In my freshman year at Mount Mary College, I had a work-study job manning the College/Convent Switchboard. I left that job after I got hit by a car on my walk home from work and could no longer fit my impressively braced leg behind the Switchboard operator’s desk. When I returned to Mount Mary after the accident, I was offered another work/study job; the Chair of the Philosophy Department asked me to work as their Departmental Assistant, and I was thrilled to accept.
I had entered Mount Mary expecting to major in History and attend law school after graduation; both of my brothers and my sister Susan had chosen that path, and it seemed pretty clear to me that Law School was what people with excellent grades but no talent for the sciences did after college. I had no burning desire to be a lawyer, but I figured it was better to get paid well to do some probably awful job as opposed to getting paid poorly for the same thing.
In my first semester at Mount Mary, I enrolled in four classes: Literature of Western Civilization, College Math (otherwise known as Math for Dummies), Advanced Composition, and the required Freshman Seminar, Man’s Search for Meaning. From the start of the semester, I loved my writing and literature classes. We read eleven books, one of which was Sigrid Undset’s Kristinlavransdatter, a novel which ran to over 1100 pages. I was in heaven. I decided to double major in English and History.
My required Freshman Seminar was team taught by a philosopher and a theologian; we read thirteen books and were graded entirely on class participation. There were no exams, no papers, no written work of any kind. The first part of the semester was led by the theologian, Fr. Daleke, and the second part of the semester was led by the philosopher, Dr. Conlon. While Fr. Daleke was in charge, I enjoyed the class well enough; certainly it was better than College Math. Then Dr. Conlon took over. I was mesmerized. I was inspired. I was entranced. I was in love.
Dr. Conlon was a married man with two children and I was a congenitally innocent seventeen year old Catholic girl; in other words, I loved from afar. But in hanging on his every work and reading every book he suggested, I began to understand that I loved Philosophy at least as much as I loved Dr. Conlon. It was in that classroom that someone was asking, for the first time, the very questions I had been asking my whole life: What are we doing here? What is this? Is there a God? Why do innocent people suffer hideously while terrible people prosper? Is anything true? If so, what? How do I live? I became a triple major—History/Philosophy/English.
When I was offered the work/study job in Philosophy, I was thrilled because I would be getting paid to do things I wanted to do anyway. The professors had me doing research for articles they were writing (e.g.: “Find out if anyone has written about contemporary rock music in light of what Plato said about the poets in the Republic,”) and researching good movies for their “Film and Philosophy” series. Getting paid for this work was like getting paid to eat chocolate. Lovely as my new work/study job was, however, it had very limited hours and so I didn’t make much money. It was enough to allow me to have a life and still keep my insurance money to pay my half of tuition for my sophomore and junior years at Mount Mary.
My senior year in college was fraught with vocational anxiety. I knew by then that I really didn’t want to be a lawyer. That was the easy part. It wasn’t enough to have clarity regarding what I didn’t want to be. I needed to figure out what I did want to be. And no one was going to pay me to stay in college, take interesting courses, and do research for the Philosophy department. The academic life was Eden, and I was being kicked out. On one particular afternoon during the first semester of that final year, I turned in some work to the Philosophy Department Chair, Dr. Carmichael. He asked how I was doing, and so I started to worry out loud about my future. Dr. Carmichael suggested a deeply radical idea: if I didn’t want to leave the academic world, then maybe I shouldn’t. His exact words were, “I think you might be One of Us.” Graduate School, he explained, was very hard to get into, but once in, I would be have a full scholarship and be given a research assistantship as well. In other words, I would be paid to do what I most loved to do.
My parents actually supported this plan, figuring that I was young and unattached, it wouldn’t cost me anything if I did get accepted, and there was no better time to enjoy a few more years of scholarly bliss before joining the Adult World. Their only request was that I apply to graduate school in History, not Philosophy; History seemed to them the more practical alternative, and would look impressive on my probably inevitable law school applications. I agreed, and applied to Marquette’s graduate program in History, but I applied to the Philosophy program as well, and I took the Advanced Placement GRE in both philosophy and history. My plan was to let God decide; whichever program accepted me (assuming either one did) would be the one I would join. God, however, was no help at all. I got into both, and was offered all the monetary bells and whistles by both programs. I was going to have to choose.
