Today’s interview with Karen Marie Chase is part of my ongoing blog-to-book project: Life After High School: Secrets To A Successful Life By Those Who Have Had Twenty Years To Think About It (or) What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. If you missed the last post, click here, otherwise, you can start at the beginning here.
Karen Marie Chase
(Formerly Karen Marie La Mesa)
My Life In High School
Who were you in High School and how did you feel about it?
Who was I in high school? I was a nice girl who didn’t really fit into a group. I was athletic but wasn’t a “jock.” I got good grades but wasn’t a “nerd.” I wasn’t a “stoner,” yet I had friends who smoked and did drugs. In fact, I’ve never had even a single drag off a cigarette or tried a drug in my life. I had lots of friends but wasn’t one of the “popular” girls. A girl who fit in everywhere, but belonged nowhere.
I am a child from a single parent family—the girl who would help anyone and expected nothing in return. I was an independent, hard working kid, (started babysitting when I was 9, got a paper route (delivering the Skagit Valley Herald) when I was 11, started bussing tables when I was 15 and moved into working in a kitchen when I was 16 and have been working ever since.
How did it make me feel? Honestly, I never really thought about it before, but as I write this I am feeling really proud. I never caved to peer pressure or did anything I didn’t want to do just because other people were doing it or tried to talk me into it. My mom taught me to treat other people the way I wanted to be treated. A motto I lived by then and one I still do my best to live by today.
What did you think your life would become when you graduated?
What do any of us think our lives are going to become after graduation?
I thought I’d graduate from college, get a job, get married, have kids and live happily ever after. Who doesn’t picture some version of that grandeur?
My Life After High School
What happened in your life to you, for you, and by you in the last twenty years (how have you used your time and who have you become)?
As mentioned I come from a single parent family. My mom was proud and didn’t have help from anyone, which meant, we (me, my mom and younger brother) moved… A LOT.
I went to five different first grades alone.
Born in Torrington, CT, we landed on the West coast fairly early. On our way to the west, we lived in South Dakota and Colorado before landing in Reno, NV. We spent time in California, and Oregon as well. When I had just four weeks of 6th grade left we moved to Anacortes.
My brother and I were in shock. We had two aunts there and had visited but never thought we’d live there. My mom sent us ahead of her because she thought it would be helpful for us to make friends for the summer.
The Anacortes School District separated my brother and I. They sent him to Island View and me to Mt. Erie. The week after we got to Anacortes we both got the Chickenpox. Then I got to go to Camp Orkila. Met some great friends at Mt. Erie. Friends I keep in touch with today.
The move to Anacortes wasn’t easy. I’d come from a big busy, 24-hour city with huge overcrowded schools to a small “island” that rolled up the sidewalks at 8:00 every night. We spent four years in Anacortes.
I struggled at first; most kids who lived there had lived there their whole lives. They already had their groups. It took me a long time, but I was beginning to find my way, and then it was time to move again.
I was so ANGRY with my mom for moving us again. It was the summer of 9th grade. I had friends, a boyfriend, was doing well in school and sports, a paper route. I didn’t want to move! I sat in the U-Haul with my arms crossed and didn’t speak to my mom the whole way. How could she be doing this to us again?
I started 10th grade in utter shock. I thought Anacortes was small! We moved to a town called Wilton and in 11th grade the next town over, Lyndeborough. These are truly TINY towns. The junior high and high school were combined, Wilton—Lyndeborough Junior Senior Co-Operative High School and only had 350 kids total for grades 7-12! I learned the definition of tiny. My graduating class had 43 kids and 40 of us graduated!
I started dating a guy who lived up the street from us. I dated him all through the remainder of high school and college. We broke up for a period of time when I was in college. I graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts with a Graphic Design concentration. After graduation, I got an apartment with that boyfriend. We broke up about a year later.
Finding a job after graduation was shockingly hard. No one will hire anyone without experience, but no one wanted to give experience. I finally got a job in a business card print shop making $11 an hour.
