The next day he came in for a half a day and walked me through the tasks and then he was gone. I was left to figure this out.
One of my tasks was compiling a list of media hits for Penn on a daily basis. I had decent search skills from working the clunky courthouse databases, but this new job taught me about search engine including a relatively new one called Google.
I also had to distribute media advisories, press releases, and announcements. This sharpened my photocopying and letter folding skills. We still mailed most of our releases. The local media was on speed dial on the fax machine.
In addition to these tasks, I volunteered to write for the staff publication — The Penn Current. This is where learned to be brief, breezy, and engaging. The editor was tough, but I learned more from her than nearly any of my writing professors.
I also learned how to work in an office environment with varying degrees of success. For one, I’m a bit of a clown, especially when I’m not focused. While I did get along with everyone in the office (a fate-given skill that I have been blessed with), I did occasionally ruffle feathers with off-color comments.
The toughest lesson I learned is that I can and deserve to be a part of something bigger.
When I started my graduate work a year later, I introduced myself in a creative writing class as being from Fishtown. Fishtown was a blue-collar row home area of Philadelphia where generations of families lived on the same block. Fishtowners were not known for going to Penn. After class, one of the students approached me and asked, “What’s a kid from Fishtown doing at Penn?”
I said, “Surviving.” He was from Kensington. He wasn’t supposed to be here either. When I figured out that was bullshit, I did a lot better. But for a while, that perceived class differential really nagged me.
Working at a university like Penn was amazing. I’d sometimes knock off an hour for lunch to go see John Updike give a talk. Or hang out afterwards to see Susan Sontag, Rem Koolhaas, or Chinua Achebe. Sometimes I’d chill at the Kelly Writers House to hang out with Robert Creeley, Michael Cunningham, Hampton Fancher, or Rick Moody. There was always something going on.
This is where I wanted to be, surrounded by intellectuals; to be a part of a group of people dedicated to making a difference.
Two years into my position there was a director change and the recognition that I was capable enough to be promoted. I had already managed some minor media relations particularly when if fell to visiting writers or artists.
I became a news officer with beats in arts and culture. I had an opportunity to interview professors and staff. I talked to Paul Hendrickson about his book Sons of Mississippi and handled some of the calls for Thomas Childers when it was found that Stephen Ambrose had plagarized some of his work.
In September 2001, I handled requests for Paul Fussell and others who could talk about American consciousness and historical implications of 9/11.
Things were going well in some departments of my life and not so well in others. I felt again in some toddler stage where I was walking but still needing assistance for some things both professionally and personally. I was finishing up my Masters in Liberal Arts where I had the good fortune to make a some friends, one really good one, and got to study under author Peter Rock who helped me take my writing to another level.
My wife graduated Penn in December 2002 and started to look for a job, mostly in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. I didn’t know much about North Carolina except that it was south and I didn’t anticipate on living there. I didn’t want to leave Philly, I was getting comfortable. But within a couple of weeks, she found a job (basically handed to her over the course of one phone call) and in March she was moving to Research Triangle Park.
I was in charge of handling commencement duties for Penn but spending two months away from Michelle was a bit much. It would be simply prolonging the inevitable.
Before leaving I managed to land a mention of Penn’s role in the World Trade Center redesign in the New York Times. But it was time for me to leave the university that I began to love, began to feel a part of, and helped me to realize my own potential.
I headed south.