Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2011
It was about twenty years ago that I worked briefly with Idell. I was still pretty new in my job, and was not at all happy in it. In fact I was considering whether my decision to take the job would rank among the top five worst mistakes of my life—I was pretty sure it would make the top ten, at least. I had fled from a situation where I was expected to do software development of a very demanding nature and at the same time manage a group of half a dozen programmers. I was in over my head in both capacities, and in addition I hated the second one. So I had left the corporate high-tech world and taken a job at a small liberal arts college, where the work was a huge comedown in the level of technical skill involved: a mixture of programming and general support for the users of the administrative database system.
It proved much more challenging than I expected, not because the technology was so advanced but because it was so crude and backward: the mid-1970s hardware (a PDP 11-45, if that means anything to you, with a 20-megabyte disk drive the size of a washing machine) was falling apart, the software was a badly designed mess implemented with the crudest tools—even then, PCs were far more capable—and there was no documentation. There were supposed to be two programmers, but my predecessor had recently been fired, and the other had resigned, with only her last two weeks overlapping with my arrival. Worse, the most important part of the job was something I really hadn’t anticipated: the users expected me to know as much about their jobs as they did, and of course I had no idea what people in a registrar’s office or an admissions office, to say nothing of a roomful of accountants, did, and moreover didn’t really care and couldn’t make myself get interested, except to the extent that I was facing unemployment if I failed.
I think it was sometime within the first year or so of my tenure that Idell was hired as the admissions office manager: by “office manager” I mean not the director, who was in charge of the whole operation and was focused mainly on strategies for recruiting students, but the person in charge of the internal workings of the office, specifically the maintenance of the database. That was one of the most important parts of the job, and she wasn’t very good at it. She was a middle-aged woman and in 1991 it was pretty likely that someone over fifty or so had little experience with computers or sense of how to work with them. For those who remember the PCs of the time: in 1991 PC applications were still DOS-based, with Windows 3.1 not arriving till early 1992; only the Macintosh had a point-and-click graphical interface. And our administrative system was 15 years or so behind even the PCs in clarity and ease of use.
It was pretty obvious to me that Idell wasn’t comfortable with computers and didn’t really understand that part of her job, and was trying simultaneously to hide that fact and remedy it. Complicating the picture was the fact that she was black. As anyone who has ever been in a situation like this knows, some degree of awkwardness is almost inevitable, and friction and tension are not unusual. There will be people who expect black employees to be less competent and are not sorry to see them fail; there will be others who want them to succeed, or are afraid of being accused of racism, and ignore their deficiencies, which of course causes resentment on the part of those who have to work around those deficiencies.
Part of Idell’s way of coping with this seemed to be to adopt a certain truculence in her manner—at any rate, she had it, whether it was deliberate or not. So I was a little put off in my first dealings with her. And, being frustrated and angry about my own situation, I was pretty impatient, especially with someone whose shortcomings appeared likely to create more problems for me. So I remember thinking that she and I were not going to get along.
But I was also sympathetic to the feeling she must have had of having been thrown into deep water and of struggling to stay afloat—after all, I shared it. And anyway it wasn’t her fault that I was in the situation I was in. And anyway one ought to be nice to people. So I tried to be nice to her. When I worked with her I tried to stifle my impatience, making an effort to explain things when I could, rather than just assuming that she already knew them or would figure them out on her own. That was all: no great deed of virtue on my part, just a small effort to be decent and not to be the slave of my own worst impulses.
So Idell and I got along pretty well for what proved to be her fairly short stay at the college. I think it was probably less than six months. I don’t remember now whether she left on her own or was fired. On her last day she came by to see me. She told me that she had enjoyed working with me and would miss me, and that I was one of the few people she at the college who had seemed to care about her and been willing to help her when she needed it.
I was very much surprised by this, and didn’t know what to say. I thanked her and wished her well. I kept thinking about the disparity between the little effort I had made and what it apparently had meant to her. Was that all it took to make someone’s life a bit less difficult? Just trying not to be a jerk? I’ve tried to keep that lesson in mind since then; I’ve certainly had plenty of occasions to need the reminder.
Well, in spite of the rocky start, I have remained in that job. One day some years after Idell left—more than five, not more than ten, I think—I had something to do in an office that I don’t ordinarily work with. The secretary there, Frances, had been a friend of Idell’s and had stayed in contact with her. Idell had moved away and was now living in Florida, Frances said, if I remember correctly. She had told Frances to tell me hello. And Frances went on to say that Idell had been diagnosed with cancer and wasn’t doing too well. And she gave me Idell’s address in case I wanted to send her a greeting and a good wish.
I really meant to do it, too, but as is often the case with me I put it off, and then one day I saw Frances again, admitted that I hadn’t gotten around to writing Idell although I still meant to, and asked how she was doing. But now it was too late: Idell had died some weeks before.
It still bothers me that I never wrote to her. It would have been, again, only a little thing, but this time I failed to do it. I hoped she had plenty of family and friends around, so that the gesture that I didn’t make would have had less relative importance if I had made it.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I brood over this. I don’t think of it very often, but I happened to see Frances one day last week, and that always reminds me of Idell, and recalls a bit of the surprise I felt when she thanked me on that last day I saw her. I hope she’s with God, and that maybe she’ll put in a good word for me.