“This is the realest job I’ve ever had,” Avery tells me, perched at the bar, legs crossed, a deft hand clenched around a bottle of Miller Lite. My shift has ended: all of the customers have left with full bellies and I have swept and mopped, refilled the condiments, and stored the iced tea in the walk-in fridge that always gives me the creeps. Now, I, too, perch at the bar, next to the waitress I’ve replaced because she went and got a job in the city. A real job, some call it. Meaning a full-time, set-scheduled, salaried position with benefits.

A real job. Avery hates when people call it that. “‘Cause, here, I worked for every penny,” she explains, “and you have to deal with the public!” She’s right: you have to bite your tongue when he’s being an ass and smile when she’s a bitch. Absolutely! Definitely! Of course! become so ingrained into your working vocabulary that you can respond politely to even the most irritating demands.

A real job, the real world. These concepts have dogged me for who knows how long, and, like Avery, I hate them. Every college student has heard: just wait until you graduate and get out into the real world. As if those four years aren’t part of the “real world.” Never mind the stress of deadlines and decisions that affect the future and that confront students every semester: should I study something I like or something more marketable? Should I take out a bigger loan and go on a semester abroad or should I stay on campus and find an internship? How much should I sacrifice for a relationship? Because of all of these real life issues, Calvin’s counseling center is over-booked with students on the verge of breakdowns—if that doesn’t count as part of the “real world” I don’t know what does.

Mostly I hear people talk about the “real world” in terms of what it is not: academia[1], the Church; the military[2]; the upper class[3]; Christian day school[4]. People who do not live in the “real world” include: teachers, students, pastors, stay-at-home mothers—and I’m sure you can add to the list. If you’re not part of a cut-throat business environment, you’re not in “the real world.” On the other hand, if you live in a gated community thanks to the salary from your cut-throat job, that is to say, if you have a real job in the real world, you’re not living in the concrete world of unemployment and mean streets.

When we talk about the “real world,” we implicitly negate either our neighbor’s reality or our own. We fail to recognize that life is hard for everyone. The kindergarten playground full of your screaming classmates can be a nightmare. The high school hallway? A circle Dante accidentally omitted from his Inferno. Your twenties? An agony of uncertainty about career, paycheck, and vocation. Middle age when, supposedly, you’ve got everything figured out? A rut. Old age, after you’ve lived life to its fullest? A shadow-world of losses. Nothing is as glamorous or easy or insignificant as what we see on the other side of the fence.

I have a BA. I’m out in the “real world.” Now, instead of having to justify my majors (English and French), I have to justify my existence by explaining my longer-term plans, which everyone seems to assume I have. (I do.) In the meantime, I’m taking a couple of language classes at community college, but I’m mostly with undergraduates who are fresh out of high school—is this real? I have a job, but it’s part-time and my only benefits include free drinks from the fountain, which I don’t even take advantage of because I don’t like soda—is this real? Part-time school, part-time work, and trying to figure out next year: this is my life, right now. It feels pretty darn real to me.


[1] Think: “the Ivory Tower.”

[2] I can’t remember where I read this one—possibly on the Humans of New York Facebook page. One of our veterans said that it was hard leaving the military because, there, everything (benefits, etc.) had been taken care of.

[3] Here, I think of Marie-Antoinette and her famous Let them eat cake! response to the starving masses that eventually beheaded her.

[4] Christian day school is a tricky one—it distances itself from “the real world,” and often deems itself a walk in the prelapsarian Garden (ex. We weren’t allowed to put locks on our lockers because that would imply there were thieves among us. (There were.)). Let me assure you that the serpents there merely sport better camouflage.


  1. Cassie

    I really love this.

    • Avatar

      Thanks, Cassie! And, thanks for your comment last month—the website wouldn’t let me post a reply then, so I’m trying again…

  2. Gabe Gunnink


    This is fabulous. I love the idea of constantly needing to justify your existence by your future plans. So poignant. I am not at all surprised!

    • Gabe Gunnink

      Oh my goodness! SABRINA! I think that I accidentally amalgamized you and Professor Moore. My apologies. I hope that comes as a compliment, though! (Also, I would have just re-posted my comment, but I’m dismayed to report that apparently I am not tech-savvy enough for even this simple feat.)

      • Avatar

        Gabe, I find being called Sarina/Serena by a Calvin person one of the highest compliments 🙂

  3. Caroline

    Preach. This is awesome. I especially appreciate your Christian school footnote. Clever. 🙂

  4. Avatar

    This is amazing, Sabrina.
    As a grad student, I feel the heavy weight of this patronizing Real World idea. When are we going to stop trouncing all over our neighbors’ experiences? Judging them as inauthentic, as if we know their lives so well. It’s really a shame, and I’m glad that you’ve brought it to the forefront of our attention. Thank you.

  5. Avatar

    Thank you, Sabrina, for writing this. I’ve read it multiple times now, and I resonate with so many of your insights. As a recent grad from a small Christian college, working a one-year contract job, preparing to head to the military later this year, I find myself, as you said, ‘justifying’ my existence – my place, my occupation, my interests – to others and, in my private, to myself. Thank you thank you, for putting into words what I’ve certainly felt and continue to struggle with!

    • Avatar

      Dear all,
      Thank you for your feedback! It’s lovely to find some kindred spirits. All the best as you live in your very real worlds.


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