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Sometimes, people get fired from their jobs. But do they call their old bosses 16 years later to talk about it? I did.

Nearly two decades after I was dismissed from my very first summer internship, I wondered whether the manager who’d let me go remembered me and, if so, would she be up for a chat about our time working together? So I found her on social media and reached out.

How I got fired from my first job

As a first-generation college student who grew up working-class, I was the first in my family to navigate college and corporate America. At school, I was surrounded by people well-versed in a world that my family never had access to. It was a lot like navigating an unfamiliar language, with only a few words under your belt to help you get by.

Which is why I was elated when I landed my first summer internship at a fancy marketing firm on Park Avenue in New York City—it paid $10 an hour at a time when professors taught their students that we should be grateful for the opportunity to work an unpaid internship. (I didn’t realize back then how problematic this perspective was—no one ever explained how exploitative and non-inclusive such “opportunities” were.)

Eight weeks after my internship began—and two weeks before it was scheduled to end—I was fired.

I kept getting the unspoken rules of corporate America wrong: I had a two-hour commute from the opposite end of the city, involving one bus, two trains, and a chronically broken-down elevator. Snarls often made me late, even though I thought I’d given myself enough time, and the powers that be simply did not care why I might have been late, only that I was.

When I arrived at work, I’d often be overwhelmed by the demands on my time made by nearly every other employee. I’d never been told that I needed to think of everyone as my boss, no matter what their position. When I wasn’t swamped with tasks, there was absolutely nothing to do. And I mean nothing. I’d watch the minutes tick away, bored off my face, and wait for someone to need something. What I didn’t know was that I should have been knocking on doors to ask for assignments my bosses were either too busy or had forgotten to give me. I’d never been taught that part of the job of an intern was, in essence, to keep my superiors on track by taking initiative and asking for more work to do. I had no idea this was how the game was played.

The last day I worked before my firing, I finished the tasks I’d been given, logged my hours, and, since I’d worked through lunch, left an hour early—something I’d seen others do without issue, especially on a summer Friday. This decision would prove to be a fatal mistake: Those at the top may not have known our names, but they were absolutely watching every move we made. And, above all, there was a separate set of rules for interns. Do as I say and not as I do.

I was called into a conference room the following Monday morning and let go. My performance had not met expectations, they said. Offenses included not anticipating my supervisors’ needs (I had so many supervisors that it was hard to keep track), not asking the right questions, and not taking initiative. But my bosses never defined these expectations. From beginning to end, it was up to me to figure out what my job was and how to do it well. As it turned out, white-collar corporate America was a terrible fit for someone who didn’t come in already speaking the language.

I held back tears as I caught a painfully slow elevator, two trains, and a bus back to a bedroom I shared with my younger sister in Brooklyn.

What it was like to Zoom with the boss who fired me

Memories of that 16-year-old event came flooding back when I began teaching at the college level. Most of my students were first-generation, like I had been. We had a kinship—I was far more relatable to them than the students who walked around confident in their abilities and resources to navigate whatever life was soon to throw their way. Would my first-generation college students have a hard time deciphering and meeting the expectations that college and professional life were bound to hoist on them?

I thought about the woman who’d hired me all those years ago—the one who’d let me go. Anna (not her real name) was a driven woman I admired and respected. When I looked her up online, I saw that she’d left that job soon after I had. My curiosity got the better of me. I found her contact information and sent her an email. Years after Anna fired me, we met again over Zoom.

When we connected, our faces illuminated over the screen, the first thing she did was laugh. In that moment, I remembered all of the reasons why I was first excited to work with Anna to begin with: She was kind and personable. The fact that she was open to having this conversation, I thought, showed how vulnerable and open-hearted she was willing to be.

“I can’t believe we’re meeting like this, and after all this time!” she said, to the best of my recollection. We shot the breeze and caught up on each other’s lives.

We talked for over an hour. Naturally, the details of my employment—for Anna—were a distant memory. She’d hired a number of interns after me and had worked for a handful of companies before deciding to become an entrepreneur. While she remembered me, Anna couldn’t recall the circumstances of my departure. So I reminded her.

“There was a lot I didn’t know,” I’d said, unsure of how much to share. “College didn’t teach me how to navigate unspoken rules about what it looks like to take initiative and anticipate your boss’s needs. I had to figure out those things on my own, without any guidance, and I failed at it.” I was comfortable sharing this experience with Anna. After all, I was a full-fledged adult with a ton of work experience behind me at that point, including an advanced degree and a comfortable job as a teacher. Anna said she understood what I meant, but she didn’t say why.

“So why did you leave that place?” I finally mustered the nerve to ask.

“I hated it there,” she said. “Absolutely hated it. I needed more, and I didn’t like how I was treated.” Ultimately, she’d felt underwhelmed by her position, unstimulated, and unimpressed with the lack of communication. She’d made a number of errors that could have been avoided had her own bosses not made assumptions about what she knew (and didn’t know). While Anna was not a first generation college student and by far not the first in her family to navigate a white-collar profession, her reasons resonated with me.

Thanks to Anna, I stopped feeling badly about what happened at my first job. The culture was clearly not a great fit for anyone hoping for a positive and meaningful experience, regardless of their background. And before we hung up, I did something others might find odd: I thanked her for firing me. It took nearly two decades, but I finally understood that she’d helped me dodge a bullet. With the exception of one more internship followed by a horribly toxic position at a software marketing company, I’d mostly avoided corporate life ever since, opting instead for more meaningful work in education.

What I’ve finally realized

I have to accept some accountability by admitting that I was probably a mediocre (at best) employee at that internship. But the truth is also that, as the first white-collar employee in my family, I was ill-prepared for the realities of corporate America. And corporate America is not designed to nurture the success of those from certain economic (or racial) backgrounds.

Both of my parents were manual laborers: My father worked on New York City’s train tracks and my mother delivered mail. They often came home from work sweaty, tired, and angry, burnt out from their jobs. My grandparents scrubbed toilets until their bodies gave out on them; they eventually required government assistance to survive. There were few homeowners in my family and even fewer high school graduates. I was the very first to attend college and funded it with student loans (which I’m still paying off, at 42 years old), a Pell Grant (given only to students with extreme need), a small scholarship, and a needs-based Federal Work-Study program.

I didn’t have any models for how to successfully navigate the intricacies and unspoken expectations of middle-to-upper-class, white-collar worlds. Failing at my first job taught me a number of life lessons I later learned are part of a hidden curriculum—which, according to the Glossary of Education Reform, “refers to unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives” that are not explicitly taught; instead, they must be picked up on or otherwise absorbed. I have no doubt these unwritten rules had already been instilled in my wealthy and connected peers by the time they began their own internship experiences.

Teaching at the college level, I can attest firsthand that these rules are still generally unspoken—and this doesn’t sit well with me. It took me a long time to forgive myself for not knowing what I didn’t know. But over time, I realized that being fired wasn’t about me, but about the culture of this particular work environment and others like it. And I know for sure that we'll never succeed at building truly diverse and inclusive workplaces until we drastically rethink these unspoken rules that disadvantage the disadvantaged.

All these years later, I’m grateful that I was fired from that first position. It was thanks to my very next internship that I learned there are places that are committed to nurturing new hires from all kinds of backgrounds. But I’ve also learned that such experiences aren’t necessarily the norm. For the sake of my students and so many others, I hope that changes.

Updated 8/12/2022