A couple of years ago, I had dinner with a group of friends that included a 77-year old and her 25-year old grandson. The conversation turned to the relative merits of Facebook versus MySpace, and listening to the two generations talk in terms of acronyms and modern hieroglyphics (like smiley face icons), I found myself time-traveling back thirty years to a series of unforeseeable events — those that would notably shape the first half of my adult life.
Straight out of high school, I went to the University of Georgia and declared a journalism major. After my first semester, I sat down with my academic advisor, who said, “Alice, your work is good, your professors like you, everything’s fine. I just want you to know that there are no jobs for women in journalism.”
Well, as a Southern female in 1976, I hadn’t actually given a lot of thought to a job — my mother dreamt I’d someday be a celebrated cocktail party conversationalist and favored dinner partner — but just to be on the safe side, I thanked my advisor and changed my major to graphic design.
At the end of my first semester in my new department, I met with a different advisor, who said, “Alice, your work is good, your professors like you, everything’s fine. I just want you to know that there are no jobs for women in graphic design.”
That word again. I shook the imaginary fairy dust out of my ears and in a fit of rebellion, announced, “To heck with all of you. I’m going into the theater where there are no jobs for anybody!”
Fast forward to 1981. I’m living my Manhattan bliss in a five-flight walk-up a few blocks from my acting school, HB Studios, in Greenwich Village. The proceeds from the sale of my ’76 Datsun B210 hatchback have expired and I’m finally confronting that job thing in real-time. My mother always said, “Learn to sew and type, but never let anyone know you know how.” However, having served and cleared for my brothers since toddlerhood, convinced I had done my time, and determined not to wait tables for strangers lest I become an acting cliché, this seemed to me an opportune time to play the typing card.
Unemployed people got to pay for the privilege of applying for work in those days, so it took some serious pavement pounding before I found an employment agency that didn’t require that pint of blood. I took their typing test and apparently showed promise.
“Do you know statistical typing?” she asked.
“Typing columns of numbers.”
“You mean set a tab, type a number, tab, number, tab, number?”
“Yes. You can go in there and practice before you take the test.”
“Tab, number, tab, number, and the test is ‘open book’?”
“Yes. Would you like to take it?”
“Okay,” I acquiesced (foot shuffle, foot shuffle), “I’ll give it a try.”
After the “test,” I was declared the best statistical typist in the history of the Universe, and the counselor announced with great pomp that my new position paid a whopping $17,000 a year.
“Whoa!” I said. “Why so much????”
“The woman you’ll be working for has been through more than twenty assistants in two years. We thought your psychology studies would help you in the job.” (At the time, I was thinking of enrolling in Columbia University as a psychology major — where there are some jobs for women, but I was mostly interested in acting role analysis. Nonetheless, the woman I’d be working for was so awful that just considering studying psychology gave me an edge. Imagine if I’d shown interest in neurosurgery…)
Off I went like Mary Tyler Moore — acting the role of a career woman — to 51st and Broadway, the Executive Offices of Touche Ross & Co., a Big Eight accounting firm in the days when there were still eight. I settled into my desk in the typing pool in the middle of an active hallway, thrilled to have my very own blue state-of-the-art IBM Selectric, and happy to be taking home my quite impressive $261.83 each week.
After about two weeks on the job, a tall, stately gentleman happened by.
“You,” he said, pointing his stately finger my way. “Come with me.”
(In those days, we went with tall, stately gentlemen when commanded. But we didn’t tell them we could sew.)
Opening the door to an eight-by-eight closet, he continued, “My name is Carl Griffin and I am the Chairman of the Board of this company. I’ve just come from a conference where they said that any Big Eight accounting firm that doesn’t have one of those on each partner’s desk in six months will be out of business. I’m too old to learn. You do it.”
With that, he secured the door and left me alone with a machine that looked to me — the writer-turned-graphic designer-turned-actor-turned-possibly aspiring psychology major who until recently only secretly knew how to type — like a Selectric on steroids. I approached it warily, and was happy to see it had a user manual, although not thrilled to find that it was written in a form of English I didn’t recognize. (Years later, I became fluent in this strange language, which I learned was called “technical writing.”)
I spent the entire next two $261.83 weeks with that “time-share system,” and was not a little bit sorry when it was magically replaced one morning by a fancier version called a Radio Shack TRS-80, and an Apple II+ two weeks after that.
Six weeks into my secret mission, Mr. Griffin appeared in my closet doorway just long enough to say, “Write it up.”
(Could it be that I, a woman, had a job writing, like a journalism major might?)
Anyhow, on the strength of this 23-year old’s recommendation, Mr. Griffin bought seven hundred and forty Apple II+ personal computers for his international partnership, and I became the de facto in-house computer expert because I had exactly six weeks more experience than anyone else in the company.
Twenty-something years later, I was leading strategic communications for the four billion dollar Hewlett Packard IT and business process outsourcing partnership with Procter & Gamble.
By the way, I did go to Columbia University as a psychology and philosophy double major, which I never finished, but it really plussed my cocktail party conversation. My mother would be so proud.
And that’s what happens when you flow with change rather than refusing it. Or, as I prefer to remember it, what happens when you follow a tall, stately stranger into a closet without telling him you can sew.
Copyright © 2009 Alice Melott