What People Don't Get About My Job: From A(rmy Soldier) to Z(ookeeper)

J is for Journalist
"The purpose of opinion journalism is to make money ... to generate ideas ... to get on television...."

This profession encompasses a significant part of my writerly output. The insight I want to offer is that among the people who do this on a daily basis, there is a lot of implicit disagreement about what our purpose is or should be. I'll just list some of the different approaches I perceive.

The purpose of opinion journalism is...

1) ...to make money.

2) ...to attract an audience.

3) ...to influence people.

4) ... to generate ideas.

5) ...to advance conversations.

6) ...to help air different sides of a debate.

7) ...to help the political prospects of your ideological coalition.

8) ...to disparage ideological adversaries.

9) ...to raise the political price of trying you or your former colleagues for war crimes.

10) ...to earn a living as a writer.

11) ...to get on television.

12) ...to produce an intellectually honest argument.

13) ...to accrue social prestige.

Insofar as you see animosity among opinion journalists, the root of it is often different value judgments about which of these things, or combination of these things, is or should be our object. - Conor Friedersdorf

K is for Kindergarten Teacher
"I am not only a teacher, but a security officer, tutor, mentor, and counselor."

I am an elementary art teacher. I teach 450 kids each week in 45 minute sessions. I am not only a teacher, but a security officer, tutor, mentor, and counselor. Here are a couple of common misconceptions about what I do: No, we do not sit around and finger paint all day long. No, we do not do a bunch of cutsie activities where the students all make the exact same penguin with googely eyes. I teach the kids about art. What this means is that we look at art and talk about it. For example: artists intent, elements and principles of design, criticism and aesthetics, art history. Art class is not a filler, where the kids are dropped off to a babysitter so their "real" teacher can get their much needed break. Art teaches kids about history, other cultures, how to problem solve and think outside the box. It teachers them that sometimes there is not just one right answer. I also teach them about visual culture and challenge them to question their surroundings. I use art to teach other subjects like language arts, science and math.

L is for Librarian
"We are not mere cart pushers. This job requires a Masters degree for a reason."

People have made an extremely strong link between librarians, libraries and books. This is only natural, but it really sells short the full value of libraries and the full scope of librarian work. Libraries offer so much more than moldy old books. There's also music, movies, TV shows, video games, and electronic databases that span a whole galaxy of scholarly and practical information unavailable to any level of googling. Additionally, libraries offer free internet access that is utterly vital in many poor and rural communities. As government services migrate online, good citizenship almost requires an internet connection. Libraries also provide a free space for local groups and communities and have been at the forefront of job search training and computer instruction. Coordinating all of this are the humble librarians. We are not mere cart pushers, let me assure you. This job requires a Masters degree for a reason.

M is for Movie Theater Clerk
"Yes, I know the prices are ridiculous. And I have dreams beyond this popcorn counter."

I am a movie theater employee. Yes I know, the prices are ridiculous. No, I don't agree with it. What you don't understand about me is that I am not stupid, or lazy for working here. I am working hard every single day towards my bachelor's degree. What people don't understand is that it is hot, and loud behind the counter. So if I have to ask twice, please forgive me. I have heard the same joke, and the same complaint, 1,800 times a day. So forgive me for not laughing every time. What you don't understand about my job is that I am on my feet for 8-10 hours, with one 10 minute break, and 1 half hour. For not much money. When you yell at me because your popcorn tastes funny, what you don't understand is that I don't make it. What you don't understand, is when I have 80 people behind you tapping their feet, I don't have time for the 20 complaints you have. I am a therapist, and a babysitter, and a waitress. Please pick up your trash after the show. And please remember, I have dreams beyond this popcorn counter.

N is for Nanny
"Seeing the world through children's eyes is intense and beautiful and fleeting. Don't call me a manny."

I am a nanny. I care for a rambunctious one-year-old and occasionally his nine-year-old brother.

