By B.D. McClay
Continuing with our profiles of recent alumni, here’s Lydia Hovey, who is training to become a volunteer firefighter.
Lydia Hovey! Like Kate Havard, you have also held three jobs, although unlike Kate Havard, yours are a little more colorful. Right now, you’re a volunteer firefighter, right?
Yeah, and I work at a hotel. It’s been quite a year!
Let’s start at the very beginning: what drew you to St. John’s?
I was definitely one of those people who didn’t want to go to any other school. I really hated the way learning was done and quantified at my high school. I hated, for instance, taking an AP English test, because I loved literature; but then one-fifth of my time in that class—one day per week—was spent doing multiple choice test prep. At some point, I felt like the quantification of the learning that was going on was interfering with the learning itself.
It just ticked me off to no end. I rejected it completely. Sometimes I would refuse to do my work—which was equal parts ideological and lazy on my part, if we’re being honest.
I saw no reason to go and continue that kind of education somewhere else. But then I found out about St. John’s, and thought, “well, clearly this is the only place I will ever go to college.” It was the only place I ever applied, which I’ve found out is not uncommon.
Did you have any firm plans after graduation?
Unlike you and Kate Havard, I graduated with no plan. Which was. . .a Lydia failing more than a St. John’s failing. I just had no clear idea of what I wanted to do—I have this idea that I would really like to write things, but I’m not a journalist. I think of myself as a creative type—you know, I want to paint you a picture, write you a song, tell you a story. . . . But that’s not really a thing that people are lining up to pay you money to just do.
So, my not-plan upon graduation was to pack up all my stuff as would fit and fly to Seattle to stay with my sister. Which I did. I stayed with her for about three months. I explored Seattle, which was cool.
And I got a job: I was a telemarketer, in Seattle, for a while, because it was the first job I could get and I wanted to start earning money.
It was really not a great job. Well, not for me. Some people actually really liked it—there were a lot of really funny things about working at the telemarketing agency. But you were calling people to sell them things that they don’t want, and you’re almost certainly misleading them in some way.
So, if I had good day and had a bunch of sales, I felt kind of like a bad person. But when I had a bad day, I felt like a poor person who was bad at her job. (Which I was!) And when you are working a not-so-great job, you have these moments where you snap into focus and realize that might actually be what your life is like.
Also, the way you’re trained to speak with people and converse with people in telemarketing is just about the opposite of what you do at St. John’s; you’re ignoring what they say on the other side, and there are all these tricks, like you take out punctuation marks when you speak. . . .
Yeah, so you speak in a straight line until you come to a question, and the person by force of habit will have to answer that question, and that keeps you on the phone with them. So in addition to everything else, I was very aware that I had just spent four years learning how to communicate in a way I liked, and I was unlearning that for a job I disliked and didn’t pay me very much.
Anyway, we were selling trade publications. So I was calling all these professional offices to try and sell them magazines—forty-five minutes with interior designers, two hours with tow truck drivers, an hour and half with firefighters, finish out the day with a couple hours of nurses. I was thinking a lot about what I might or might not want to do, and I narrowed my thinking down to three basic things that were important to me.
And those were?
Working with people I thought were cool and enjoyed spending time with; working at something that might actually be worth doing, even if I wasn’t being paid for it; making an amount of money where I could live off of it and save.
Anyway, the telemarketing job didn’t fulfill any of these conditions, but I was thinking about them.
Tangentially—how polite are people as a rule to telemarketers? I always wondered.
Not very. I mean, some are. And I hated being a telemarketer, so I kind of wanted people to yell at me and hang up on me.
Ranked by profession, interior designers are horrible people. They will keep you on the phone just to make sure you’ve had a bad day. They will set the phone down but not hang it up and laugh at you and insult you to their friends.
Who are the nicest people?
I’m getting to that!
Ha, OK. So how did you leave telemarketing?
I had a sudden opportunity to move across the country, back to Maryland, to live with my brother. I packed up all my stuff and quit my job and mailed all my books back to Maryland in about thirty hours.
And I got another job: I work at a hotel. It’s a very nice hotel. We have handwritten notes that say “welcome” when you get there. Although, I don’t really see a serious future for myself in the hospitality industry. But then by the time I started working here, I was already interested in being a firefighter.
How did that happen? Was it just through selling the trade magazines?
Partly, but when I was a telemarketer, one thing I noticed about fire stations is that they are really polite. I mean, just really polite and helpful, even when I was clearly a telemarketer. If you called the station and asked to speak to the person in charge, they’d tell you: “Oh, he’s out, but he’ll be in his office on Friday from three to six, that’s the best time to call.”
Even when they didn’t want the magazine, they’d say something like: “Oh, honey, I wish we could buy it, but we just don’t have it in the budget. But it is a great publication, I’m sure.”
As a person with several firefighters in her family, I find these stories very gratifying. GO FIREFIGHTERS.
Ha! Well, it wasn’t something I’d thought about before. But one day, I was feeling really upset after a long day of telemarketing, and there was a fire station on my way back from work. So I went up to the fire station and knocked on the door. And I thanked the man who answered for firefighters everywhere for being so polite on the phone.
