Books

What I Learned from Spending My 20s Working in the White House

Image © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Beck Dorey-Stein is a native of Narberth, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of Wesleyan University. Prior to her five years in the White House, she taught high school English in Hightstown, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Seoul, South Korea. From the Corner of the Oval is her first book.

I never dreamed I’d work in the Obama White House – not because it would be too great a privilege, too high an honor, or too fluffy a feather to stick in my cap, but because working in the Obama White House, or any White House, was not my dream.

Throughout college, my friends and I would stay up late, cramped in one tiny dorm room, and confide in each other about what we wanted to do with our lives. Several of my friends aspired to be doctors and were already taking pre-med courses to make their dream a reality. Some aimed to be lawyers. A few wanted to run for political office and had spent their summers interning on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. We’d brainstorm ways to help each other get ahead before our serious discussion would devolve into ridiculous double-dares that sometimes pertained to applying to a competitive scholarship but more often involved asking the guys down the hall if we could have some of their Oreos. Either way, I believed in my friends and the sanctity of the double-dare.

Those late-night confessions often left me feeling lost because my future seemed more opaque than my friends’, my dream less likely to happen. As we encouraged each other while eating our weight in Cheez-Its and pretzel Goldfish, I kept my mouth shut about my secret dream, which felt more like a dirty secret. I wanted to write. Of course I did – I was an English major, after all, so writerly aspirations were assumed but also considered cliché and, in my opinion, heady to the point of arrogance. Besides, in the 21st century, who gets to write for a living? No one. Absolutely no one. That was my thought upon graduation, which is why I happily accepted the opportunity to teach high school English. I couldn’t write for a living, but I could teach writing for a living, which seemed almost as a rewarding.

Fast forward three years after college graduation and I am desperately trying to lock down a full-time teaching job in D.C. I just spent another summer teaching literature in Seoul, South Korea, which was a worthwhile experience but a scheduling nightmare, since it’s now October and nearly impossible to find a job opening in any local high schools. When I am not applying for jobs, I am writing a novel about a young teacher working at a boarding school. (It’s not not completely autobiographical from my two years spent at a school in Central New Jersey.)

And then, I win the lottery in the form of an innocuous Craigslist ad, and get to spend the next five years working at the White House as President Obama’s stenographer. It is as bonkers as you might imagine, and then bonkers mixed with a bunch of bananas when you throw in the romantic turmoil and whirlwind international travel. It is often more sweaty but far less sexy than people envision. It is also the most fun, the most stressful, and was the most intense experience of my life. It was college on steroids, where your best friends cram-study next to you,  then drink with you on Saturday night, and cry with you on Sunday when he doesn’t text you even though he totally said he would.

The most important lesson I gleaned from my time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had less to do with politics and everything to do with navigating my 20s, regardless of where I was – Seoul or Senegal or the South Lawn. Working at the White House is unlike working anywhere else, but also exactly like working everywhere else. There will be colleagues you whole-heartedly adore and others you cannot stand. This is okay. This is normal. There will be opportunities you seize and others you miss. This is okay, too. There will be big demands and not enough hours in the day and fun parties missed because work got in the way. It sucks, but this is how it goes. And there will be awkward bathroom interactions we’d prefer to forget. Totally normal too. But most of all, regardless of where or how you spend your twenties, there will be time. You just need to do the work.

I spent so much of my twenties fearing I was falling behind. Yes, I ended up at the White House, but even at the epicenter of power, I was not remotely close to chasing my own dream of writing. Except that I was, I just didn’t realize that the writing I did in the morning and in the margins of my job would be what landed me right in the middle of my biggest dream, my dirtiest secret, my clichéd English-major desire to write for a living.

If you’re not currently getting paid to do exactly what you want to be doing, that’s fine. But make time for your big dream. Find time and do the work. Put in the hours, because you deserve to pursue what sets you on fire. I double dare you.