A while ago, someone asked me what the most important things I learned in school were. I thought about it, and decided that each phase of my education had left its lasting marks.
In elementary school, I first learned that I could write well. A couple of teachers recognized that and encouraged me to do better — by making sure I had a firm grasp of the fundamentals of spelling, grammar, and a decent vocabulary. They didn’t just praise my ability, they made sure I worked hard to improve.
In junior high, I learned just what a bunch of the differences between boys and girls were — and how delightful they could be.
In high school, though, I had one class I seriously loathed. It was tiresome, it was tedious, and the teacher was not my favorite person. Her “pet” happened to be someone I despised, and he made a point of sitting near me and tormenting me. That taught me a bit of patience, but that was hardly the most valuable thing I took away from that class.
It was typing.
This was the mid-1980’s. Computers were just on the horizon in our neck of the woods, and most people had a hard time grasping just how important being able to touch-type would become over the next few decades. Many times I despaired of my large, fumble-fingered hands being able to master the skill of touch-typing, and to be perfectly honest I barely passed the class — the numbers and symbols of the top row still get me to peek at the keys. But I know my way around the alphabet, the punctuation keys, the shift, tab, and enter keys by rote — and that skill has served me so well in the decades since I resented sitting behind that giant red IBM Selectric II.
Finally, college. There the most valuable thing I learned is the sort of thing one can not learn in a classroom.
I was a moderate big-shot on campus. I was, at various times (occasionally simultaneously), a leader in both student government and the student paper. As such, I had a great deal of contact with the college administration. And one of the earliest things I learned was that the absolutely last people you wanted to piss off were the secretaries, the executive assistants, the receptionists, the office managers.
These people have little formal power. They are not entrusted to make any of the big decisions.
But they are the gatekeepers to those who do.
They are the ones who decide whether or not you get to speak with the decision makers. When you get to speak to them. How you get to speak with them. And they can, if they choose, shape just what kind of reception you get. They can subtly talk you up or down to the boss, schedule you for times when the boss is cranky or more receptive, and make damned certain that you won’t have the time to make your case.
I’ve never understood people who treat the “little people” so callously. I’ve always made a point of trying to get along with those folks, and it’s paid off handsomely. In high school and college, I made a point of being friendly with the custodial staff — and that paid off one time I’d left a critical book in my locker, and needed to get back into the school after hours. And being on a first name basis with the secretaries of the college president, his assistant, and all the deans pretty much guaranteed I could get in to see them whenever I needed — because they knew me, liked me, and trusted that I wasn’t going to waste too much of their bosses’ time.
To those people who don’t see the need or value to be decent to the “little people,” I say thank you. It makes my efforts stand out so much better in contrast. You have made my life so much simpler. Please, continue to be jerks.