To my parents’ consternation, I chose Philosophy. I reassured them that I was still going to end up in law school after just two more precious years in academia; after two years, I could opt out with my Master’s Degree and really impress those law school deans. I wasn’t lying to them; I believed this. Since I had no desire to teach, ever, I couldn’t imagine how a Ph.D. in Philosophy would be of any use to me in the Real World. I had bought myself two years of reprieve from the world of adult drudgery, and I resolved to cherish them.
First, however, I had to get a summer job. I had run out of money during my senior year, and I still owed my father a substantial portion of my senior year tuition. My sister Susan had worked for a few summers in the dental office of my brother-in-law Mel; I very much wanted to avoid that fate. Like me, Susan was a stress-eater, and her summers in Mel’s office had almost single-handedly kept the Golden Guernsey Dairy in business. My Dad used to buy ice cream from the dairy in giant tubs, one tub of vanilla and one tub of chocolate. Every night after a long day at the Dental Office, Susan would come home and eat her way through those tubs, one bowl at a time. She gained about twenty pounds, and when it came to emotional eating, Susan was a rank amateur compared to me. If she had gained twenty pounds, I was sure to gain fifty.
By that time, gaining weight was no longer an option for me. In my final year of college, I had gone on yet another diet, but unlike my other attempts, I stayed on this one for a year. In fact, in the summer of my junior year, my “summer job” was losing that weight; it was a full time project that involved eating very differently (thus learning to cook in a totally different way), walking five miles a day, biking ten miles a day, and taking an aerobic dance class. When I graduated from Mount Mary, I weighed 124 pounds, and I was grimly determined never to be fat again. Any job that required major doses of ice cream in order to survive was not a job I could afford.
Since my parents knew that Mel was willing to hire me full time for the summer, my only recourse was to find a job on my own. I began to scour the want ads in the Milwaukee Journal. (In those pre-internet days, the Classified Ads were the surest path to a job. Each day, the newspaper offered page after page of job openings; there were two separate sections, “Help Wanted: Women” and “Help Wanted: Men.” It seems quaint now, and certainly sexist, but I would never have dreamed of looking into the “Help Wanted: Male” section for a job as a welder, or a car salesman, or in construction. I stuck with “Help Wanted: Female” and its options of work as a typist, or a receptionist, or a sales clerk.
I applied for several jobs as a typist, despite the fact that I didn’t know how to type. My high school offered a class in Typing, but my mother had forbidden me to take it. Her philosophy was that a woman who knew how to type would end up typing for the rest of her life. (I was also forbidden to learn how to sew, because my mother believed that a woman who learned how to sew would be forced by her husband to make her own clothes.) It struck me as ironic that this same mother was now encouraging to find a job. As a typist.
One of the places to which I applied asked me to come in for an interview. In the week leading up to my interview, I purchased a “How To Type” book from the B. Dalton Bookstore, and commenced learning. It did not go well. I was a terrible typist; every time I tried one of the book’s timed exams, I failed spectacularly. Nonetheless, I showed up for my job interview filled with the optimism that desperation can sometimes engender.
The position for which I was applying was at the Ardlou Insurance Agency, located in a bleak two-story building across the street from my old grade school, Christ King School. There was a travel agency on the first floor, and what my mother used to call a Beauty Parlor. The Ardlou Insurance Agency was housed in a tiny and very cramped office on the second floor. Having worked for the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, I thought insurance offices were large and gleaming places, with lots of people scurrying around and the sounds of typewriters clacking and phones ringing.
