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2007-03-11 - 4:25 p.m.

...we are all allowed to make mistakes...

When I was 17 years old and just out of high school, I was trying to raise money to go to an expensive ivy-league school. My mother's best friend was the director of psychological services at a state mental health institute, and she was able to create a data technician position for me.

My first job. Each morning I would drive my beat-up 1974 Chevy Nova downtown to work. The Nova was on its last wheels, so to speak. It drove on a slightly crooked path down the highway, always veering slightly to the left...and the horn would honk if you turned the steering wheel too sharply to the left. The bench seat cushion was worn so thin that I needed a pillow to see out the front and back windows. The ceiling material was held in place with duct tape, and consequently kept falling down on my head. There was no AC or radio, and so I usually sung to myself as I sweat in the St. Louis summer heat, and my dress would be wet and stuck to the seat before I arrived at work.

Malcolm Bliss Mental Health Center was located right in downtown St Louis, within in smelling distance of the Anheuser Busch brewery. To this day the smell of hops brewing reminds me of my summers working there. This was back in 1986, when federal cutbacks in funding meant that there was no longer money to keep all of the mental health patients in the hospital. Several cases were switched from 'in-patient' to 'out-patient' status. Many of these out-patients had no place to go, and so in reality their status had been switched from 'in-patient' to 'homeless.' People with IQs of 80 and visions of Jesus Christ hung around in a three-block radius of the institute. I was advised not to work late, because the cutbacks also meant a loss of the security guard who patrolled the employee parking lot. Most of the patients were harmless, but there was no reason to take chances.

State mental agencies are an interesting place to work. I've been lucky to have several marvelous experiences in various places around the world. And I wouldn't ever go out and say to a young person, "Here's a life experience you HAVE to have!" But I think there was something extremely valuable and very humbling, in being exposed to the work environment of Malcolm Bliss. One of the lessons I learned is that we are not all born with silver spoons. We are not all born with books. And even more important, we are not all born with the mental capacity to earn our own spoons and books. This realization may seem obvious in the abstract, but it is quite different to experience it concretely.

I learned many valuable things during my first summer job. During the many moments when I had completed all of my assigned work, I taught myself how to use the institute mainframe; I read the DOS computer manual; I read up on various psychological illnesses; I gave myself a variety of psychological tests (Rorschach and MMPI being the two that I remember). When the Director ran out of things for me to do, she farmed me out to other psychologists to help them with their research, where I wrote up bibliographies on bedwetting, fire-starting, and pet-torturing behavior in disturbed children. I had my first experiences with the way state bureaucracies (mal) function. One of the administrative staff once came and told me to get off the computer because I was "using up all the power."

What inspired me to remember all of this on this rainy Vancouver day? Enfinblue and I have recently been discussing some of the lessons that academics never get in life. She thinks that all academics should be required to spend some time at a 'real' job. I may be overstating, or misstating her point, but I think the gist of it is this: Academics do not learn team-player skills. Many are not required to play well with others. I think she and I would both agree that such statements should be taken as gross generalizations. Nevertheless it is an interesting point.

I credit this first job at the state mental health institute as the place where I learned one of my most important lessons: Everyone makes mistakes. A glaringly obvious point, right? Glaringly obvious when YOU make the mistake yourself, perhaps. But what happens when your well-meaning technician accidentally deletes 20 GB of your data? Then how do you react?

During my first summer, I was frequently asked to man the phones during the secretaries' lunch hours. My job was to stay at all times in the open office, handle all calls and visitors. I couldn't leave. I hated manning the phones, because I was new and young, and had no idea how anything worked, and I hated that feeling (what control freak would like it?). I hated that job even more after I dealt with the suicidal woman.

There were two other secretaries in the office: Betty and Thelma. Thelma was extremely quiet, slightly pusillanimous, and kept to her herself. Betty was a middle-aged black woman who took no shit from no one.

On the day that the suicidal woman called, Betty was already on her lunch hour. I transferred the call to Thelma, who took a message and hung up on her. I realized later that she had already done this three times before I received my first call. Then Thelma went on break, I was left alone. The woman called back and got me. I didn't know what to do. I took another message. I put the message in her doctor's box, on top of the messages from Thelma that had already accumulated there. I tried to call his offices, no answer. I was stuck in this place of not wanting to disturb a doctor for no reason, and yet being worried for this woman. Finally, I mustered up the courage to call his home, and heard from his children that he was out golfing and couldn't be reached.

I had no idea what I was doing and was completely overwhelmed. The woman kept calling me back. Part of me just wanted her to go away, another part just kept hoping that it wasn't as bad as it sounded. I took two more messages, and continued to tell her that no one was around, but that I was looking for someone, and asked her to keep calling me back every ten minutes. Which amazingly, she did. After about 30 minutes of this, Betty came back from her lunch hour. I told her about the woman. The next time the phone rang, Betty immediately transferred her call over to the emergency on-call doctor. Huh, why didn't they tell me about the emergency on-call doctor? By 3pm the on-call doctor came into the office - he had been on the phone with the woman for another hour until an ambulance had come to pick her up and admit her as a patient. He was very upset. Amazingly, not at me.

The incident made me feel so helpless and incompetent. I mean, I essentially put a suicidal woman ON HOLD. I kept telling her to hang up and call me back. It didn't occur to me that in such a situation, it was actually OKAY for me to leave the office. My mind was not able to process the consequences. I feel lucky that Betty came back to save the situation.

Interestingly, this is not the lesson that I feel that I learned on that day. At the same time that this was happening, I was fielding other calls for all of the other doctors. On this particular day, the assistant director's ex-wife had been trying to reach him for several hours. I took about three messages from her. On the second message, apparently, I transcribed the telephone number incorrectly. I continued to take the messages from her, and put them in his box. He came back around 3:30pm. I don't remember all the details, except that he came out of his office and began shouting at me for being incompetent, and then turned on his heels, and slammed his office door.

I sat there stunned for a few minutes, feeling about the size of my left shoe. (I have very small feet). After a few minutes, I collected up enough courage to go into his office and apologize to him. I told him that I had tried to do things correctly. It was entirely possible that I had written down the number incorrectly, and I was sorry. I didn't mean to do it, and I would try to do better. If he had any other problems with me, I would like to hear them so that I didn't make the same mistakes in the future. I remember he just waved his hand at me and said, "Nah it's okay, I was blowing off steam." And then I left.

The assistant director had clearly forgotten the incident immediately. I felt awful for the next 24 hours, all over an incorrectly written telephone number. I went home that night and I cried and cried to my mother. I hated my job. It was so unfair. I tried so hard, but his yelling at me had made me feel so awful.

My mother's advice to me has stuck with me to this day:

"I know that you didn't mean to make a mistake. And you are a good worker. But I hope you never forget how it feels to be yelled at for an honest mistake. Someday, you will have someone working for you, and that person will make mistakes, and feel awful. And your reaction - be it positive or negative - will have the same power over them that this director has had over you."

My mother is a very wise woman.

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