“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, the Church; the military; the upper class; Christian day school. 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.
 Think: “the Ivory Tower.”
 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.
 Here, I think of Marie-Antoinette and her famous Let them eat cake! response to the starving masses that eventually beheaded her.
 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.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.