I was so upset at this. I did everything I was supposed to; I went to college and got a degree… And for what? To rack up $80k in student loans to make $11 an hour?! What a freaking joke! I could have skipped school and got a job that paid me $8 an hour and have no student loans.
A woman I was working with sort of put things into perspective for me. She said, “Karen, I’ve been working here 10 years and I bet your starting pay is very close to what I make.” It really made me think.
I stayed at that job for two months because as luck would have it, the job I really wanted called me. The person they’d hired didn’t work out and I was choice number two. I left the BC job and took a design position in Concord, NH. I replaced two designers and they had a temp in to help me but I ended up being the sole designer. I was doing the work of two people but only getting paid for one.
At this job, I learned Life Lesson #1: It was a small family company. One of the guys who worked there gave me the best professional advice I’d gotten to date, “Just remember kid, this is a family business and you ain’t family.”
I worked my ass off at that company. Doing the work of two people and it got me nowhere. I still worked my butt off though. If there is one thing my mom instilled in my brother and me, it was a strong work and moral ethic.
Because student loans were so expensive I needed to find another job to help pay for them. My aunt got me a job bartending at a small bar. From there I went to bigger bars, some a bit nicer, some a bit seedy. But I made good money no matter where I was. On a Wednesday night, I’d make what I made in a whole week at my design job.
I’d been a waitress through college but not a bartender. I LOVED it. It was a natural fit for me. I have never been someone who required much sleep and I love people, so two jobs didn’t effect me in any way other than making it easier to pay my bills. I had a great time bartending.
At the same time, I’d convinced my best friend from High School (Wilton) to get an apartment with me in Manchester, NH, aka MachVegas.
Boy did we have a blast! We had so much fun the cops showed up more than once. Let’s see… They came to our Halloween Party, our Pimp N’ Ho party, our Toga party. Heck, they showed up at our not-even-a-party card playing Saturday night…. Yep, we gave the Manchester police some funny stories to tell!
During this time I learned my second life lesson…
Life Lesson #2: Don’t date a guy you meet in a bar.
Working behind a bar you get hit on all the time and it’s very easy to turn these advances down. I decided to give one guy I met a chance. He seemed different. He was the nicest guy on the planet until you added alcohol!
Early on I disclosed that drugs (even weed) were not something I wanted in my life (this was the main difference between my high school sweetheart and me). Unfortunately, he smoked a lot of it. To his credit, he tried to give it up but that translated to more drinking. He got so bad that my friends and family didn’t want him around. Friends would tell me I was invited to things but that I couldn’t bring him.
I finally had enough when on a really bad snowy night he was being nasty and I said I was going home. It was a bad storm but I ran to leave anyway. I jumped in my car and went to back up and hit my breaks abruptly to his mom screaming to stop. He had thrown himself under my car and I nearly ran him over! Once he got out from underneath he ended up on the hood screaming at me to drive because he was going to die tonight. His parents came out and his father and I ended up wrestling him to the ground and pinning him down until he was foaming at the mouth. I didn’t even know that was real. Thought that was just some special effect you saw in the movies. The saddest part, the next morning he didn’t even remember doing any of it.
Why do guys always do too little until it’s too late then expect forgiveness? I’d been pushed to a point that I couldn’t return from.
I was trying to get away from him when I met David. It was a freak 80-degree day in the middle of February. The print shop I worked at had two buildings and I happened to notice a job sitting on the counter that was supposed to have shipped two days prior. Luckily, UPS picked up from our 2nd building later in the day. I grabbed the box and hurried down the hill.
As I was approaching the building there were two guys at the bottom the hill outside the main entrance to the building. One was on a motorcycle and said something. I didn’t know them so didn’t think they were talking to me and looked behind me. As I got closer I asked if they were talking to me and the guy on the motorcycle said, “Yes, do you need help carrying the box?”
I thanked him for the offer and kept going. When I was heading back they were still there. As I went by, the guy on the bike asked if I wanted to go for a ride. I said sure and kept walking. I caught him so off guard that he stumbled over his response which was, well I’d take you for a ride but I just got this bike today and don’t have the passenger seat yet.
