making the grade in the school of life.

A brief look at the syllabi of my college transcript will reveal an education of highly questionable “real world” applicability, one defined by courses such as SLFK 212: Slavic Folklore Ritual and Family Life, JPTR 322: Intro to Modern Japanese Literature, and ANTH 237: The Culture and History of Still Photography. Although there’s no disputing the usefulness of being able to sight-sing a perfect fifth interval (thank you, MUSI 333B: Musicianship II), not much of my university experience was geared towards preparing me for a thriving existence outside the hallowed walls and halls of Academia.

To make matters more interesting, my decision to move to London after graduation – and then to New Zealand – inaugurated my life as a Backpacker. You know the type – you’ve most likely seen us on the plane, clutching our Lonely Planets and Rough Guides, hauling our overstuffed, oversized backpacks off the luggage carousel, and figuring out just what bus route will get us to the city center (taxis don’t quite make the budget). But my transition into this lifestyle involved more than just purchasing a backpack or joining a hostel association. I found myself instead in a world inhabited by bright and talented people who have foregone career paths and corporate ladders for something a little different (for now, at least). We accept roles as dishwashers and servers, check-out clerks and call center agents, all for the promise that where we are is more important than how we earn our paycheck.

This isn’t an easy trade-off, at least in my experience. Shift after shift of polishing silverware, mopping floors, and taking out the trash wears on you, digging at a little corner of your mind that starts to ask, Is this really what I bargained for? Is this what I spent four years of my life studying for?

But that isn’t to say you don’t pick up things along the way. In Queenstown, I learned how to make one heck of a Long Island Iced Tea. In London, I learned how to arrange a Faculty Away Day, perusing catering options and performing a small miracle to make sure one hundred academics showed up at the same place at the same time. And in Wellington, my stint as a hospitality temp involved taking in more tricks of the trade. An especially slow day in the corporate kitchen of accounting-giant Deloitte found head chef Andrew teaching me how to make the perfect espresso. Naturally, we couldn’t let the mess-ups go to waste…

At the end of my year in New Zealand, my first stop back in the States was a little town in northwest Iowa called Spirit Lake. My childhood best friend Jen was getting married and I arrived a couple days early to help out with any last-minute details. As we were setting up the cake reception the morning before the wedding, Jen’s younger sister, Megan – a freshman at Princeton – did her part and laid out the cocktail napkins for the lemonade and punch. She then took the stack and tried to splay them into a spiral, using her hands to spin them.

Just two months ago I’d done the same my first time hosting a corporate box at Westpac Stadium. The job required setting up the box much like you would as the hostess of a dinner party – stocking up on drinks, setting out snacks, and getting everything set for the catered dinner. Jon, one of the host supervisors, came in before the guests arrived and saw my pitiful attempt at swirling the napkins. “Here, try this,” he said, reaching for a pint glass from the shelf. He started to twist the glass on top of the stack of napkins in a quick motion from left to right. As he repeated this, the napkins began to fan themselves into the perfectly even, perfectly swirled screw-like spiral I’d been aiming for. I was mesmerized.

Two months later in Iowa, watching Megan trying to do it by hand, it was my turn to pass on the tip. “Hang on a second,” I said as I looked for the closest thing I could find to a pint glass in the church’s fellowship hall – a plastic punch glass. I began to push it into the stack just like Jon had taught me as Megan and several family members looked on.

My spiral proudly complete, their Uncle Ross said, “Well, Megan, I guess they don’t teach you that at Princeton, do they?”

We all laughed and I immediately smiled at the irony, remembering how disappointing my rejection from Harvard had been almost six years earlier to the date. Here, though, was a small victory, the little pat-on-the-back life offers you sometimes. Ivy League diploma hanging on my wall? Not hardly, but I sure could show her how to twist napkins. The idea that there are some things you won’t learn in school is oft-repeated, but this was one of the more tangible, if frivolous, examples of that in my life.

If there’s one thing the book and recent movie An Education accomplishes, it’s to expand the idea of what an education is, taking it outside the classroom where it’s so often contained. The chance to pass on such a silly little trick mightn’t be momentous, but it got me thinking about all that I’ve learned the past couple of years I wouldn’t have known otherwise. How to sweet-talk immigration officers into letting me back into a country despite a dubious visa situation. How to take advantage of national airline carriers’ layovers in their main hub for a nearly-free flight to another country. And definitely how to avoid total emotional collapse when your passport and credit cards are stolen in a foreign city (I’ll never forget you, Belfast.) It was the kind of victory I’m getting used to as this string of temporary employment gigs often comes without the usual praise of promotions, raises and a Christmas bonus. I wouldn’t be surprised if backpackers score higher than most in the self-motivation category.

And so as I carry through this summer at home in yet another hospitality-industry position, I continue to challenge myself to look at it as more than just a way to pass the time. This time on the catering staff of my hotel’s banquets and events department is simply another phase of my education. Rene, a Danish guy who was recently granted his American citizenship, is nothing short of a banquet rockstar. Often rolling out four tables at a time, dragging stacks of eight chairs across the floor, and setting up whole banquets single-handed, he’s coached all of us throughout the summer with the promise that one day, just maybe, we’ll be as good as him. Whether it’s “fluffing” a plain white table with extra tablecloths and twinkle lights or transforming cloth napkins into near works-of-art, Rene has grown my “hospitality knowledge” even more.

I may be miles away (literally) from putting my English major to good use, but boy can I fold a mean napkin stand-up fan…

Folded by yours truly, courtesy of Rene's tutelage.


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