It was late winter 1993, and I was doing my best to put my recently acquired secretarial diploma to use. It wasn’t going so well.
After months spent papering an entire apartment wall with PFO letters (“PFO letters” were what my friends and I called “please fuck off letters”, which were the polite, professional one-pagers companies sent before email existed to people who didn’t get the job.), I was finally hired by a temp agency that connected me with a small agricultural newspaper. I suffered continual surprise throughout my first day at the paper, which could have only been due to my naïveté, because the second thing that was said to me within the first ten minutes basically foretold my future.
“You’ll find that we’re all miserable. Get out of here in less than a week if you’re smart. You look smart.”
I must have been smarter than I looked, though, because it turned out that I would be out of there by 3:00 p.m.
I was told to transcribe several dictated letters, but before I could finish the second of them, I was told that I would have to be the receptionist, which was not the position I was originally brought in for. I was just a temp, though, so I figured this was par for the course and took my seat at the front desk.
As soon as I sat down at my new station, I knew I was in trouble. It was a large round desk in the middle of the building’s lobby, and hidden beneath its surrounding countertop was the oldest and biggest bank of phones and buttons I had ever seen in person.
“Can you show me how this works?” I asked.
“No,” the manager said, and walked away.
I was appalled that there would be no training for this ancient system, especially when I was clear about not knowing how to use it, but what could I do? I spent the next hour dropping lines, sweating, and trying to greet people coming in the front door between calls until the manager stomped over, clearly angry.
“Don’t you know how to answer a telephone?”
“I know how to answer a telephone,” I said, “but I have never used this type of system before. It’s too out of date for my training.”
“I thought you would know what you were doing,” she said.
“I wasn’t hired to be a receptionist,” I said, “and I’ve had no training on this system.”
She huffed and turned on her heel without offering any assistance.
If it’s not already obvious to you, stating the facts had made me highly unpopular by 10:00 a.m., and no one was interested in creating a functional work environment.
At about 12:30 p.m., no one had come by to tell me when I could eat or use the washroom, and I very much needed to do both, so when the manager comped by again I motioned her over.
“When is my lunch break?” I asked.
“You don’t get one.”
“Oh. I thought I would have at least half an hour for lunch.”
“Why would you assume that? There’s obviously no one here to relieve you,” she said.“Can I at least have five minutes to use the washroom?”
“Can I at least have five minutes to use the washroom?”
“But I need to use the washroom,” I said. It was true. I could feel it in my teeth already.
“Then you shouldn’t drink water,” she said, pointing at my glass.
When I returned from the washroom, I was informed that the six minutes I had taken was unacceptable, and I would not be relieved for the rest of the day.
It turned out that, despite being promised otherwise, I would get to leave the desk one more time. I was called to the editor’s office in the mid-afternoon where I was faced by not only the editor but also three other people who, judging by their suits, all looked to be in senior positions.
“What is this?” he asked, shaking a piece of paper at me.
“I assume that’s the letter I typed this morning?” I asked.
He proceeded to read it back to me in a slow and deliberate manner, the clear intention being to strip me down in front of my other superiors, none of whom I had even yet met.
“Conceive,” he said. “You spelled it with an E-I instead of an I-E. Why would you do that?”
“Because that is the correct spelling,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” he said. “That’s not how I spell it.”
“But the rule is I before E except after C,” I said, “except when sounding like ay as in neighbor or weigh.” I looked around at the others, sure that someone in the room would back me up on this common spelling rule.
I was met with a cold, hard silence. Not a single person in attendance showed any sign that my recitation had merit, and it was all instantly clear. This was the excuse to fire me. Not understanding outdated phone systems and having the gall to drink water on the job were too much for these people, but neither were legally fireable offenses. Neither was this, really, but reasonableness wasn’t on the menu.
I knew if I didn’t cave in and agree to the incorrect spelling of “conceive”, I was done for, but I just couldn’t do it. I was pretty sure I was equally screwed, anyway, even if I did accept their alternate spelling. I’d read Orwell’s 1984 with “2+2=5” and all that, and I knew it didn’t matter if I was right. It didn’t matter if they didn’t believe what the editor was pushing. Every person in that room expected me to concede to this ridiculous man, to say that, yes, “conceive” was spelled with an I-E and not an E-I. There was no fucking way, though, and I felt compelled to say so.
“Conceive sounds like ee, so I-E seems as though it should be right, but the ee sound follows a C, so it’s spelled E-I, according to the well-known rule.”
The editor visibly shook behind his desk. One of the managers curled her lips at one corner.
“Go back to reception,” the editor said.
I excused myself and went back to my desk to await my fate.
At 3:00 p.m., the manager who had denied me proper training, bathroom breaks, and lunch told me I would no longer be working at the paper as of 5:00 p.m. I informed her that I was actually done right that moment, and I started gathering my things.
“But who’s going to answer the phones?” she asked.
“That’s not my concern,” I answered, and walked away across the lobby to the front doors, pleased that the manager had to watch me go with no power to stop me whatsoever. I was just a temp, after all.
The paper’s office building was in an industrial area with no sidewalks, so I had to hike across a rough field and a set of railroad tracks to get to the bus stop. My heels stuck in the muck of early melt, but it felt good to let my office shoes get coated in mud.
I settled into the bus shelter to wait for the next bus and didn’t care that my fingers froze in the late winter cold. I drank a bottle of water with a stubborn defiance. I ate my lunch out of its paper bag. I peed in the grass behind the bench. I savored the bright, crisp sound of “conceive” as it hissed between my teeth with its correct spelling. I felt gratitude for not having to spend a whole week in that place.
And I decided that the woman who told me I looked smart that morning was right. I was really, really smart.