Some of my favourite writers are non-conformists who rage against authority. But I live a working week of quiet conformity.
Our culture seems to value authority but I am a drone and a proud one. I am drawn to physical jobs with specific routines and orders to follow. In my non-working life, I can be as creative and autonomous as I like, but at work, I put on my uniform, hunker down, and obey.
When I was in secondary school, a business studies teacher asked if there was anyone in the class who definitely did not want to run a business. My hand shot up - it was the only one. I had no grim experience of watching parents struggle to run a business and pay the bills, but I knew that the stresses of managing and juggling were never going to be for me.
In theory I like the idea of planning your working day and having complete autonomy, but it rarely seems to work out that way. Those who run businesses seem to have less autonomy the more authority they gain. The stress of managing people, of taking full responsibility if the task goes wrong, and of bullshitting other people to keep them on side, outweighs the benefits to my mind. I admire people who have a talent and set up a business to sell the products of that talent, but the business side of things, managing taxes and staff, incomings and outgoings, sounds like fresh hell to me.
All of my life I’ve avoided jobs that require me to be an authority figure. I taught English in Japan, but this was authority-lite. When I taught in elementary school or junior high school, the class teacher sat at the back of the class ready to intervene in the event of objects being fired at my head.
I liked hunkering down on the floor playing with the children, sneaking learning into fun activities; I hated standing at the front of the classroom, disappointing the expectant little faces turned towards me, looking for someone who could sort out their world. I hated the fact that I was supposed to discipline the children if they went out of control - I wanted to go out of control with them. When the games we were playing threatened to get too loud or too frenetic, I wanted to shout and tear around the classroom with them. Fortunately, my boss prided himself on accepting the children who had been expelled from other language schools in the district. If ear-splitting roaring and floorboard-shaking were coming from my classroom, this was viewed as a successful lesson.
The only time I was pulled up for my lack of authority had nothing to do with my teaching.
My boss called me into the office one day to let me know that I had been seen by some of my students. It sounded ominous. My mind flicked through Saturday night’s heavy session, but surely none of my young students had witnessed that! No, it was the meal we’d had before the drinking began that was the problem.
My boyfriend and I had gone to a sushi restaurant with a friend. As well as the plates of sushi circling around the conveyor belt, there were desserts aplenty. When a gorgeous confection of pineapple and cream in a knickerbocker glory glass passed, I grabbed it. Before we started on the sushi, I ate my dessert. Then I ate my sushi-fill and had a second dessert. The first dessert was the problem. I had been seen, unbeknownst to myself, by a couple of the children and their parents. The children were impressed by the idea of starting a meal with dessert and decided this was a plan they could get behind. Their parents were not so impressed. My boss informed me that as a figure of authority, I had to watch my behaviour in public.
I found teaching adults difficult, especially those who had been in the world longer than I had. Age comes with a natural authority. In my twenties, I felt none. I felt too tall standing at the top of the class. I felt unsure of what I was teaching.
I know now that those who speak and act with authority do not necessarily have any knowledge or experience, but I still actively avoid being in charge. I respect leaders who admit there are gaps in their knowledge, but there are too few.
I have always been drawn to physical work, the kind of work some people regard as drudgery and pay others to do for them as soon as they can afford it.
Growing up I spent my summers on my uncle’s farm in Mayo. My younger brother and I loved the farm work, shadowing my uncle and doing whatever tasks we could be trusted with – feeding the dogs, rounding up the cattle, washing the milk-churns, raking the hay. Physical tasks have a beginning and an end, a feeling of satisfaction to them. I loved the routine of it – knowing that at a certain time every day, a certain task would have to be performed. And I loved the way your mind could wander and circle as you were carrying out those tasks. I considered becoming a farmer, but as soon as I realised it would involve a business brain and lots of responsibility – as well as sending cute woolly creatures off to the slaughterhouse - I dropped the idea. Working for The Man seemed easier.
Since then, I’ve had many jobs that would be seen as drudgery by some. I had paper rounds, minded children and elderly people, cleaned hospitals and nursing homes, delivered post, and I’m currently working as a cleaner in a university. I know that I’m pond-life in terms of respect and money, but I feel free. I am told where to clean on any given day, and when I finish at 9:30 am, my day is my own. I am physically tired, my brain will have had room to roam around the book I’m currently working on, there is no stress to bring from work to home life. I like being a cog in a wheel. I have never wanted to be the person pedalling. I am happiest in the background, a follower not a leader, even though our society reveres the leaders, the ones who sometimes get us into untold messes.
This is not to say I have a natural respect for authority; I don’t. But even when I’ve had to work under incompetent managers, I still felt fortunate to be taking orders rather than giving them.
Since I’ve had my first book published, I get asked things about the state of Irish literature or other questions I feel I have no authority to answer. I’m uncomfortable making grand pronouncements.
Sometimes I feel bad about my decisions to opt out of authority. I was a high-achiever. I studied hard and spent two years studying a course that would have landed me in a respected well-paid job with plenty of responsibility. I dropped out to study English. When things go pear-shaped, or watermelon-shaped in my life, as they have several times in the past few years, I can’t help but think that if I had chosen a career instead of a job, at least I would have financial stability.
But, most of the time, I’m regret-free. I’m very happy going to work in the mornings, despite having to get out of bed at an hour I had only ever seen coming out of parties. I’m happier cleaning up literal shite than metaphorical shite; at least the literal stuff vanishes with a few swipes of a toilet brush. There is of course a certain amount of disrespect from some people towards people who do manual labour, but I don’t feel the need to take on their bias. Those in positions of authority have to keep a certain distance from the people who work for them. I like chatting on a level with my colleagues. I like not having to waffle or schmooze or bullshit or outright lie in order to get ahead. I like the reality of my job, the actuality of it: something is dirty, I make it clean. I do my work, money is put into my bank account every week, all’s right in my world.