I stopped and looked at him and said well then why did you offer? He tried to give me his phone number and told him if he was serious when he got his seat I worked at Town & Country and was the only Karen there. He could call me when the seat arrived. It snowed 6 inches the next day!
A week or so later I got the call. It was snowing again and he said while he got his seat in, it was snowing so perhaps I would like to get a cup of coffee. I told him I didn’t drink coffee. Radio silence. I laughed and said, “But I do drink other things!”
I invited him to get some friends together as some of my girlfriends and I were going out that weekend. He ended up coming alone…. My aunt said, “Oh, he’s a brave soul.” We dated for a year and got engaged that Christmas. We planned a wedding and sent out invitations and everything then I called it off after he broke my trust. We tried to work on things but it was never the same.
A few months shy of our 4-year anniversary—the day after Christmas—he said his feet were feeling funny to the point that I took him to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre´ Syndrome. An autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack your nervous system.
David was a Desert Storm Vet and I learned a lot about autoimmune diseases and the elevated number of Desert Storm Vets to suffer from them. The good news is if you are going to get an autoimmune disease this is the one to get. Ninety percent of people recover from it 100%, but it is a long slow recovery averaging 6-plus months. He spent a couple weeks in the hospital and a month in rehab. Every morning I would go to the hospital get him in his wheelchair and do laps around the hospital. Go to work, go home, walk the dogs and go back to the hospital.
By then I wasn’t bartending anymore but was a shot girl at a local bar. It was a hell of a lot easier than bartending and to my surprise much more fun! I met one of my very best friends in this job.
A funny thing that I can say with confidence is that I never judge anyone based on appearance. When being introduced to this girl on my first night, for some strange reason I looked at her and thought to myself: Oh man she’s going to be the biggest bitch ever!
I have no idea why I thought that. I was introduced to Amanda and seriously we were instant friends and have been the best of friends ever since.
That year, I left the bar early on New Year’s Eve—ran to the CVS and bought a bottle of sparkling cider and plastic cups and ran to the hospital, jumped the gate and waited outside the employee entrance until someone came out so I could get up to David’s room for New Years.
He was moved to rehab a few days later where I continued the same routine until it was time for him to come home. Sadly it was a downhill spiral from there.
Life Lesson #3: Don’t go down with the ship.
He had a hard time getting back to norm. In fact, he never ended up going back to work. I don’t remember why but he started doing drugs—heavy drugs. I tried to help, tried to get him back on track and to being well emotionally and mentally but I just wasn’t enough and he continued to spiral. We broke up, I moved out.
For the first time since before I graduated college I moved back home. This time, unlike when I left the long time beau, I took my things, things we bought together but I paid for and packed up. I made the mistake the fist time around of letting my Ex keep anything we bought together because my new roommate had furniture and I made better money than him, and I thought I’d be able to replace it sooner. I tried my best but can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved, so I said my goodbyes and moved on.
I started spending time with a guy I met in college. I’d gone back to school to see a friend graduate and bumped into him working. Eric and I became friends my junior year. I was a bank teller while in college and he came to my window.
Little did I know my whole life was about to change.
It turns out this guy worked at my college. We became pretty good friends in our senior year, but after graduation, I never expected to see him again. At my friend’s graduation, we reconnected.
We never talked again all summer then out of the blue he called me that winter and asked if I skied. I didn’t but had just learned how to snowboard. We started hanging out a lot that winter.
After we broke up, I ended up doing some design work for him and he helped me build my office. I started a graphic design business and my mom lets me build an office and studio apartment in part of a building she owned. He came up on weekends to help me build it.
I got my little design shop up and running. Studio K was in operation for about 3 years. I was also working part-time at the chamber of commerce. I got my name out there, met other businesses and business owners.
I was more or less breaking even and then in May of 2006, my office and apartment were flooded in the Mother’s Day Flood. A huge portion of New Hampshire flooded when 14 inches of rain fell in a short time and flooded much of southern New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts.
