your office,” she said. Words that I – a college graduate in the 60s, having failed to get the sought after, parental wish-fulfilling “MRS” degree – had never expected to hear.

The first time I saw my office it felt like the structure that had long housed my psyche had suddenly sprouted a large, unfinished space. A space that could accommodate growth in my outlook, capacity and aspirations.

Just off Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, the office welcomed me to a life I hadn’t considered possible for me, one that not only required a new wardrobe but a new self-concept.

Did it have the fancy trappings of my father’s downtown law office? No.

Did it have my name on the door? No. It didn’t have a door. Or a ceiling. Just industrial grey partitions barely taller than me.

But what it did have – a desk, a computer, file cabinet and a swivel chair – spoke of a world both inviting and remarkably removed from the long-imagined world of “More meatloaf, dear?” and “Okay, sweetie, one more bedtime story.”

The office ushered me into a community of educated, skilled professionals – writers, editors and graphic artists; where entry-level newbies like me could grow into creative, intellectually-challenging roles. I didn’t know if I’d succeed in this particular job, or if I’d stick with it. But I was eager to learn; I wanted to shine. And I had nothing to lose. I didn’t expect to pursue a career, there or anywhere.

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that if we only hear a single story about someone, we risk a critical misunderstanding. What if the only story we knew about a recent immigrant from Mexico was told by a U.S. Border Patrol agent? Or what if your grouchy, grungy cab driver hadn’t mentioned he’s completing a Ph.D.?

Growing up, I’d heard a single story about myself: Just like Mom, when I came of age, I’d fall in love with someone a lot like Dad. I’d say, “I Do” and live happily ever after as someone’s wife and someone’s mother. To my parents’ delight, my sister had left college after a year to marry. I went to college with the same general idea. I roamed the hallowed halls aimlessly, chafing at the one-size-fits all course requirements, looking for Mr. Right. By accident, I graduated not before I found him, but without sealing the deal. Unlike my classmates, I hadn’t sent out job applications before commencement – a day my parents greeted with as much surprise as pride. Grad school held no appeal; I couldn’t wait to escape the constraints of academia. So on that bright sunny day in June, 1963, I shed my cap and gown and headed home.

If I’d wanted to be a teacher, nurse, secretary or even a clerical supervisor my path would have been clear. I didn’t. It wasn’t. Did I need a job to support myself? No. Dad did that. Did I seek a steppingstone to a career? No.

The only job titles I’d been raised to aspire to were Mrs. and Mom. But sitting around my parents’ house? That got old after a few weeks. So when I spotted an ad for an assistant editor at an educational publishing company, I crafted a letter of application stressing my English degree and sent it off. A month later, a woman called: “I saved your letter. We’re looking for an editorial assistant now. Are you interested?” Within weeks, that middle-aged woman – a Ph.D. and my new, all-business boss – walked me to my office. An office in a company where ideas and precise language mattered. A world in which women combined career, marriage and motherhood.

I thrived in that world. That cubicle looked like countless others in stuffy, cookie-cutter buildings, but to me it was the first pot for my seedling talent, the first in a graduated set of planters sized to accommodate the growth of my skills and imagination.

Through childhood and adolescence, a dormant drive in me had poked its head up occasionally, but lacking nourishment, withered away. Stepping into an environment that rewarded resourcefulness, valued competence and offered space to expand? Life-altering.

 

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