Interning is like repeating middle school all over again. Everyone knows you’re in this weird limbo stage between being a student and having a career.
It’s also like that sappy Britney Spears ballad: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”
I’m not a child, not yet a professional.
Since I’m barely legal and barely five feet tall, I could have passed for a junior high intern. Luckily, if anyone was thinking that, they’d have to rule it out because all the other interns came from prestigious universities.
So maybe, just maybe, people would take me as a young professional. I was dressed the part. Blouse, blazer, pencil skirt. Even pantyhose.
But my illusions were soon shattered. Like a kid playing dress up, no one was fooled.
While I was coming home on the metro from D.C. to Alexandria one night, the woman next to me turned and asked, not unkindly, “Aren’t you a bit young to be riding alone?”
I didn’t want to jump to conclusions and liken this lady to the one a year ago working at Costco who asked where my mother was. That time, the age minimum to sample food without a parent present was 13.
I was 19.
This new lady, though. I was willing to give her a chance. Maybe she thought you shouldn’t ride on the metro alone unless you’re at least 25.
Playing it cool, I replied, “How old do you think I am?”
Obviously, she’d been fact checking with the Costco woman. It was a year later, so I would be 14 now.
I bring this up because I don’t often hear people discussing the awkward intern experience. People point and laugh at interns, and blog about them, but where is the compassion, I ask?
From day one, I knew there was no getting past those red intern badges we had to have out on display everywhere, which is the Senate’s equivalent of pasting a big ‘L’ to your forehead. People knew. People judged. Our ID pictures were godawful, of course. It can’t be middle school without a too close for comfort close-up of your awkward face grimacing/smiling on the first day of school. The boys’ voices might as well have been cracking. To make things worse, the office staff insisted the interns dress up even on Casual Fridays. That only further separated us from the pack. While my boss was looking cool and casual in an Urban Outfitters checkered shirt and form-fitting jeans, I looked stuffy and dwarfed by my Hillary-esque pantsuit.
There was even a blog about all the dumb things interns said and did. It was merciless.
It really was a lot like reliving middle school. Interns traveled in packs for fear of appearing unpopular. As I walked out of the building at the end of the day, I’d see other interns leaving with their Jansport backpacks and making plans for the evening:
“Hey, man. What’s up? Where are you going? What are up to tonight? Wanna hang out? Party at my place!” Frantic hand gestures ensued.
And during the day: “Hey, I’m going on a coffee run! Can I get anyone something?” That was code for, “I’ll do whatever it takes to sit at the cool kids’ table today.”
Coffee. That was another thing. I was suddenly surrounded by java-consuming young adults. As I did research at my computer, the guy next to me was downing his Dunkin’ Donuts hazelnut coffee and head banging along to the electronic music spewing out from his iPod speakers. Sitting by him made me nervous. His spaz attacks were infectious and I too felt caffeine jitters. Suddenly I was 13 again (obviously not a stretch of the imagination), when the guy with ADHD behind me in class would stretch out his legs and rest his feet on the basket under my desk and then proceed to bounce his knees up and down for the remaining hour. The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever signing up for a creaky roller coaster simulator.
I can’t say I learned to enjoy researching to the sounds of Daft Punk.
Because I didn’t want to buy lunch in the cafeteria every day, I often packed my own. Lunchables. My friend brought peanut butter and jelly every day. Clearly we weren’t doing much to improve our image.
I don’t know what interns can do to get past this awkward phase. I think, like being on the cusp of puberty, you have to just grin and bear it, and hope people don’t bully and laugh at you too much along the way.