New York Magazine has a great piece that compiles New Yorkers’ stories of moving to the city for the first time and the ensuing tales. I especially love Chuck Close’s, and in particular, the line, “After work we’d go over to this cafeteria in what is now the Odeon, and we’d sit around and dream up ideas on the back of napkins.” You can add your own story to the online version in the comments, but as it got me thinking–and writing–I thought I’d put something here instead. (I’m trying to write more, instead of just saying “I’m trying to write more.” Hmm how ’bout that?!).

During my last semester at Smith College, it seemed like everyone getting ready to graduate was lining up jobs, filling out graduate school applications, and in general, “making plans,” a phrase that sent shivers down my spontaneous spine. Even though graduation signifies both an ending and a beginning, it didn’t occur to me to ever think beyond the next few days that last semester, but eventually I got self-conscious about answering “no idea” when people asked me what I was doing post-diploma-in-hand. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong, that maybe I should pay the Career Development Office a visit like everyone else. (I eventually did for the first time–I lasted 5 minutes, overwhelmed by all the career binders. I never went back).

Because of self-induced pressure, I apathetically applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows program for that summer and following two school years, telling myself, This sounds responsible and practical. It doesn’t matter that I don’t really want to do it. I’ll apply, won’t get accepted, but at least it looks like I’m doing something. I wrote a humorous essay for the application that included a story about “playing school” in my basement as a kid, thinking there’s NO way they’d accept such ridiculousness. The joke would be on me, that’s for sure.

When I got the first acceptance letter, I was floored. And mad! I actually said, “No, no, no” in the post office, jaw having dropped to the floor. But, I decided to keep moving forward with the application process, because it felt like I should. There were five hours of interviews in New York, a few one-on-one’s and then a group interview/activity with fellow “Fellow” contenders. I never came prepared to any of the interviews. I felt completely out of my league looking around at everyone with laptops and notebooks and pens–I’d only realize upon entering these rooms that maybe I should have slept more than three hours, maybe I should have gone over my “relevant experience” and “education” on the bus ride from Smith instead of reading Faulkner and staring out the window. What are you doing, Alicia? Really, what are you doing? My sample lesson involved math and a generic bag of Runts candy that I found at 2am that day in a Brooklyn bodega. I still remember counting candy on the floor of my sister’s apartment and scribbling down notes and thinking, this joke of a math lesson will get me the boot for sure.

But it didn’t, and eventually I was in–I couldn’t believe it! I looked at the Ivy-League-like acceptance rates for the program and shakily reasoned that if they chose me after all of that, I guess I should do it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but surely they did? Sure.

I was suddenly facing arduous 14-hour days of training, teaching and grad school, without any pay to show for it. I picked up a thrice-daily coffee habit, I wrote lesson plans at all hours, I fell asleep during the long subway ride every morning even if I was standing up. I made friends in my program seemingly over night: we unwound at happy hours paid for by credit card, we wandered unfamiliar streets together afterwards, we wondered how we’d pay the rent, we laughed so much. Once with $36 to my name and dark circles under my eyes, I examined the grocery aisle of K-mart, looking for the most cost-effective food choice, adding up calories per dollar and finally choosing one of those pancake mixes where you just add water. I don’t remember finding this funny or sad, but rather, just what I had to do until the Department of Education decided to pay me (They had to, right? I signed a contract?) It wasn’t how I envisioned life in New York, and it still felt like I was doing something wrong, but I was slowly falling in love with the city, one deli coffee and cold pancake at a time.