Briefly Losing My Job During Finals Week

image source: https://www.nyu.edu/academics/libraries/elmer-holmes-bobstlibrary.html

During finals week, I got into a “fight” with my boss over text message. This is my third summer at the job and every spring there’s a mandatory two-hour training session. Traditionally, two dates are proposed early in the season and every employee must commit to one. Also traditionally, “mandatory” has been a threat that merely means failure to attend one will result in a harsh rebuke, but nothing else.

In mid-March she sent out an email declaring two training dates: May 16th and May 23rd. The job is at home in Massachusetts, five hours from my New York City college, and I was stuck at school until the 20th this year, so I planned to attend training on the 23rd. Then, in early May, she sent out an email saying that the latter date was moved from May 23rd to June 6th. I hastily read this email during a study break and shot her a polite and apologetic text message saying that I had a long-standing, prior, out-of-town commitment on June 6th and so I would be unable to attend either session. (I will admit that the commitment is a music festival, but, in my defense, I had proclaimed my unavailability that weekend on the communal Google calendar since March.)

I received a long text message in response that started with, “I’m sorry too” and went on to explain that my attendance at a training session was not only mandatory but also imperative. “No exceptions.” Understanding her point of view, I responded with another profusely apologetic message that included a suggestion to Skype into that coming Saturday’s session and an offer come into work early one day to cover the missed material. Fraught with anxiety, I tried, to no avail, to study from my Spanish notebook as I sat sweating, waiting for her reply. An hour later I received another message. The Skype was a no-go (“it’s not an online course”) and she was likewise adamant about “not taking prisoners this year […] The group dynamic is important. And my time is valuable.”

It was May. I had no other job or internship lined up for the summer, application deadlines had passed, and the comfort of a remunerative job at which I would be working with old friends and my sister had been a big draw home — an assurance that summer away from Manhattan would surely have some worth. I stuck to my apologetic attitude, texting back a long reply that included a guarantee that I “absolutely [understood] and [respected]” her points. I made it clear that my commitment on June 6th was concrete but also said, “this job is very important to me and I take these requirements seriously,” that I was “extremely sorry that my prior commitments [had] impacted my ability to be a team player,” and that I would find transportation home so that I could attend the session.

She promptly responded with a text that ended with the statement, “I’m not sure this job fits in with your life right now.” That was the moment at which I am sure that many others would have — and have, in the heat and frustration of the moment — quit. But I persisted. I responded, saying that I respected her judgment but would do whatever it took to make it work. The next day, she, finally, replied saying that she could change the training day to Saturday June 13th. I thanked her profusely.

I should now divulge that this job is not at a bank, or a lawyer’s office, or somewhere else where I have imagined and justified strict, harsh, and blunt employers. Rather, this is a job at a mom-and-pop ice cream stand by the beach.

I’m not sure if I was angry, or sad, or just frustrated and stressed with life and finals, but the interaction, and what I interpreted it to reveal about my boss’s regard (or, in this case, disregard) for me, continued to bother me throughout the following days. I understood her messages to mean that because her efforts were valuable, mine were not. Part of it was certainly a product of my own egotism. Days before I had been given an academic award. I was studying for final exams. What could possibly be more valuable, at that moment, than my time?

When my mom drove me home from school a few days later, I vented and aired my grievances and asked her, “is this what every boss is like? If so, I never want to join the real world!” I was and am continuously drawn back to the evocative final line of John Updike’s short story “A&P,” which is actually set in my and the ice cream shop’s town. After impulsively standing up to his boss and quitting his job at the A&P over an issue of impractical policy, the protagonist — nineteen, like me, but named Sammy — describes how “[his] stomach kind of fell as [he] felt how hard the world was going to be to [him] hereafter.”

I remain jarred and disheartened by my interaction with my boss. I resent the fact that she — in my eyes, audaciously — chose finals week to — in my eyes, groundlessly — essentially fire and then re-hire me. I remain confident in my choice to stick it out, yet unsure if my actions reveal a conformity to the kingpins that Updike described, or a nonconformity because I refused to surrender. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in “Self-Reliance” that “for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” The following question in my mind remains: do I feel the harsh weight of a boss’s unfair treatment or of the tribulations that come with the nonconformity of refusing to give up when I was invited to?

I re-read those messages. I still think that they were harsh, but perhaps they were justified. It is, after all, a job, and my prior commitment is a superficial music festival. Perhaps I’ve simply reached the point in life where marking “unavailable” on a Google calendar can’t exempt me from all responsibility. In the words of Joan Didion, I have “lost the conviction that lights [will] always turn green for me.” Perhaps that’s the heavy weight that I, like Sammy, feel in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps that’s the source of my indignation.

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