I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life that have landed me behind bars. Coffee bars that is.
I grew up serving people from behind the counter at my parents’ fruit stand in Keremeos, British Columbia. I knew when I was very young that I had no plans to take on the family orchard so I had to come up with another plan. In 1997 I took a year-long culinary program at community college. It was fun and I was pretty good at it.
I was mostly good at it.
Eggs were my nemesis.
To this day I am incapable of producing a proper French omelette. I’m not sure how I could whip milk and eggs into so much disappointment, but when I showed my plate to my cooking instructor, he literally shrieked in horror. Despite my issues with breakfast food, I completed in the top percentile of my class. Afterwards, however, I did not apply to a single restaurant. I was terrified of actually cooking for the public. Terrified. I went back to work for my folks and decided that I wasn’t a cook.
A few years later I reacquainted myself with that terror when I got a job at Starbucks in Vancouver. For the first month I was afraid to make drinks that people were going to pay for. I was, again, terrified and dread took me over for hours leading up to my shifts.
Until one day when I wasn’t afraid anymore.
I just got over it. I forced myself in to work and did the thing that scared me over and over again until it didn’t scare me anymore. I grew to love making drinks. I became a Starbucks rock star and my skills were recognized when I was voted Partner of the Quarter in the Fall of 2003. That’s the best employee in the whole district in a three-month span. The reward came with a twenty-five dollar gift certificate for the Gap.
I quit Starbucks just months before being eligible for that commemorative five-year pen. It was a tough call because I really enjoy stationery. While I did go through a lot of personal growth in that job, my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. An interaction I had with a regular customer punctuated it more. I had greeted him, “good morning,” and began to pour his tall dark roast when he asked me,
“How are you today?”
I answered him half-heartedly with, “Oh, I’m…here…”
“Oh, man,” he started into me, “Why are you even here? You obviously hate your job.”
“No, no,” I said, “I’m fine, just a bit tired…”
Tall Dark Roast continued, a little impatient with me, “No, man. You hate it here. Just quit already.”
Kind of rude, but he was not wrong.
I enrolled in school full time as an excuse to quit Starbucks. I had always been drawn to the idea of getting a university degree, even though I didn’t really comprehend what it meant. Post-secondary education was an abstract concept to me. I saw it as this thing that you did to level up in life. I was ready to level up in life so I jumped right in. I would get a degree, then I would get a grown-up job where I would make grown-up money.
My four-year BSc took eight years to complete. This included a year of upgrading and a detour halfway through to attempt nursing school.
That’s right, nursing school.
Halfway through my degree, I was having second thoughts about a career in biology. It occurred to me how uninterested I was. I wasn’t like my classmates. I didn’t want to discuss protein synthesis over beers. I didn’t go on holidays to take pictures of lichen. I didn’t read scientific publications for fun. In fact, I barely read my textbooks.
It was right before I dropped out of nursing school that I learned I had anxiety. My clinical instructor, Corinne, had pulled me aside one day to quiz me on the day’s assignment. As usual, I went blank. I felt my face burning up as I fumbled for answers about heart medication. I stuttered and stammered, struggling to remember the things that I actually knew. I braced myself for Corinne’s disappointment when she looked at me thoughtfully and said, “you have anxiety.” No one had ever suggested anything like that to me before, yet it explained so many things. Why I experienced so much unnecessary terror. Why every group interaction was a battle. Why phone calls would make me panic. It was nice to have something to blame.
I spent a few months feeling lost and pointless before retreating back to my parents’ business. Another season of serving tourists reminded me why I started school in the first place, so I decided to finish that biology degree I was lukewarm about. I completed a BSc in Applied Animal Biology at UBC. I got to visit some dairy farms, dissect a few organs, and witness first hand how bull semen is collected, so it wasn’t all bad. Mostly, though, I endured my classes with emotional detachment and clung to the belief that there was a great job at the end of the tunnel. I optimistically ignored that most graduates of my program continued on to do their Master’s because there is nothing out there for a biologist with only a Bachelor’s. I applied to a few biology positions because I felt like I had to and was relieved when I didn’t hear back from any of them.
My education did eventually lead to a job; my chemistry lab partner hired me at the cafe she was managing, where I ended up cooking eggs for people every morning.
It was fun.
For a while.
My story would be cute if it turned out I loved serving coffee and ended up opening my own shop. Instead, I wonder if I’m in some kind of purgatory, playing out this infinite loop of service jobs and education. There’s probably an important lesson I’m refusing to learn that keeps sucking me back into the cycle. In the meantime, I’m getting pretty antsy pouring coffee and have started looking up schools.