We’d been close but never single at the same time. For the first time in our friendship, we were both single. I also never saw anything working out between us because he had two children. His life was in Massachusetts; my life was in New Hampshire.
At the time I also had a 17-year-old cousin in my care. I wanted him to be able to finish high school and get off to college before I made any drastic changes.
Well, the Mother’s Day Flood changed all that. My office and apartment had been flooded out. Which forced my hand to move sooner than planned. We made arrangements for him to stay with a family friend until graduation and I packed up and headed to Massachusetts to start my life with Eric.
I’m not really sure how all that happened. I never imagined I’d ever go back to Massachusetts—let alone live there.
We had some serious ups and downs and some REALLY trying times with his kids. He was working two jobs so I spent the majority of the time with his kids. At first, it was fine as the kids were really good kids.
As time wore on their mother started to cause all kinds of problems for us. Such major problems that we almost didn’t make it. Jealousy is a very unattractive quality. After years together I finally told him it was time to take things to the next level, that I wanted a family and if he didn’t want the same things as me then we were wasting each others time. I felt if he didn’t know after 5 years, he was never going to know and told him I had a time set in my mind that if he didn’t make up his mind, I’d be forced to make up mine.
His deadline was New Years. If he didn’t make a move by then, I’d be moving out. In October he surprised me with a trip to Mexico. He’d arranged my mom coming to pick up my dogs to watch them. He bought suitcases and a bathing suit for me and a couple dresses. I was floored. I tried not to get my hopes up. We’d never been on a vacation and this was a fancy one and was a gift in itself.
We arrived on the morning of Halloween. My favorite holiday! And that night, to my shock—he proposed!
To his shock, I asked him if I could think about it.
He wasn’t sure if I was serious. I was. I asked if we could have a baby? He said he was close to saying yes. I told him kids were a deal breaker for me. I wanted a family so if we could have a family and do something about the situation with the kids (things were still really rocky) then I’d be happy to be his wife.
We saved for two years to pay for our wedding. I wanted to be married before we had kids. If I had known it would take so long to get pregnant then I might not have waited. I never dreamed of how hard it would be to get pregnant. It turns out there was an issue that was standing in our way, but as luck would have it after several years of trying we were finally blessed with good news. A baby was on the way.
Life Lesson #4: A healthy baby is truly the most amazing gift anyone could ask for.
I took for granted how difficult it would be to get pregnant. Then once I was, a healthy baby became the true blessing in life. During my pregnancy, my best friend (my partner-in-crime) lost a baby to a very rare umbilical cord accident when she was 7 months along.
She too had a hard time getting pregnant and this was very traumatic for her and her husband. Also while pregnant, another close friend’s baby was diagnosed with a severe heart condition while still in the womb. My niece stopped growing and arrived a month early. I had no idea what a blessing a healthy baby is on top of having the baby in the first place.
We did not know if we’d be welcoming McKayla Marie or Alexander James but were answered when Alexander James arrived on May 30th, 2015. He was a week late but perfectly healthy!
I have never felt more blessed than I do now. Everyone told me life as I knew it would change. I didn’t expect it wouldn’t but I had no idea it was humanly possible to love someone more every day! He is truly amazing.
I know I’m biased but he’s just perfect… If only he’d sleep!
I joke that I followed a boy to Massachusetts. I figure it’s ok since I married that boy and we now have the most amazing little boy and a couple wonderful stepchildren and hopefully a daughter-in-law in the works.
So that’s where I am family-wise. Career-wise, where am I? What was my path? It’s been a little bit of a bumpy ride.
I mentioned I went to college after high school, started out working in a couple print shops, left the second to be the art director at a magazine in Manchester, NH.
I got there and had one of the less-than-awesome experiences in my career.
Life Lesson #5: It’s not lonely at the top.
I got to this art director job and walked into a girl who was acting as art director and being more or less demoted. Their director had left and one of the girls working there had stepped up and was acting as art director.
She didn’t know I was being hired until the minute I walked through the door. What a way to start out!
