Forty-three years ago, my private-all-girls-college-prep-school cancelled classes for “Career Day”. Each student picked three presentations to attend. I chose a college quarterback (because a friend heard he was “cute” and insisted we check him out), a lawyer (because I could argue anyone into the ground and figured the attorney and I might have something in common), and a surgeon (because I was interested in med school).
The quarterback lived up to his “cute” reputation. In fact, he was so entranced with his own handsomeness, especially his extremely excellent hair, that even at thirteen-years-old I was annoyed. He spent 45 minutes praising journalists who wrote about his stupendousness, and whining about those who didn’t.
On to the attorney, where I was privileged to be in the presence of Greatness. This man, by his own report, was a hero of legendary proportions, swooping into courtrooms for the Cause Of Righteousness. Scattered among descriptions of multiple David v. Goliath victories, he offered the vital stats of his life: his private jet was under repair, forcing him to travel first class on a commercial airline, where the service was far beneath his standards – he drove a red Porsche, with a customized leather interior – his wife was “a beauty” and twelve years his junior — he recently had dinner with a famous actor, whose name he dropped six times and who had nothing whatsoever to do with his career.
On to the surgeon, another Superhero. He described his job as charging in, scalpel in hand, to perform miracles. He “saved” (sic the good doctor) “too many to count” (sic again), and the majority of his talk focused on his “grateful patients”, his “favorites” being those who returned to his office bearing gifts.
When my mother picked me up from school, I told her about the quarterback destined to fall in love with a mirror, the stuff-legends-are-made-of attorney, the He-Who-Must-Be-Worshipped doctor. As we drove, I realized with an unfamiliar clarity that these absurd presentations had actually helped to guide me. I knew, with absolute certainty, that I needed to understand how a talented athlete, a gifted lawyer, and a successful doctor all defined themselves not by their skills or brains, but by their narcissism. That night at dinner, I told my parents I was going to study psychology in college, then apply to a doctoral program, and practice psychotherapy.
But something lurked beneath the surface. I felt restless and bothered in a way I couldn’t define. For several days, I wrestled with…I wasn’t sure what it was. Thoughts chased each other, elusive shadows I couldn’t quite grasp — my overwhelmingly Caucasian prep school, private jets, students who took college utterly for granted, exceedingly excellent hair, a classmate’s mansion with all the furniture covered in plastic. A few weeks later, with that same unfamiliar clarity, I understood what I needed to do. I announced over dinner that I was transferring to the local public school, Hollywood High — which had gangs, over 40 native languages, a significant number living on the streets, and a minority who went on to any form of higher education.
People choose careers for all sorts of reasons — some practical, some thoughtful, some emotional. Pulsing beneath our conscious motivations lie a myriad of layers that influence us. Our choices are carefully thought out and simultaneously entirely unconscious. Back at thirteen years old, I knew I had decided on my first career, but I had no idea that my second career was in place as well.
I enrolled in Hollywood High School which opened my world, then Yale University where I studied psychology as promised. Through college, I also took every English class I could get my hands on. I dove into social psych, research design, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung…along with medieval plays, Greek tragedies, Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry James. I went to grad school as planned, and began my career as a therapist.
We’re all eccentric creatures, with different gifts and deficits. I can barely remember my own phone number, but I remember words. Phrases, sentences and conversations stick with me, sometimes for decades. During my 25 years as a therapist, my quirky memory served me well. I remembered every session, often verbatim, for the duration of each person’s treatment.
A few years ago, I decided to focus on a second career – writing novels. On the surface, these two careers seem to hold little in common. The foundations for both rest in my fascination with words — spoken and written, sounds and meaning, rhythm and cadence, first in a psychotherapy office, and then in the world of fiction.
At thirteen years old, I got a lot wrong. Strangely, however, I pegged my career path with absolute accuracy. I loved my work as a psychotherapist, and when I began to write, I decided that my first novel would be a fictionalized version of my experience at Hollywood High School. Both choices trace back to Career Day.
To that quarterback, attorney and surgeon: thank you.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of three grown children. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum. To learn more about Amy, visit her website.