My in-depth understanding of universal mathematic ratios, international relations, all the battles of World War Two, human neurology and decision-making, our functional biological structures, and the nature of how life came to be is mind-blowing. Seriously, ask me to talk about trigonometry, gas laws, pulmonary circulation, or the reasoning behind the Battle of Stalingrad, and prepare to have your mind blown. Man, you’re probably saying to yourself. If he knows all this stuff, this guy must be doing pretty well in terms of life. And you’d be right. My knowledge of all things scholarly has come through an established home-school-sleep cycle; my world is confined to my desk, my school, and the M96. And in that world, I thrive. Indeed, I am the god of the M96, the master of the hallways at Hunter College High School, the king of 96th street. And if I should venture into the real world below 96th street, I should do pretty well there too, right? Not only should I be armed to take on the challenges, I should dominate. If I know trigonometry, I certainly should have the common sense to have the ingenuity and the self-sufficiency to thrive in a real-world environment. Right?
In order to fulfill what I felt was mandated to become worldly and scholarly, in the beginning of tenth grade, I called up a friend whose parents ran a children’s film festival and asked for an office internship. It was time, I felt, to break out of my life on 96th street and explore the real world. This seemed ideal: having been involved with the festival in previous years, I had known that it was as high-end intellectual as I could hope. I imagined arriving at a swanky downtown office (“If you’re feeling tense, why don’t you check out our massage section”) where I would sit in a room of intellectuals discussing the nuances of a German film about child prostitutes. Of course, it was nowhere near as swanky as I’d hoped. Instead of a graduate-level film discussion I was faced with the mundane: tasks that only required a basic degree of common sense even without guidance: things everyone knows.
“I guess we can have you do data entry. You just enter the words written on the film submissions into this website. Can you do that?”
“You might have to go through a catalogue and circle the films that are listed as ‘animated’. Can you do that?”
“We might ask you to run to the mail room to send a letter or pick up stamps. Can you do that?”
“You might get coffee for us too.”
While I understood, deep down in my heart, that an internship would not be filled with glamour, this sounded excruciatingly dull, and beyond that, worthless. What’s the challenge in finding a director’s contact information? What’s difficult about ordering coffee? What could I learn from ordering stamps?
The difficulty of the task that faced me was masked by the cavalier manner in which it was presented. “We need you to mail these letters, so you’ll need to buy stamps. The post office is around the corner on Church Street, so you shouldn’t have any problem finding it. Call us if you have any questions or problems.” Of course, in the world of internships, this last statement is one that must never be obeyed: calling to ask questions about buying stamps defeats the entire purpose of an internship. If your intern needs help to buy stamps, why don’t you just buy them yourself? Calling for help simply wasn’t an option. So, leaving the confines of the office, I felt alone; not being able to buy stamps without the help of my boss would be tantamount to failure. Despite this, the extent of the trial that awaited me had not dawned on me yet: indeed, the fact that I was alone in my task gave it some importance. Stepping onto Fulton Street, armed with my boss’ credit card, for the first time I felt like one of the men in briefcases in the hustle bustle of the financial district. The fear of failure began to melt away, to be replaced by a sense of independence. It was my first venture into self-reliance, and I felt like I could dazzle the world. All I had to do was find the post office.
Around the corner. It was deceptively simple. Looking up and down Church Street, I found no building that screamed “Post Office.” Sure, there was the massive stone building with the American flag across the street, but doesn’t ‘around the corner’ imply no streets must be crossed? No, that didn’t make sense; I would go the opposite direction. Marching confidently down the street, it was only when a suited man saw the letters in my hand as he passed that it was pointed out to me that the post office was in the opposite direction; didn’t I recognize it by the flag, he wanted to know.
Usually, I have quite a penchant for entering spacious rooms with stone floors, as the clickiness of my dress shoes makes me feel superior. But this time, I felt out of place; being given unsolicited directions made me feel that people could sense that I had no idea what I was doing. As I scanned the room for something with the semblance of a machine, I was acutely aware of the awkwardness implicit in standing still by the door as people streamed in and out around me. After many seconds of uncomfortable searching for the stamp vendor (Is that the machine? No, that’s a table.) I located what seemed to be the machine in question. Thankfully, there was no line to elongate what might already seem to my boss like a long trip. As I approached the machine, unstamped letters in hand, I was greeted by a cutesy drawing depicting an animated hand pressing the ‘start’ button, and the most innocent looking sticker you’ve ever seen.
