I once had a boss who used to introduce me to new clients by saying, 'This is Amanda, our new secretary. She has 'A' Levels and she's really clever! Say hello, Amanda.'
Oh grief, can you imagine? I was 19 and had left a steady, reliable job in the civil service due to being bullied by a new manager. I thought that going into a small firm, run by one person, I would be treated better and not have to watch my back all the time. What I forgot to consider , like so many times before and since, was the people factor.
My new boss had just started his business, having worked for others all his life. He was in turn terrified and exhilarated to be working for himself. He had a few full-time workers and a few casual staff. He wanted someone in the office to do everything he couldn't.
I had been on the enquiry desk with the civil service and knew a little about computers, could deal with dreadful customers, could do the myriad of small, insignificant jobs that come up in an office and had those 'A' Levels to prove I had a brain.
What he wanted me to do, and what I promised I could learn, was more than I had ever done before. He wanted a secretary to type his letters and to type onto the detailed drawings he used in his welding and engineering trade. He wanted someone who could re-organise his whole office and keep it running smoothly (...). He needed the wages to be calculated all the way from rota sheets, to drawing the money from the bank and paying everyone cash each week. He also needed his accounts to be done.
On a wing and a prayer, confident I could do all of these things or learn, I put myself across as confident and capable. My best interview technique went into our first encounter - and, readers, I have great interview technique! I just can't do the jobs very well afterwards.
I admitted I had never done accounts before but as he was a new business, he was able to send me on free courses to help me learn. What I didn't tell him was that I was very shaky in the maths department and couldn't really organise anything very well.
At first, it worked well. He was ridiculously pleased that I thought of ordering all his files alphabetically. He would stand, hands on his hips, as I sorted them all out. That was fine, I could do the alphabet, you know?
Once I got used to his ancient computer, I just about worked out how to do the rota sheets and turn them into wages. This one was stressful and important, I knew I couldn't get the wages wrong. It also became my favourite part as I escaped the dark little office, going into town to the bank, drawing out lots of money (nerve-wracking at the time) and then counting out the cash for the wages.
I really enjoyed always giving myself the best, crispest notes and giving the rattiest ones to whoever had got on my nerves that week.
Then the accounts training began. Now, readers, I know this is the modern age and if I took the job today, I would be trained in computer accounts. I would need to learn how to use the system and input the right figures in the right places. Then, way back when, it was paper accounts done in pencil on giant sheets of paper and I had to work everything out myself.
When I was in the accounts training sessions with our business advisor, the accounts made sense - while she was still there to show me. On the training days, with lots of other people, I took a fancy to one of the chaps on the course and didn't listen to half of what was going on. I did try, honestly, but I was 19 and he sat next to me every week. Also, the people running the courses made it very dull and even without distractions I was zoning off.
I then had to return to the office and apply everything I had learned, which was that my chap on the course was engaged (boo), that I was really tired of salmon sandwiches and that I never, ever wanted to do accounts again in my whole life.
What I did instead was call my friend who also did accounts and get her to talk me through the tricky bits. This worked better than the business advisor or the specialist course and I almost managed the accounts while I was there.
What I didn't manage was the expectation of the type of person I should be. As usual, winging it, I had entered the job promising much with no real idea of whether I could deliver. I had confidence that pretty much anything can be learned and I did get to grips with a lot of the job.
The problems came about because my boss had looked for an intelligent girl (yes, he knew secretaries were girls, so he looked for a girl) to work his office for him. Bearing in mind the amount of work I had to do and the complexity of a good half of it, he wasn't going to be able to take on someone who couldn't think on their feet and learn new things.
Unfortunately, what he also wanted was a girly-girl. That hated word bubbly came up at our first interview and he continued to use it. He wanted me to be the type who did her hair every morning and had good nails. I did brush my hair before coming in but my nails weren't up to much and I didn't wear make up either.
He wanted me to answer the phone in a bright and breezy manner. I just about got that one, by sticking an awful, mannequin smile on my face before picking up the receiver. Very scary for anyone in the office at the time.
He wanted to show me off to his visitors and then have me behave normally with them. Never once did his visitors look at ease with him doing this, but he never noticed and was always proud of my brains.