I should have known better. This was also a small company and also run by a husband and a wife. The husband was fine, the wife—not so much. She was nasty and would play me and the rest of the designers against each other. She told me it was lonely at the top and that I couldn’t be friendly with the girls because I had to be their boss. I do not agree with that philosophy whatsoever. I believe if you are good to people they will be good back to you and I stuck with that philosophy.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out and this was what pushed me to open Studio K Graphics. I knew I could do a good job and make money at it.
I met a friend/former customer for lunch one day shortly after leaving and he told me he had something in his car he wanted to give me. I got there and he opened the back door and in the car was a printer, a fax machine, a computer and a few other office necessities. He said I was talented and could make it running my own business. I, of course, refused the gifts. There was no way I could pay for them. We went back and forth and I only agreed to take them if he’d let me pay him back in some way, even if that meant through trade.
So it worked out and that was how I started Studio K Graphics. Once I closed it down after the floods, I kept some of my customers, I just didn’t take on any new ones. I still have a couple I do some work for today.
When I was in college I worked in the kitchen for work-study. I called the guy who runs the kitchen at Endicott and asked if they could put me to work until I could find a job. I was in luck. So I worked in the kitchen at my old Alma Mater for a couple months until I landed an art director position at a company that published trade magazines.
So here we go again, a small company, run by a guy who had his daughter working there for the summer. Well, she was as “Royal Princess” as the piece of work he was!
What a disaster that place was. This was truly the worse job I’ve ever had. The guy was the type of guy who thrived on conflict. He wasn’t happy unless there was some drama going on and if there wasn’t any he created it. His daughter was a prima donna and ended up staying when the editor left. She took over.
Everything bothered her. You couldn’t put an article in her inbox without “disturbing” her. Augh! I hated that place. The guy squashed every shred of creativity out of me and made me a paranoid nervous wreck. Every day I’d go home crying. I only stayed there a year. I couldn’t take it.
This was during the time when the economy was having a rough time. Graphic design and web design jobs were often being combined into one and I had zero web training. I had several very successful interviews and even a couple second interviews in Boston. Something happened with all of them.
McKay Healthcare had a client they were hiring another designer for but got held up indefinitely with the FDA. They assured me not to worry; it would just be a couple weeks. Several weeks went by and when I checked they said they didn’t know how long it would be held up—could be a year.
The other, NSTAR, a union job working for an energy company needed someone with web experience. They had someone they also liked and had web experience. Elder Hostel loved me and I passed the test they gave me. They didn’t mind I didn’t have web experience because they were willing the train the right person. The manager was going on vacation for two weeks so she said she’d be in touch when she got back.
As luck would have it, Murphy struck again. While she was away, their web designer gave their two-week notice and now the manager was making her hire someone with web experience as there’d be no one there to teach me. Such a bummer. I was really excited about that job.
FINALLY, I was working through the career center to find a job and get my resume in good order and take some classes. I took the Myers-Briggs Personality test that I thought was a total load of crap. A bunch of stupid multiple-choice questions that supposedly would tell you what kind of personality you had. There are only 16 different personalities.
I found out I’m an ENFP and let me tell you it kind of freaked me out a little bit. It nailed my personality to a ‘T’. Also, it tells you some jobs people with your personality types have been successful in and some to stay away from.
What was even more profound was that it gave me insight as to other personality types and traits they exhibit and I learned why this last job was such a pure hell for me. My personality doesn’t need timelines to get things done, actually, they are often counterproductive. I can multi-task and flip back and forth between more than one project and be working on them all in tandem. Quiet time isn’t needed. Music and or people don’t distract me or prohibit my productivity.
The boss’s princess was the complete opposite. She had to have timelines, schedules, could only do one thing at a time, noises, music, and people were distracting to her. Again I learned so much taking this test about others and myself.
I finally decided that I needed to take a web design course or I was never going to find a job. I found a program at the career center that would pay for me to go back to school if I could prove that I needed to be retrained to get back in the workforce. It was a lot of paperwork but I was determined and when I tell you Murphy struck again, it’s true. The day I was supposed to start my first class, I got a call from a staffing agency, I do think the ONLY staffing agency in the area I hadn’t heard of before and likely the only one I wasn’t registered with.