Neatly printed with beautifully kerned letters perfectly aligned with the top and bottom of the stamp machine, the sticker’s message was short and to the point. “Follow onscreen instructions. Insert credit card. Retrieve stamps,” followed by the instruction to “have a nice day!” In retrospect, I’m not sure what other purpose the sticker had aside from blunt mockery; it would not be helpful to anyone, least of all, me. As I touched the onscreen start button, like the drawing suggested, the machine becoming illuminated, as if expecting action. Follow the onscreen instructions. Simple enough, I thought. “What would you like to do? Buy Stamps, Send a Letter, Send a Package, Get Information.” Well, that’s pretty straightforward, I thought. I was sent to buy stamps. But wait- wasn’t the end goal to send these letters? Isn’t buying the stamps just a means to the ultimate goal of sending the letter? Looking back and forth between the sticker and the machine, I was floored. This was my chance to prove to myself and my superiors that I was competent in the business world, and I was blowing it on the first question. After three minutes of deliberation, I decided to choose “send a letter,” my only conviction in the fact that I would most likely have to return to this menu later.
And suddenly, without warning, commitment was thrust upon me: “What size is your letter? Record dimensions and please weigh using the scale.” Up until that point, I had only been asked to lightly tap the screen, and I did so with the sense that I could always return. Now that I had to actively measure the letter, I felt that I couldn’t turn back. Was I ready to make this step? It was unfamiliar territory: never before had I needed to weigh a letter. Didn’t it just need stamps? Why did I need to weigh it anyway? I looked behind me anxiously; thankfully, no line was forming, though I was sure that the line waiting for the real teller had noticed that I had been fussing with the machine for an awfully long time. Looking at my watch, I decided that if I didn’t make a decision soon, my boss would send out a search party for me, and I commenced measuring and weighing the first letter (Which way is length? Which is width?). I was prompted to inform the machine as to whether or not I wanted my letter delivered “priority mail,” or not (is priority the same thing as express?). As my finger hit the ‘continue’ button, a wave of panic ran through me, as a screen sprang up informing me of the price of my letter based on the weight and its dimensions, offering to print the sticker or repeat the process for another letter. This was too much; I felt unguarded, and unsafe. A price for a letter—when did that come into play? No, I couldn’t do this. Perhaps it was the growing sense that all of the people in line where staring at me, or the sense that what I was doing was horribly, horribly wrong, but I felt like I was failing spectacularly.
Looking at the people using the machines next to mine, I noticed they seemed to have none of the problems I was facing; they were so sure in their taps, and acted like they knew exactly what they were doing. Staring at the sticker and then back to my screen, I wondered if the answer to my frustration lay in between the neatly printed lines of the sticker—a step-by-step explanation of what buttons I should press, an answer key, a study guide that I had simply missed. “Well of course I didn’t know how to do this! Silly me, I missed the in-depth explanation on the side of the machine,” I wanted to be able to say. “I guess that’s why it is so easy for other people!” But as much as I stared, nothing appeared, and I came to the horrifying realization that there was nothing else that could help me but myself. I was alone, and I was floundering. I have to get out of here, I thought. After hitting the back button until the machine had reverted back to its original setting, I spun around as if to leave, took two steps, and stopped. I couldn’t leave. Facing the machine once more, I toiled through the rest of the screens, until all that remained was the onscreen message flashing “please pick up your receipt, and the priority mail stickers.”
I just needed to find the stickers. Yet as much as I searched around the machine, I found no such things. Reluctantly, I approached an angry looking postal officer. “Excuse me, but would you happen to know where the priority mail stickers are?“ She replied, just a little too loudly for my comfort: “On that table down there,” gesturing towards a long corridor of tables. “Um, thanks,” I said, as I scurried off. Hopefully, I would be able to find them without having to return to her to ask for more help. Yet as soon as I had walked thirty feet, I heard from across the post office, “Oh, no, you’re going to far! Yeah, they’re right behind you! No, TOO FAR, right on THAT TABLE! THAT TABLE!” Her voice booming in the silent post office, I saw one hundred pairs of eyes turning to stare at the boy who couldn’t find the priority mail stickers. “Thanks,” I muttered, embarrassed, grabbing a handful as I ran out of the post office, dropping the letters into the “Priority Mail” box, hearing the click of my shoes echo behind me. I was done. The ordeal was over. Yet, what should have felt like a sweet victory was instead a painful disillusionment. If I was incapable of buying stamps, what was I capable of? Trigonometry? Glycolysis? Nowhere on the screen did I ever see anything regarding the two, and I could bet one thousand dollars in stamps that none of the people walking on Wall Street could give a shit about either one. But the disillusionment went far beyond that. I had not only bought stamps; I had been tested in my ability to be self-sufficient and deal with real world problems, and I had failed. If I couldn’t do this, would I know how to follow the instructions on the back of the packet? Send a formal email? If those are the things that matter, why am I even learning that 96th street bullshit? No—the bubble had to break. Only if I ventured out of the M96 life could I learn to overcome this disability. Walking down Fulton Street towards the office, I promised myself that I—given a couple of months—would be an expert at buying stamps.
Yet, upon reentering the office, I was greeted by one quick sentence that managed to destroy my rediscovered sense of competence and worth in one fell swoop, leaving me crumpled and weeping on the floor.
“Did you remember the receipt?”
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School