By Molly Hartmann Ahrens
When I was at Bryn Mawr College, if you had asked me where I saw myself in five years, I never would have said working as a bartender. I was sure that I'd be in some kind of leadership position.
Bryn Mawr College has always been known for its trailblazers. Among many, it produced Katharine Hepburn (Class of 1928), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore (1909), Nobel Peace Prize recipient Emily Greene Balch (1889) and Drew Gilpin Faust (1968), who will become the first female president of Harvard University in July. To be a student at Bryn Mawr is to be constantly reminded of the legacy of the great women who went before you.
I tried to measure up after graduating in 2003. Each year, I dutifully sent in my career "news" to the alumni bulletin. The truth is that you can make even the most horrible job sound good, and even a job that already sounds good can be truly horrible.
For the first year I wrote: "Molly is working as community outreach coordinator at a well-known women's health center." The reality was that I was holed up in a tiny, windowless office collecting money from the patients who bought the center's ugly T-shirts.
The next blurb I sent in read: "Molly is programs coordinator for the fund-raising department of a prestigious Philadelphia arts organization." I hated this job even more than the first. My boss was a wild-eyed, disorganized woman, and I began to develop nervous tics from the constant stress of working with her.
Bartending was something a friend of mine mentioned after I quit my second job. I did not like the suggestion. "I got a college degree to become a bartender?" I asked her. But like it or not, I needed the money. So with no other immediate prospects ahead of me, I signed up for a week-long licensing course. At the time I felt like a failure. Going to bartending school felt like a punishment for not being able to withstand a job with a more impressive title.
I got mixed reactions from people when I told them I was "pursuing a degree in mixology." Most of my friends thought it was hilarious. "But you don't even drink!" they exclaimed. An old college professor I ran into asked me when I was planning to get a real job. My mom tried to sound upbeat, but I knew I was putting an end to 21/2 decades of her bragging about me to her friends. Spending your nights mixing up Purple Hooters isn't exactly the same thing as writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
After receiving my bartending license last fall, I began to work with a small catering company. We mainly did private parties in large suburban mansions. At first it really depressed me to be "the hired help" (as I have been referred to), but I was soon cheered up by the fact that I made more money bartending than at my previous jobs. Plus, I found the work pretty interesting.
At Bryn Mawr, I majored in sociology. Standing behind the bar provided me with a perfect vantage point from which to study people. Dressed in my black uniform, I could easily disappear into the shadows, becoming noticeable only when someone needed a fresh drink. But this invisibility felt very different from the kind I had experienced previously. I used to feel invisible in a bad way; it was not only about not being seen, but about not being able to feel my own spirit inside myself.
Now I marvel at how ironic it is that in working as an anonymous nobody I have begun to feel like a real somebody. Nearly five years out of college, the person I am becoming is less concerned with achieving success in a conventional way and more concerned with piecing together an enriching life on her own terms.