bookstores, coworkers, librarians, talking

(That) Kind of A Manager

My current position is not perfect. However, in the interest of complaining less (which is good for you!) and focusing on positivity instead of negativity, I thought I would address my favorite part of my job, as well as celebrating some quality people who have shaped who I am in the workplace.

I supervise student employees. They are mine to boss around — er, I mean, assign/delegate tasks — though I do not schedule them or serve as their go-to contact. I am there to answer their questions, back them up with patron-related problems, and I ask them for help with tasks. They (mostly) oblige good-naturedly. Building relationships with young people has always been one of my favorites, and it influenced my choice to major in Education, to pursue student teaching a second time despite a disastrous first try, to nanny, and to work as a teacher-librarian. Of course, my college students are very different than the toddlers I used to babysit (namely in their affinity for curse words and their showing up with visible “love bites”), but deep down I just like being around people and often younger people are more open to talking and connecting with someone they don’t know well.

I loved training the newbies: showing them the ropes and fielding their questions when new situations pop up. One student at the beginning of the year was so stunned at how old some of our materials are because they had been published the same year his grandma had been born. It was sweet to see his awe at how the information within had existed as long as his grandma, and to see him think about how the book’s field of study had likely changed.

Even more than the work-related conversations, I love hearing them talk about what’s going on in their real lives: work, school, family. I love urging them, seniors or otherwise, to seek out resources that the University offers that they either don’t know about or have the motivation to utilize (here’s looking at you, Career Services :). I love listening to the Sunday girls speak in Spanglish with each other and get excited that I can understand roughly 75%. I am impressed when other students speak in fluent Hindi because it sounds so complicated, but they, bilingual, have been using it since birth. They are pre-med, nursing, engineering, or bio majors and I know I never had to study that hard in college (high school, maybe).

Whereas some students keep entirely to themselves, glued to their laptops or phones their whole shifts, the students who talk to me are my favorites. They tell me about their roommates wanting the heat up way too high, their conferences in Pittsburgh (the buildings are all brick–too much of the same color!), their public speaking assignments, faraway summer internships they’ve lined up (rent is insanely high in CA! Owning real estate and letting money roll in is such a goal!), their minors–majors stress them out, but their minors are fun passion projects like theatre, which involves set building/design and props in particular, creativity in general. The kids have wild stories — one girl humbly told me her family store was robbed over the summer, that she and her dad were held at gunpoint. She smiled and said “it was scary” but that the police caught the perpetrator shortly afterward, and did not appear shaken in the least.

And last week, during my last hour of work before a pre-announced snow day, I asked the young adults working what they were doing on their day off, and they asked me the same. My plan was to watch Coco, and hearing that, one student LIT UP. She is not one of my warm-and-fuzzy students, but she could not stop smiling about my watching it. This 20-year-old told me about how she loves the soundtrack and listens to it sometimes, and she warned me I would cry. (She was completely right.) The four of us then had a fifteen-minute conversation about “kid” movies, babysitting and its merits, and I shared my lone horror story from the single time I ever accepted a job substitute teaching kindergarten. (ONCE WAS ENOUGH. Props to all the kindergarten teachers.) I left for home that night happy for the day off, but happier to share so much dialogue, such a connection with someone young enough that I could have babysat over a movie I hadn’t even watched yet.

[THEN I watched it, and holy moly, I cannot recommend it enough. Seriously, so beautiful. Stop everything and go request it from the library. I’ll wait here!

…Great, glad you took care of that. You too will soon be able to share in the magic.]

More than anything, though, I was happy that I get to be kind of, sort of a manager, because I get to work with some cool young people. I’m that kind of manager: real with them. I go easy on them when they are cramming for an upcoming exam. I ask them questions about their family trips to visit relatives in Colombia, and I pack and label the outgoing mail alongside them because they don’t like doing it (but I do!). I try to calm their course-related anxiety and encourage them to get enough sleep every chance I get.

The best managers I’ve had have been calm, kind and available. One such person is one of the nicest people I’ve ever known, whom I watched many a customer verbally abuse at the bookstore, for any number of reasons (probably related to coupons and their applicability). Through it all, no matter how rude someone was to him, he did not take it personally, nor get nasty in response. Instead, he calmly tried to reach an acceptable solution for the customer. I never saw his hair on fire (metaphorically or literally)–even though he was the manager in charge of the schedule, he maintained one of the most easygoing, goofy attitudes complete with a smile. Working with him was relaxed and productive. When I was dumped by my first love and someone in the store tried to immediately set me up with her brother, I fled to the staff room and cried hysterically to this man until he got me laughing and ready to face the floor (if not the dating scene) again. His wife, son and daughter are lucky humans! He still texts me to check in on my birthday & remains part of my support network when it comes time to apply for new jobs. Though I never observed him outwardly showing discontent, eventually, he wanted a better schedule/higher pay, and probably a job where no one screams at him, so he no longer works in retail. But when he was in it, he was the best at accommodating schedule requests and just overall being a great guy. J, you rock!

While I was awed by J’s (and almost all of my bookstore family’s) ability to remain calm under attack, I had to experience discipline from the master some years later. My supervisor in my grad school position was professional in ways I had never known. This was the first workplace other than nannying where the roster of day-to-day contacts stayed consistent. Blessed with the privilege of a non-public workplace, this woman showed me the power of introverts. Her quiet in meetings did not signal a lack of engagement, nor lack of opinion, but she chose when, how, and to whom to express herself in a deliberate matter that best served the purposes of the team. Considering that I am often physically unable to withhold my opinions, seeing her at work was enlightening and provided me with a model for how to comport myself diplomatically in a work environment. She trusted me with projects, some from the ground up (and to only minor, occasional disappointment) and to select candidates to interview for her future graduate assistants. A private person in many ways different from myself, she and I nevertheless bonded over projects, laughs and a mutual appreciation for handwritten letters. During my time working for her, we both suffered losses: she, her beloved father and I, a significant relationship. Rather than the awkwardness that can pollute the workplace post-sad event, we took care of each other. Our respective vulnerabilities did not derail work, and we gently built each other up, one poke-of-my-head-through-her-door at a time. TT, you taught me that it is not weak to take care of yourself, that an office can be a family, and that balance between work and family is possible without sacrificing dedication to either! You serve as my benchmark for how I should carry myself at work. You rule, lady! I hope this makes it into your smile file 🙂

It is strange to me that the people with whom you spend 8+ hours each day are not your chosen inner circle of friends and family. They are a bunch of randos, and today I’m thankful for my time with these two pleasant people, a lifesaver of a current colleague (seriously, H! Mister Rogers stamps!?! Such a thoughtful gift) and my sweet students.

I’m lucky to have to be around the people I do.

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