The year of my forty-fifth birthday, my college friends and I got together for a celebratory weekend. We left behind eleven children and six husbands for four days of rest, relaxation, and reconnecting on Amelia Island in Florida.
One morning over a lovely brunch sipping mimosas and viewing the water, we started talking about what led each of us to pursue degrees. While we each had different experiences, in one way our answers were the same: all of us had spent at least one summer performing incredibly tedious work.
One friend waitressed in a cafe, another stocked shelves in a grocery store, while another worked for a dry cleaner. The winner, or maybe the loser, worked in a chicken slaughterhouse. She is now vegan.
My memorable summer was one that I spent working in my father’s printing business as a collator. A collator is a person who puts page one on top of page three on top of page five, et cetera, about 5,000 or 10,000 times, depending on the number of books that have been printed. The collators in this case were a woman named Ruth and myself. We would walk down a very long table that had an apparatus meant to sort pages. It looked like a very long ladder placed on its side with pages sticking up.
We walked up and down this long ladder quite literally 10,000 times if the job was for 10,000 books. While there were collating machines at that time, my father’s business could not afford the machine. In the background, the printing presses whirled, making all kinds of deafening racket. It couldn’t be considered white noise because white noise isn’t that loud! The floor was concrete and we left each night weary from the noise, the heat, the physical exhaustion of repetitive movement, and most of all from the brain-numbing boredom.
The difference between Ruth and me was that Ruth was in her sixties and she had been working in factories her entire life, starting when she was 13. She was a kind woman who worked hard, and she was incredibly devoted to my dad. Ruth was quick to smile, and never spoke poorly about anyone. She walked with a hunched back which I attributed to her position as she walked up and down the tables all those times. Ruth was loyal to Dad because Dad spoke respectfully to her, allowed her to take breaks, and didn’t question her if she went to the bathroom. Even though these just seem like normal workplace expectations, to Ruth, my father was a kind and caring boss, and she didn’t seem to resent me either.
I, on the other hand, was trying to earn spending money for college. Note, I wasn’t trying to earn money for college, just spending money. And when my friends wanted to go to the beach for a few days, I just told Dad that I wasn’t going to work on Thursday and Friday. I had choices. I knew I would only be doing this work for 2-3 months. When I completed my work each day, I went home and my mother, who also worked full-time, had made my dinner and done my laundry. I knew that no one had prepared a meal for Ruth when she got home.
Walking up and down that ladder gave me a lot to time to think. I thought a lot about my boyfriend, what to wear on my next date, and about going to the beach. I also thought about privilege. I was privileged. I had a family that loved me and I was headed to college. The other employees at my dad’s printing shop were kind and hard-working, but for whatever reason, they had not received so many opportunities. Life had been and would continue to be harder for them. It made me sad, and sometimes I felt guilty that these wonderful friends and neighbors would very likely be stuck in wearisome jobs their entire lives.
Now when I think about work-related stress, I think about my friend in the slaughterhouse, or putting page one, on top of page three, on top of page five, 10,000 times.
What jobs have led you to where you are today?
Eight years ago on a snowy day, I met with Nancy, a director of a government agency. Driving to the meeting, I received a phone call from Tonya, Nancy’s administrative assistant. Tonya wanted to let me know that it would not be an easy meeting. Three change management consultants like myself had already met with Nancy and she didn’t like any of them.
Interesting, I thought. I had no idea what to do with this information. Should I recite a list of my credentials? Turn around? Stop and pick up a shield and armor and slip it in my briefcase? Where do they sell shields and armor locally?
When I arrived, Nancy was quite considerate and provided an avalanche of background. She talked about low motivation, lack of trust, and lack of vision.
When Nancy finished, I asked, “How are you contributing to these problems and this culture?” Nancy sat back, looked at me with curiosity and said in earnest, “I don’t know.” A few seconds later she added, “No one has ever asked me that.”
Then she repeated under her breath, “No one has ever asked me that.”
We are all co-creators in every situation we are in. When we receive criticism, we have either done something to show arrogance or spend too much time with critics. When we receive anger, we have either done something provocative or we allow anger to whirl around unchecked. When we receive ongoing anger or criticism, we must ask ourselves, “How and when will I change my environment (the people I spend time with), or will I change my reaction?”
When people are kind and respectful of us, it is because we project kindness and self-respect.
What situations do you co-create both at home and at work?
Monday morning I got a text from my son Jeffrey, who is working at The Newton School as a PE teacher. He was pleased to have received a note from the family of one of the students, letting Jeffrey know that his work makes a difference for their son.
When I think about the teachers who have impacted my life, I remember Mrs. Bersch who loved reading us stories; Mrs. Quesenberry who made each one of us feel loved; and Mrs. Brown whose spunk made science fun. I think about Mrs. Self, my eighth grade English teacher, who sometimes reads this blog, who told me in recent years not to worry about the grammar, but to just keep writing. And Mrs. Millborn, who was young and inspiring and could relate to every teenager in the school. I loved Mrs. Tillman who taught Geometry along with goal setting, and Mrs. Porterfield who made my day by always starting class with a smile and a philosophical question.
Those are just a few of MY teachers who made an impact on me, but once I had children in school, I cared even more about teachers. Next year I will write about Mr. March, Mrs. Deutsch, Mrs. Ellison, and dear, dear Mrs. Shirley. Some days you showed more love to my children than I could.
Have you thanked a teacher this week? With the internet, you can likely find a teacher you cared about and let that special someone know. It’s never too late to say, “You made a difference for me!”
Part of being a good mentor in the workplace is reaching out to the people who made an impact on you in your life and letting them know.