He also wanted me to call everyone Sir and Madam. Well, I know this is standard in lots of places and in different industries, but I was a thoroughly modern girl with that brain he kept going on about and had never had to call anyone Sir or Madam in my life. I always treated people with respect and described them as ladies and gentleman when discussing them, but it just didn't sit well with me to bow down that extra distance.
That's how I saw it, you see, bowing down. I could not get the words out of my mouth. Even when my boss would whisper to me, urgently, as a client came through the door, 'Don't forget to call him Sir!', I'd look up and the word would die in the back of my throat.
He began to see, then, that he hadn't got quite what he bargained for. I realised it too and was spurred on to look for a place in college so I could escape the hours of dreadfulness the job had become.
I felt the most left out at lunchtimes, when all the workers came through from the workshop to eat their food in the other half of the office. Oh, the food smells were appalling! Their sandwiches sounded like a toddler's testing lab and smelled even worse. One of them used to have some concoction of salami, jam and mustard. That was the worst one.
The conversations, too, about women a lot of the time, with an occasional self-conscious glance across at me. They soon lost their inhibitions, though and it was like I wasn't there. One of them going on about how he would have to hold off Madonna if they met (I think she may just have been able to contain herself there). All the jokes.
And the time my boss made the room fall momentarily silent when he started talking about how Hitler might have had the right idea about some things...That awkward few seconds passed when one of them remarked that my boss, as a 5 feet 4 inches man with curly dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin might not be on the right side of the fence in Nazi Germany.
Readers, my passionate dislike of the whole situation was only mitigated by the fact I had been accepted at college and was biding my time. My boss was also biding his time by now, having realised he was never going to be able to train me to be the right type of secretary and that I would always be holding myself above them and not calling people Sir.
We didn't part amicably. He did fire me in the end, with my mother chomping on his leg while he did it (metaphorically speaking). It was a relief to all of us that it had ended and I went on my way with a new appreciation of college surroundings, conversation, free time in the sun and the absence of any kind of accounts.
For many years I looked back and dismissed this job as a nasty blip, a job I would never have been suited for. In my mind I blamed my boss for many things, often remembering the way I felt when he tried to show me off. I felt justified in disliking him and the job, felt quite passionately that I hadn't done too many things wrong and it was mostly on his side.
Readers, all these years later, I would like to set the record straight. He was not wrong to expect someone who could do as he asked. His requests, though often put badly (he'd never been a boss before), were reasonable. It was not his fault that instead of an outgoing teenager with a brain he got an aspie teenager with her brains till at home, reading a book.
He could have had a different attitude much of the time but then I could have spoken my mind as well. Perhaps if we had both been able to be honest, I could have made everything easier. But at that stage I wasn't even being honest with myself. I felt if I admitted I couldn't do things, he would fire me and move on to someone else.
Now, I think he would have been relieved that I was telling him I couldn't manage. He wouldn't have judged a girl of my age for not knowing everything, though that's what I expected him to do. He would have set about training me so I could do the job. And the worst of it is, I would have still left.
That's the root of it, you see and that's why he is owed a belated apology. It wouldn't have mattered how honest I was or how hard we both tried to make the job work for me: I would still have made the decision to leave, for college or something else. This is just the way I work, I simply didn't know it then.
He had been unlucky in his choice of worker and I had chosen the wrong job in the wrong environment. By blaming him all those years, I avoided blaming myself and having any responsibility for the things that went wrong.
He wanted commitment from me and I wanted life to start being less of a struggle and more like I often imagined it would be.
I don't regret doing the job as it was a foothold to many others and it was packed full of life experience. I do regret not having enough self-knowledge to have let my old boss off the hook a bit. He wasn't blameless but in no way was he the villain I created in my memories.
In this situation, as in so many others, aspies are prone to blame the outside world and other people for their problems, without even pausing to think it might be themselves who are at fault. I'm not saying we should blame ourselves first, that would tie in too neatly with low self-esteem issues and guilt. But I do think there comes a time when we must admit where we went wrong and, in forgiving our past selves for not being able to get it right, we should also be able to forgive those innocent people who stumbled across our path and were caught up in the drama of knowing us.
For what it's worth, I still wouldn't be able to call anyone Sir or Madam, but I would be able to explain how it made me feel and why I wasn't able. In the end, that's what's more important.
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