They found my resume online and had a job they thought I’d be a good fit for, and asked if I could come in the next day for an interview. I said sure—why not check it out?
They sent me to Salem Five (my bank) the next day for an interview. They called me later that day, said they loved me and asked if I could start on Monday! I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to work while in the program of going back to school and of course my caseworker was on vacation and no one could answer me so I accepted the job. I couldn’t imagine them telling me not to work.
It was a 3-month contract job to cover a maternity leave. I was fortunate enough to make a good impression on all the right people and 8 years later here I am.
I started out as the graphic designer and when she came back a role was created for me. Half my job was charitable foundation administrator and the other half was an event planner. I was brought on during a hiring freeze so my salary was low but I loved this company so much, I would have cleaned toilets to stay.
One of my first projects I worked on was an internal newsletter. It had a birthdays and anniversaries section. People were celebrating twenty- and thirty-year anniversaries. In this day and age that is unheard of. It spoke volumes to me about the integrity of the company. The first year I worked there I was nominated for employee of the year! Whoot Whoot. I didn’t win, but to even have been nominated after less than a year, I felt pretty good.
My career has evolved at the bank. I started out as the designer, then charitable foundation manager, event planner, to PR specialist and social media manager. Two years ago I was promoted to Assistant Vice President and I know almost all of our 574 employees. The bank has grown from 18 branches when I got there 8 years ago, to 30.
As much as I’ve had a good run and learned a ton, I will be hanging up my hat and heading to another bank where I have accepted a Marketing Manager Position equivalent to my bosses role at Salem Five. I can’t wait! Looking forward to the new role and spending more time with my kiddo. The hours and pay are much better!
My Life Lessons
What were the major life lessons and wisdom that you gained during your journey over the last 20 years?
Nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned:
- Mom was right.
- Work hard, and be a good person and good things will happen to you.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- Even if we don’t understand it at the time, I have to believe there is some reason/bigger/grander plan.
- Old clichés you hear as kids are true, the older you get the faster it goes! People weren’t kidding about that! Eh, what do the grown-ups know? Clearly a lot more than any kid ever thinks.
- Don’t work for husband/wife companies unless you are family. As my co-worker told me, this is a family business and you ain’t family.
- It’s not lonely at the top. Screw the asshole who said that (Jody).
- The former president at Salem Five shared this golden nugget with me. One day when talking to him about character flaws, he said, “Karen, a person’s biggest flaw is often their greatest attribute.” I will never forget that.
Letter To My High School Self
If you could write your 18-year-old self (or however old you were when you graduated) a letter, and send it back in time, what would you say? What lessons or wisdom did you learn? What encouragement or warnings would you give yourself?
If I could leave advice for my 18-year-old self, I’d say:
- #1, Mom taught me, don’t ever do anything to someone you wouldn’t want to be done to you—live by that wisdom and you can’t go wrong.
- Treat people the way you want to be treated.
- Be yourself—don’t let friends or family define who you are.
- Believe in yourself and have confidence. If you aren’t there yet, fake it. Confidence comes with experience—it will come.
- Tell the people you care about that you care.
- Give someone, anyone, a hug daily.
- Tell your family (particularly your children and your parents) that you are proud of them.
- Live your life for yourself and no one else. You can’t please others if you aren’t pleased yourself.
- The older you get the less time you’ll have for drama and bull. You don’t have to be involved. Don’t let it weigh on you, and just walk away.
- Be kind and others will be kind to you.
- Appreciate the little things and be true to yourself. At the end of the day, the only one you need to please is yourself.
- Smile! It increases your face value.
- Lastly, roll with the punches. When life serves you lemons, make lemonade and DON’T, I repeat DON’T, hang around with negative or bad influences. People tend to become what their friends are.
In the next post, I will wrap things up with Chapter 13, Tears of Hope.
Are you from Generation X? I want to hear what you think! Please comment below and participate in the conversation about What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. What do you wish someone told you when you were eighteen?