NYC245 cover image See all stories from issue #245, January/February 2015

Growing Up is Hard to Do
My career path is a work in progress
DeAnna Lyles

When I started writing this story, I was 20 days away from graduating high school. I was excited but scared. I’d be done with high school, maybe school in general, I didn’t know. It also meant I’d be entering adulthood and taking on more responsibilities that I wasn’t sure I could handle.

Throughout my whole senior year there was a nagging voice that kept telling me I couldn’t succeed. I gave that voice a name, Veto. I named him that because he tried to deny me my hopes for success by feeding me negativity. Of course, I knew Veto was only a figment of my imagination. He was the voice of my insecurity, the voice that would do anything to bring me down.

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For example, when I thought about living on my own, away from my mother’s supervision, Veto would get in my head: “You’re not ready,” he’d say. “You don’t know how to wash clothes, you hardly cook for yourself, and you rarely clean.” I felt the urge to argue back, but I couldn’t. My mother still did those things for me at 19 years old.

I also worried about finding a decent job and managing my money. I thought I would be able to handle it. I’d had internships and part-time jobs, after all. I knew I was capable of doing what’s asked of me, and more. But Veto had to put his two cents in.

“Ha, ha, ha! You think you’ll be able to maintain a full-time job? Keep dreaming, sister. You should know you’re only good for sitting on the couch, being lazy, and acting rebellious,” the annoying Veto voice would say. With that, I’d fall into the depths of self-doubt again.

Reinventing Myself

Veto was a voice deep within that was always lurking around. I sometimes thought those doubts came from the struggles that I’d seen within my family and community.

I watched my aunts struggle to take care of their kids and hold down jobs as single mothers. My mom also struggled financially, trying to raise me mostly by herself, clothe me, and provide us with a place to live.

It felt like it would be hard to do better than the other people in my neighborhood. I’m proud of where I grew up because it’s mine, but it’s not a place where I want to grow old and raise my family. There is too much violence and complacency. A lot of young people in my hood never finished high school, have loads of kids, no jobs, and are still living at home with their mothers. I was tired of being around the gang bangers, drug dealers, drama queens, 24/7 fighters, and the crack heads. Yet, sometimes it felt like that’s all there was, and that my future was right in the middle of it. I felt as if I was just like my neighbors and I wondered why I should try to do better.

Fortunately, there were a lot of people who encouraged me, and tried to quiet my self-doubt. When I mentioned my worries about my future, they reminded me that I already had been successful in one big area—school.

“I’ve seen what you’re capable of. Since you’ve been in this school your academic performance has improved so much in such a sort amount of time,” said Sydney King, my favorite and most inspiring English teacher before graduation. She reminded me of how far I’d come: I’d gone from being a kid who regularly skipped school to a focused and dedicated student. After falling behind, I’d realized I needed to take more responsibility for myself, do the work, and stick to my one big goal of getting my high school diploma.

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Still, when I thought about a job, bills, living on my own—I felt ready to pass out. In fact, I stopped writing this story because I just couldn’t envision the end of it.

Top Chef

Fast forward four years. I graduated from high school and took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do next. Since I was a young girl, cooking has always been something that I loved. After graduation, my girlfriend at the time signed me up for some cooking classes.

I moved in with her in New Jersey and went to cooking school there. I learned so much: how to run a restaurant, set up a buffet, and how to do basic baking and cook different cuisines. I also earned my food handling certificate, which you need to get a job in a professional kitchen. Although I felt confident during the exam because I knew this was what I wanted to do, I had self-doubt about my ability to remember all the information I needed to pass.

After I got my certificate, I got my uniform and gear for training: Chef pants, jackets, croc shoes, hat, and even my own personal knife kit, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I did an unpaid externship (which is like an internship but shorter) at a French bistro, where I learned to make poached eggs, omelets, scrambled eggs, pot pie, and crepes.

Unfortunately I had to move back to New York before I was able to complete the externship because I ended my relationship with the woman I was living with in New Jersey. I couldn’t afford the commute.

Coming Home

When I moved back to my old neighborhood, I worried I’d get caught up with the wrong people and stuck in the same rut I was in before I graduated high school. But I didn’t. Instead, I looked back at everything I’d accomplished in such a short time, and realized how much stronger I’d become. My mind-set was and still is to become the person I want to be professionally and to only surround myself with people who want the same thing for themselves. I’m more independent now too. I realize that no one is going to do for me other than me.

I jumped from job to job for a while, but I’m currently working at a hotel at the front desk. It’s not what I wanted—I applied for a position in the kitchen—but I am enjoying some parts of the job. I like meeting all different kinds of people and what makes my day is when a guest tells me that they love my professionalism, how I handle certain situations, how just seeing me smile and greet them is enough to make them smile. It’s guests’ positive feedback that makes my job enjoyable.

In the mix of all this, I’m hoping the relationship I was in can be repaired. It was serious; we were even engaged for a while. But we broke up when we realized we both needed to love ourselves more before we could commit to a lifetime together. In fact, I hope that one day we’ll be able to have a family. I feel strongly about that ever since my cousin had a baby; a little boy who is now the light of my life.

So I’m still figuring things out. The future is still scary to me, but not nearly as much as it was before. I’ve lived in another state, learned what a long-term relationship is like, got trained in cooking, have more job experience under my belt, and discovered that I have a maternal instinct. However, I’m not ready for the harsh world of being on my own just yet. Right now I’m living at home with my mother. But I’m a lot closer to living independently than I was when I started writing this story four years ago.

Unfortunately, Veto is still around. I got so used to arguing with Veto that I can’t let him go. Instead of feeling like I’m going to pass out though, I’m able to control when and how much self-doubt to allow in. That challenges me to be better and keep pushing forward.

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