And his reaction was the best: he gave me some firefighter stickers, took me on a tour of the station. . . . So I talked to him for a while and he asked me what I actually wanted to do, and I said: “You know, being a firefighter seems nice. You guys seem happy.”
And a little while after I got to Maryland, I started volunteering at the local fire station. Volunteering is great, because while I really love the idea of firefighting, I want to try it out before committing to it. And, I’m getting a lot of certifications that I’ll need if I want to do firefighting as a job, for free. But I take volunteering very seriously: I try to spend at least every other evening at the fire station, and I’m there most nights, and I spend my days off there.
What do you like about working as a firefighter?
It feels so good to be learning things again. And one thing I really like about it is that. . .well, especially coming out of telemarketing, is that firefighting is a job that would be difficult to do in a way that would be morally reprehensible. And I think most jobs have some aspect to them that at least could be immoral. But you never hear about “firefighter brutality,” for instance.
Also, as a telemarketer, you know, I knew I wasn’t helping anybody. I had this need to go do something and be in the world. There’s a real need to use what you’ve learned in some way. . .it might be in counseling your friends through a bad break-up or in the work that you do, but you need to exist in the world.
And I like being well-rounded—I have a good education, which I maintain through reading books and conversation. But, you know, I want to be able to break down a door, too. I want to be able to do everything!
How much do you think it matters that you’re doing physical work? I think there’s this idea—that when you get a college education, you don’t work with your hands. But that seems wrong to me. I think people get a lot out of working with their hands.
I had a really disheartening conversation with my boss at the hotel a couple weeks ago, where I told her, “Right now, I’m trying to do this firefighter thing; this is what I think I want to do,” and I was going through how I could get all these necessary certifications for free, instead of going back to school for them.
And I said: “To get an education.”
And she kind of shrugged that off. But I meant it. I am serious about firefighting, but it would never cross my mind to think I shouldn’t have gone to St. John’s.
At what point will you be doing firefighting as a job?
I’m pretty early on. I’m not a hop, skip, and a jump away from getting paid; I’m more like a whole game of hopscotch away. Which I’m OK with—I mean, I want to get better—but it’s just great to be spending my time productively.
Looking back on it, are you glad you had this experience? Moving to Seattle, working as a telemarketer, and so on—a year with a lot of false starts, I guess.
In some ways. I feel a certain pride in the negative experiences that I’ve had. Most of my siblings had a more conventional college experiences, but they went through ROTC (except for my sister, who went to the Naval Academy). And most of them did not pursue those military paths as careers, but it meant none of them dealt with graduating in the way that I had to.
I spent this last year being miserable, but I have learned things from it. I was really poor, and working a job I hated, but it was kind of freeing. I’m sure that worse things can and might and will happen to me, but there was something liberating about being there and coping with it. I didn’t like it but I knew I would survive it.
Maybe if I were a better planner, this last year would not have happened this way; but I have definitely learned a lot. But I would not want to go through this year again.
Finally: Lydia Hovey, what did you get out of your liberal education?
Coming out of high school, which was a place where I just took the rules and standards and rejected them—it was really frightening and a big step for me to have to take on the responsibility of going to St. John’s. It was a system of learning that I respected, so I would have to live up to it. There was a big element of personal responsibility that I had abdicated in high school. . . . I had to step up and take ownership of my learning in a way I hadn’t before.
I don’t know if that aspect of personal responsibility is completely unique to St. John’s. But having talked to friends who have gone to other schools, it is uncommon, I think, to have that much ownership over your learning and that much integration of your learning into every aspect of your life. I never really cared what my grades were in high school, but I was nervous before every don rag, because it reflected on me as a person.
The curriculum also gave me an appreciation for the elegance of things. At the fire station, I was learning to break down a door with a Halligan bar and a flat-headed axe. It turns out there are about sixty different ways you can use these tools to pry open a door. And I was learning how to adjust those techniques to account for being, you know, a lady, and although a very strong lady, still at a physical disadvantage.
And it’s so elegant, how suited this tool is for this task, and how suited it is for a myriad of other tasks. . . . I think that realization, how cool stuff is, is something else I got from St. John’s. That’s the miracle of intellectual wonder—you train your mind to appreciate and wonder at the things around you. You gain an eye for the interconnectedness of things.
There’s more. You have to learn temperance at St. John’s. You have to admit when you’re wrong. There’s a lot less shame in realizing you’re incorrect; you’ll argue for ten minutes with someone in seminar, and then you’ll realize you’re wrong. And you have to eat it, and own up to it, and then come back and talk about books with all those same people the next Monday.
Ah, I will just say it: I’m a better human being for having attended St. John’s.
Lydia Hovey is training to be a volunteer firefighter. She graduated from St. John’s in 2012. In her free time, she also writes short stories. This interview has been adapted from a recorded conversation, with her permission.
Some of the pictures for this interview were taken from chestofbooks.com.
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