Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Things I Never Learned in School

The other day, while I waited for the microwave to nuke a bowl of Shanghai noodles, I heard the muffled ringing of my cell phone coming from the bedroom. It rang four times before I found it in the laundry hamper. In an attempt to intercept the call before it went to voicemail, I flipped open the phone without checking caller id and found myself ear-to-voice with a telemarketer.  I wanted to hang up but couldn’t, because for a soul-harrowing four hours I was once a telemarketer myself and have no desire to encourage suicidal tendencies in others.
One November day in the late sixties, I was called to the principal’s office of my high-school and informed my attendance in class would no longer be permitted. (No, I wasn’t expelled for anything really bad like drug-dealing or beating kids up for lunch money. I was expelled for voicing negative opinions about education, frequently and in language best described as unladylike.  At the time, I was quite proud of my scurrilous vocabulary and gave others every opportunity to admire it. In retrospect, after learning to curse in four other languages and having spent a few months working as a deckhand on a package freighter, I know the cuss words available to a seventeen-year-old farm girl scarcely qualify as profanity.) Expulsion from school resulted in expulsion from home, where my opinions were equally unpopular,  and I soon discovered a big mouth is frequently an empty one. Tucking my attitude into a back pocket, I went looking for work.
I landed my first job, magazine subscription phone sales for five dollars a night plus twenty cents for every subscription sold. Back then, the only qualifications required for telemarketing were a good speaking voice and clear enunciation. (Recent conversations with telemarketers lead me to believe there are now no qualifications whatsoever.)  On my first and only night of employment, they sat me in front of a grungy black Bakelite telephone, handed me a script and some white pages ripped from a phone book. I never sold a magazine. I rarely made it all the way through the first sentence of the script. To this day, the sound of a disconnect followed by the hum of a dial tone makes me feel personally rejected. At the end of the night, I picked up my five dollars and trudged from the room, determined to starve to death before subjecting myself to that level of humiliation again and equally determined never to inflict it on another.
So, I listened politely to the young man from the cable company explain how I could save ten dollars a month for three years by switching to a new HD PVR, (high definition personal video recorder) then told him I didn’t have an HD TV. He checked with a co-worker and informed me the PVR would still work. After further questioning verified there were no hidden charges,  I agreed to order a new PVR, feeling a twinge of guilt at giving the poor kid a glimpse of success.
We chatted as I slurped up my noodles and he stumbled his way through unfamiliar computer screens, areas of the system he rarely saw. I sympathized with his complaints, telling him I’d worked in computers and had had the same experience with third party software many times, to which he responded he’d taken a few computing courses in university and asked me what programming languages I knew.
“You went to university?” I blurted out before I could stop myself, and learned I was talking to a recent graduate with a BA in English Literature. I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
Six years after putting telemarketing behind me forever, while my less obstreperous schoolmates were leaving university and taking jobs as waitresses, truck drivers, receptionists, and even telemarketers, I was working as a computer programmer at an insurance company, making enough money to support not only myself, but my deadbeat first husband, who never remained employed one second longer than it took him to qualify for unemployment insurance.  I’d scrambled my way up from the filing room in basement, via the first floor mail room, second floor telephone room and third floor claims department. It wasn’t an easy climb, but it taught me things I’d never have learned in school, where courses like “Buckling Down 101” and “Getting Your Ass in Gear 202” and “Taking Responsibility for Your Future – Advanced” are not on offer.  For some people, these are innate abilities. For a foul-mouthed, know-it-all like me, they were lessons that had to be bludgeoned in. I’ve always felt fortunate to have learned them while I was still young enough to benefit from them.
A few days after ordering my new PVR, I met up with a bunch of old-fogey friends and we had one of those kids-these-days conversations. If you’re over fifty, or know anyone over fifty, you’ve heard things like this before:   
Nowadays kids want two-hundred dollar running shoes and expect to be driven everywhere. When I was a kid, we walked to school barefoot. Five miles every day. Uphill. In blizzards.
We didn’t have Nintendo when I was a kid. We made our own fun with corn cobs and imagination.
Someone, I can’t remember who, pointed out that suspension from school was a dumb form of punishment. “Those kids don’t want to go to school anyway,” she said. “It’s like rewarding their bad behavior with a vacation.”
Not having any kids myself, and unwilling to voice an opinion on something I know nothing about, I’d been letting the talk flow around me. At this point, I felt I could join in the conversation. “Getting expelled from school,” I told them, “was the best career move I ever made.”  

1 comment:

  1. Corn cobs and imagination? I hope that was a ... well, never mind...I got nothing...

    Seriously, if my dad was still around, he would've wanted to add your "best career move" comment to his byline.