My first real job when I graduated from college was working as a secretary in the new construction division of a construction company. Suffice it to say that I was a huge pain in the ass. Huge.
I could type. 60 words per minute. On a really, really good day. I could answer the phone, but when those construction foremen got mouthy with me, I got mouthy back. It did not end well. I could do dictation tapes, if you gave me a really, really long time. The first one I did I had to slow down so much that I thought I was typing for an old man. Imagine my surprise when I handed my work to a handsome young man about 3 years older than I. I believe I blushed to the roots of my hair and he walked away shaking his head at the new bumbling idiot he had to work with. We eventually became very good co-workers, but those first weeks were very bumpy. One of my tasks was to clean the office kitchen each day. The first afternoon, I ran the dishwasher. I had never before in my life encountered a dishwasher, although I knew about them. I just never ran one on my own before and so at the ripe old age of 22 did not know that there was a key difference between dishwasher detergent and dishwashing liquid. I thought they were interchangeable. Not knowing or caring about the difference, I put dishwashing liquid in the dispenser, turned the machine on and walked out.
That was when I learned to know and care about the difference.
Shortly after I was hired a decision was made streamline the contracting process. This meant that the office was going to get …
(insert drum roll here)
… a desktop computer!
All of our data had to be input. This was a mysterious process involving … you know? I can’t remember what it involved. I just remember that it was a lengthy, cumbersome process that involved a nightly back up of the enormous processor with floppy disks the size of elephant ears. I am
It took two hands for me to hold those suckers and put them into the machine every night. Every. Single. Night. Plus there was some sort of extended back up process that had to be done on a weekly basis. It drove me nuts. That was my first foray into the jungle of computers. It was cutting edge, I tell you.
The larger problem was inputting all of the data. That took an enormous amount of dedicated time. Because while technically the computer was a desktop computer, it was not actually “at” anyone’s desk. And each of the secretarys (I think there were 3 or 4 of us) had ongoing work to do each day that superseded the data input. In short order, a decision was made that some office temporaries would be hired to enter the data into the computer. So it was. That is when the problems began. This was not difficult work, but it did require a little bit of training and then some oversight to ensure that it was being done correctly. Not a lot … just a little. So we needed one or two people who would commit to doing this for maybe one or two weeks. I think we saw new people every other day. It was sooo not worth it. We (I) spent more time training new people than I might have if I’d just been allowed to do the input myself. They would show up late or not at all. They would disappear during their lunch break and not return til the next day, if ever. We’d show them what to do and work with them on how to do it and the work would be sloppy, incomplete and unacceptable unless someone was standing over them. Very often the young women were not dressed appropriately for working in an office. Their fashion choices would be more appropriate for an evening at a club. It was very frustrating for everyone concerned. We were frustrated because our work was not getting done. But the women coming in and attempting to work with/for us were also clearly frustrated. Everyone was perplexed and confused by the apparent miscommunication of expectations.
Fast forward a few years and I decided to pursue a masters degree in education. While I was doing that, it seemed like a good idea to work as a temporary office worker so that I would be able to concentrate on my school work when I needed to. It wasn’t a big deal at all. I applied to a temp firm and started getting assignments. Within a few weeks, I was a superstar. It was the strangest position I’d ever been in. All it took to be a superstar was showing up every day and being kind. I got to pick my assignments each week and always got the best places. The ironic thing was that my skill set was mediocre at best, although I did have a good handle on software. And in the midst of my classwork and working each day I began to wonder about this incongruous state of affairs.
I’ve spent a lot time in the intervening years wondering about that. Studying demographic trends and trying to figure out why it was that I became successful with mediocre skills and many others couldn’t make it with stellar skills. What did I have that they did not? I don’t know that I have any answers yet, but I do have some clues. Some of them can be found in the world around us and some of them date back to the days that formed our country.
It’s very popular and somewhat easy to condemn those who receive public assistance as lazy, stupid, irresponsible, and self-indulgent on the public’s dime. I’ve lived in less desirable neighborhoods, been on public assistance myself for a short period and spent my time volunteering among those in need with Project Angel Tree. My experiences are not vast by any stretch of the imagination, but they are enough for me to say that I haven’t met any one who was lazy or stupid or irresponsible or self-indulgent. I met a lot of people along the way who were struggling along with enormous burdens on their backs. Being poor is hard work. Stretching a dollar to cover $5 or $10 is just as hard as being a CEO and requires a great deal of creativity. When you’re struggling along with a huge boulder on your back, it’s a lot easier to stumble and fall. It’s a lot easier to make mistakes and lose your way because you can’t see the horizon anymore, all you can see is the next place to put your foot down. And often times you end up going in endless circles, perhaps even circling the toilet. It’s very discouraging. What makes this scenario even more discouraging? All of the shiny happy people on continuous cable television telling you that the path to happiness lies in the acquisition of stuff. Adults may be able to withstand this, but children do not understand their lack in a land of plenty.
Current scientific research suggests that our brains are wired to tolerate a certain amount of decision-making in a day. When we push beyond that threshold, we experience fatigue and either make poor decisions or no decisions. Further research suggests that this phenomenon effects those with less wealth to a greater extent than those with more wealth:
Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget.
There’s a lot more to this idea than I have space for, so I encourage you to read this fascinating article. However, it may be that our current notion of public assistance recipients as lazy and lacking in self-control could be putting the cart before the horse! This is not to suggest that they require more money, but that they require additional support and help from those in their community. By which I mean … us.
There are issues and values that we hold both in the dominant culture and in the minority culture that are in conflict with one another. Those need to be openly and honestly discussed, wrestled with and negotiated. Electing a black president will not resolve our problems. Putting more money into public assistance programs will not resolve our problems. As I reflected on the differences between me and the women who just couldn’t seem to make things work for them I came to understand what some of our differences were. I knew how to show up on time, every day. I knew how to go to lunch and come back. I knew how to work independently and get my work done without talking on the phone or succumbing to other distractions. At first this was sort of strange to me. After all, who doesn’t understand those things? Why wouldn’t you know how to go to work every day? But what if you lived in a home where no one went to work? What if you lived in a home where there was no father? No grandfather? What if you lived in a home where there were few rules about time and showing up? If you grew up like that, would you know how to show up for a job every day? You might think you do and you might say you do, but it would be very difficult to learn that.
Now take this idea back … way back. Back to the early days of our country. We brought the ancestors of many of these people over in chains. We brought them here with an utter disregard for the long, complex and well developed culture they came from. The expectation was that their culture was to be erased with the flick of a whip and they would assimilate into ours. I know next to nothing about African history or culture; I am sadly uninformed. What I can tell you is that it was very, very different from Western European culture. The values and mores that Africans held were utterly different from ours. Brought over here to work, the motivation was fear of pain, death and familial separation.
Fear is an excellent motivator, if your goal is efficiency. However, fear can never change the human heart. It can change what a person does on the outside and to a certain extent it can change who they become, but it cannot change who they were meant to be. That indomitable part in each of us remains, passed on to our children in each generation. In large part, fear is the motivating factor for people who live in poverty … not having enough to eat, a place to live, that the home they have is safe, etc. We continue to anticipate that through fear we will dominate and assimilate these people brought to our shores through various means 300 years ago. I wonder what would happen if we decided that the modern day cultural expressions of their heritage have as much to contribute to our national conversation as the western European expression does? What if we took the blinders of our dominant culture off and truly began to explore our racist heritage? I think that part of the long-term pay-off to that would be to reduce the numbers of people who require public assistance. And what an all around victory that would be!
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