Back to School

Serena pauses for a quick selfie at her freshly sanitized kitchen lab station after a hectic first day in the lab practicing knife cuts. Steel equipment shines brightly behind her. She is wearing a wide, black headband, which, when paired with the black mask she’s wearing, makes her look a bit like a ninja, particularly with the steely stare in her green eyes. She’s wearing her white chef’s coat with the Laney Culinary Arts logo embroidered on the breast and the strap of her knife kit slung over her shoulder is visible.

If you had told me in my twenties that in my forties I’d be going back to community college and applying for work as a lunch lady, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be pretty soul crushed. Yet here I am. To be fair, if you’d also told me in my twenties that I’d not find what I was looking for in a romantic relationship until my forties, I’d have also died inside just a little, and here I also am, happier than ever before with a guy I’d have never been looking for.

When I left my last job at the end of 2020, I briefly considered a return to school or some kind of formal, structured training, and for all kinds of reasons, I opted not to, except some casual online coffee courses. 9 months to a year later, my stockpile of savings set aside for this transition finally expired and while my SO and I are frugal and can get by on his income, I started to quickly feel the pinch of not fully contributing financially to my household and started working around the edges to rev up my return to the formal workforce.

I dreaded the traditional search for employment I knew I’d be facing. My resume was out of date enough that it almost needed a complete rebuild instead of a tune up, and taking on a mid-life career pivot in a field in which I had no formal experience and was certain to face discrimination of one sort or another felt daunting at best. Still, the desire to generate income for my household and get at least a toe in the door of my new chosen profession called more strongly than the imposter syndrome voices in my head, and I dug in and began rebuilding my LinkedIn profile, another task done somewhat grudgingly, and building a profile with a statewide job board as a start to accessing institutional cafeterias, and made the smart life choice to pay someone to overhaul my resume, as I had not the right tech or desire to get to that stale, outdated yet still necessary job search tool on my own.

Around July, while scrolling Facebook, I happened upon an article posted by a friend and neighbor—Laney College in Oakland would be offering free tuition, along with a long list of other free perks, in the fall. For anybody, no qualifiers. I had spied Laney’s Culinary Arts program as I exited my last position, though having spent perhaps too much of my young adult life in formal classrooms, and still having the debt to show for it, I quickly forewent that option in favor of making it in the school of life and practical, applied experience. I leaned further into learning and sharpening skills in my own kitchen and by my own study, and building a network that might circumvent the need for a resume by continuing to nurture my social media empire.

But free tuition? For formal, structured training and experience in the very field I was pivoting into? The job search was cranking up slowly and this now seemed like a great investment of my time and energy, would only complement my resume and extend my new professional network, and not rack up more debt in the process. I couldn’t say no. Muscle memory I hadn’t flexed in nearly two decades came back quickly as I dove into the application and enrollment process and began connecting with all the departments and services I’d need as a Laney student. School is a lot more online than it used to be, not just by virtue of the pandemic, but also the more ubiquitous use of online learning platforms generally, which was just starting to come into regular use as I exited higher ed around 2006. Between general tech glitches and accessibility issues, getting settled in had a bumpy start, though I found each and every staff person I encountered in the process extremely welcoming, supportive, and accommodating. This would not be my experience in the realm of job searching, sadly.

Having broad familiarity with Laney’s neighborhood and still no clue where exactly it was located, I thought it wise to visit the campus ahead of the semester and do some exploring, and a scheduled orientation for new students a week ahead of the beginning of fall semester was the perfect opportunity to do so, and it was a good thing, too, since I wandered several blocks in the wrong direction before I actually found the campus, located right across the street from Lake Merritt BART station. Leave it to me to completely miss an entire community college campus, I still apparently have issues following GPS. Despite my detour, I made it to campus with plenty of time to explore, delighted to discover the level of detail on Microsoft Soundscape, which pointed me at the names of all the buildings around me. I found the E building where all the Culinary Arts classes take place, both the savory side and the baking side, and met with the Chef I’d have for 4 of my 5 classes to connect about possible accommodations and check out the kitchen and classroom spaces to give me ideas of how and where I’d need to adapt or request accommodations, and if I’m being honest, to give the opportunity for Chef and I to start getting to know one another and have that direct or sometimes indirect conversation about what kinds of expectations we have for one another. Then I dashed to an orientation meeting, for which I was mostly prepared and just checking all the boxes on my return to academia. It’s a surprisingly compact little campus that I was able to mostly familiarize myself with on that initial visit, and when I returned the following Monday for the first day of classes, I cruised onto campus, crossed the quad with confidence, and went into the student center for a cup of coffee. Allowing for a lot of booger time I ended up not needing to get to my 8:30 a.m. class on time, I sat down in the quad to savor my coffee and soak in the sudden feeling of familiarity and comfort that flooded back as easily as though I’d waltzed onto the campus of Santa Barbara City College in the late 90s, like it was last week. I already felt a sense of belonging, I was thrilled about my new adventure, even if a little nervous about putting myself in a commercial kitchen environment, packed and busy with sighted people, people who probably didn’t know much about blindness, and full of hot things and sharp things. To be clear, the hot things and sharp things are not what made me nervous, it was knowing what people’s perceptions tend to be about my competency around hot and sharp things, and nothing rattles me like public performance when I know people are watching and scrutinizing, it feels like being a bug under glass. The greatest challenge of blindness is not the loss of sight, it is the myths and misperceptions that exist in society about the capabilities of blind people. Read that again.

And I can’t say the start up was entirely without lumps, though, as ever, my persistence, years of self advocacy skills honed out of sheer necessity, exhausting by the way, and my solid sense of belonging have me feeling downright giddy every day that I go into that lab. I’m approaching the mid-point of my first semester of Culinary Arts training, and work that might otherwise be utterly draining feels appropriately exhausting. I don’t feel stressed or overwhelmed, I feel my boundaries being stretched in the healthiest of ways, I feel myself learning and growing as a culinary professional. I feel myself being welcomed and treated as an equal by my classmates, and while I’ve come up against small amounts of frustrating low expectations, not once has anyone made me feel like I don’t belong. I am proud to put on my houndstooth pants, chef’s coat, and apron, my knife kit slung over my shoulder, and stride into the lab kitchen and look just like everyone else.

Working in the blindness field as I’ve done for most of my career has been a path of least resistance. It’s comfortable to go work in an environment where there are so many other people just like you. Supports are a little easier to come by and it’s so much easier to relate to your colleagues as just colleagues and not feel like a bug under glass.

And I ended up there because that’s significantly where society nudged me, again and again, through my too many years of college and career. I rationalized the intersectionality of working in the blindness field with my academic credentials as a nonprofit professional, and constantly struggled with the existential crisis of integrating my resentment with society’s expectation that this was where I belonged and the legitimate observation that there is no one more qualified to provide services to blind people than other competent blind people.

Putting myself out in the able bodied world with expectations that I will be received as competent and professional, spoiler alert, not always the case, regardless of how I present orcarry myself, is scary. It’s also the best favor I can do for all the blind people that will come behind me.

This time, it’s my career on my terms, and so far, it tastes pretty fucking good.

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