Not so the Ardlou Insurance Agency. I was greeted by an elderly gentleman wearing pale blue polyester pants belted such that they stopped well above his ankles (and his socks). He was a very friendly fellow, if a bit odd, and ushered me into the office. “Office” is a generous term for the Ardlou Insurance Agency; the entire Agency was housed in three tiny rooms in which were stacked with piles and piles of manila folders bulging with papers. Also housed in the office was a tiny grey-haired lady who looked at me with an assessing gaze. The elderly gentleman introduced himself as Lou, and the tiny grey-haired lady as Ardis; “See? I’m Lou and this is Ardis! Ardlou! That’s us! The Ardlou Insurance Agency!” After surveying my hobbit-like surroundings and meeting Lou and Ardis, I decided that it would not be such a bad thing to flunk the typing test and get out of there.
Lou picked up a pile of manila envelopes to reveal a typewriter on one of the desks. “Here you go, Little Miss!” he said. “Let’s see how fast you can type!” Dutifully, I sat down and poised my fingers above the keyboard in proper asdf-jkl; format, and when Lou said “Go!” I commenced to typing the paragraph that Ardis had placed next to me. They flanked me eagerly like proud parents (also, the only way we could all fit into the space was if they stood right next to me) as I typed away. When my one minute was up, Lou calculated my score: 36 words a minute with 24 mistakes. I gathered my purse and started to stand up. “Oh well!” Lou chirped. “You were probably nervous! I bet you can type a whole lot better than this! You’re hired!” I couldn’t believe my ears. “WHAT?” I thought. “I’M HIRED? NOOOO!”
Yes. When did they want me to start? “How about right now?” crowed Lou. (Ardis was definitely the silent partner in this enterprise.) Oh God, I thought. “Um, Okay,” I said. “So….do you want me to type, then?” Lou emphatically shook his head and said “Nope, let’s give typing a pass for now.” (Good call, Lou, I thought to myself.) “Let’s get you going on some filing! We need to have some organizing done around here!” (Looking around, I didn’t doubt that for a second. Also, everything Lou said was an exclamation!)
“So,” I asked Lou, “Should I just start picking up these manila folders, or….” “Aw, Heck No!” Lou responded. “These are all pretty well organized. Let’s get you organizing what’s in the filing cabinets!” I looked around. I saw no filing cabinets anywhere in the room we were standing in, nor could I see any in the other two tiny rooms. “And the filing cabinets are located….?” I asked, to which Lou responded, “In the closet! They’re in the closet! Right here!” And Lou opened the closet door to reveal, yes, two filing cabinets stuffed with papers, with a space between them that I could just about squeeze into if I didn’t eat lunch. Ever again. There was no place to sit, or even to bend over, for that matter.
Ardis sat down at her desk with a sigh—the most she had said the entire time—and Lou cheerfully opened some drawers in the nearest filing cabinet and explained my first task: take every document out of both cabinets, find their proper manila folder, then alphabetize everything. “That should keep you busy for today!” he said. “Meanwhile, I’ll look around for something you can do tomorrow!” And then he shut the door. To the closet. With me inside.
I am proud to say that I organized both of those filing cabinets to the best of my ability. I left that closet in significantly better shape than I found it in. I also developed a touch of claustrophobia that stays with me to this day. When 5:00 rolled around, I opened the door and emerged from the closet—sweaty, sore from standing, and in despair. Lou, on the other hand, was ecstatic. “This is going to be great!” he said. “You did a great job!” Ardis started to cover the typewriter with its plastic hood, and Lou walked me the five foot distance to the front door. “See you tomorrow!”
Lou didn’t see me the next day, or ever again. The next morning, I arose at 6 a.m., ate breakfast, wrote my letter of resignation, and drove to the Ardlou Insurance Agency well before they opened, slipping the letter under the door. I thanked them for the experience, told them they didn’t have to pay me for the previous day’s work, and wished them well. I said that while it sure would have been fun to spend the summer with Lou and Ardis, my brother-in-law the dentist really needed me. Compared to the Ardlou Insurance Agency, the Dental Office looked like Shangri-La.