I am not starting a daycare, I am not a babysitter, and I do not nanny to make extra cash. Nannying is what I do. Seeing the world through children's eyes is intense and beautiful and fleeting, and I get to experience it every day. I don't just change diapers, I teach a new person how to engage and interact with the world. Right now I am teaching the kid I care for to sign before he can speak. I am teaching him to be gentle and kind, to appreciate music and books, and to respect boundaries. At his age, children can make between ten and twenty thousand new connections in the brain every second they are awake. That's an incredible amount of 'teachable moments' where I can actually change the course of this child's life. It's an awesome responsibility and I take it seriously.

What I don't love? All of the good-natured ribbing about how what I do is so easy. The questions about why, as a guy, I am a nanny. Childcare isn't the sole domain of women and I am not engaging in role-reversal. It doesn't mean I'm feminine. It doesn't mean I'm gay (It doesn't mean I'm not any of those things but I shouldn't have to go into this). And please stop calling me a "manny." What it means is that I'm well equipped for and interested in caring for children, and that I have found a way to match that with a child that needs looking after.

But what I do isn't easy. For example, diaper-changing time. This is an exercise in rule-enforcement: there is no wiggling, no kicking, and no stray hands groping for the diaper straps. Then it's breakfast time while I go over his development with Dad. We quibble over things like allowing him to climb a playscape unattended (absolutely not!) and what he's not allowed to eat yet and why (let's wait on that brisket, hm?). Then Dad goes to work and it's playtime til his first nap. Naptime is a ritual that I follow so he'll be comfortable, get to sleep quickly, and stay asleep as long as he needs to. Any interruption of the ritual is a domino that sets off the rest of the day so it is important that it remains undisturbed. The fan goes on high, the blinds are drawn, and the pacifier (only for sleeping) goes in. I lay him down in the same direction, tuck the blanket around him so he's comfortable enough to close his eyes. Then I leave immediately, perhaps read a few pages in my book before I start cooking lunch so it can be ready when he wakes up. Having lunch ready is important because if he doesn't eat right after nap #1 he won't release breakfast before nap #2. Which means he will wake up in the middle of the nap needing a diaper change. Hence, domino effect. Then Mom comes home and we go over when he's scheduled to sleep the rest of the day, what signs we are learning, problems in behavior that need to be addressed.

I love teaching and I love children. The amount of attention required to raise a small child precludes my watching more than just a few at a time so I am a nanny. It's sometimes stressful but always rewarding. As long as the adults don't make my profession a joke.

O is for Opera Singer
"We sing without microphones about 99% of the time."


P is for Professional Philosopher
"I love being a philosopher, even though it may sound pretentious."

I am a philosopher. (And yes, even I cringe because of the pretension this statement seems to contain.) It would be better if I were also a philosophy professor, because then I could say I teach. But I don't teach philosophy. Teaching is only part of what a philosopher does. Research, which consists mainly of reading books and writing books, is also a small part of what I do. The bulk of what a philosopher does is think. I think about politics, art, society, culture, science, music, language, technology, teaching, ethics, literature, history, religion, and philosophy. And yes, I think about the meaning of life. But because I am a philosopher, I can't unquestioningly rely on the criteria from other fields as justification for either those fields themselves or for the value I find in them. Instead, I have to think about history, for example, without relying on historical methodology. I have to question the value of art without merely resorting to historical or aesthetic or theoretical justifications for that value. I love being a philosopher, even though it may sound pretentious. I wish there were more of us enamored with thinking.

Q is for Quiz Master
"I know the answer to 75% of the questions I ask. They call it quiz master for a reason."

The first thing people don't understand is how much time I put into developing trivia night at bars. It takes hours. First, I consult my brain. I probably know the answer to about 75% of the questions I end up asking. (They call it quiz master for a reason.) Second, I follow some ideas on Wikipedia. Then I search around in the general Internet for the remaining questions. I also use old Trivia Pursuit cards -- not the recent ones, the 1980s version. Those have some good, tough geography questions.

During a round, people don't understand how annoying it is when multiple teams are asking me to police the room for cell phones. If you're on a cell phone, that sucks. But I'm not going to run around looking over peoples' shoulders. I can't see everybody. So don't cheat. And don't blame me if you suspect cheating.
Next page: R: Referee - Z: Zoo Keeper
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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