48: Lost Cause

48: Lost Cause

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Lost Cause

The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate.

~Douglas Engelbart

It all started so innocently. During my last year of grad school at the University of Wisconsin, an instructor I ardently admired, Professor Gooden, asked me to apply for an administrative position with the renowned Professor Smithson. But I told her I couldn’t handle a full-time job in addition to my classes.

She explained that I shouldn’t worry, because I was a woman, and Smithson always hired men. I couldn’t see the point, but Gooden insisted I would gain valuable experience by using the interview as practice since I would be job-hunting when the school term ended. I reluctantly agreed.

On the day of the interview I learned I was the first candidate to be interviewed and therefore needed to make a strong impression on the professor. I certainly fulfilled that requirement.

I arrived with my combination book bag/purse, stuffed but organized, including cough lozenges and a small packet of tissues. I had recently been knocked out by a nasty cold and still had trouble with occasional symptoms, but I was ready.

Professor Smithson asked me to sit down in the only chair in the room. It was deeply cushioned and featured such a backward cant that it was impossible to sit upright, much less gracefully. I had to wrap my legs around the modular base to keep from sinking out of eye contact with Smithson, all the while keeping my skirt in the appropriate position. I usually wore pants, so the skirt was, as it turned out, an ill-fated nod to the seriousness of a job interview.

As the professor droned on about the job duties, I realized my grip on the chair was slipping and my skirt had bunched itself up much too far. I fumbled hastily with the fabric, trying to right the situation while at the same time keeping balance.

My nervousness must have triggered my latent cold symptoms because I started coughing. No problem; I reached for the cough lozenges in my book bag. Unfortunately, because of my awkward position, I knocked the bag on the floor and the entire contents skittered across the room.

As my nervousness rapidly accelerated, my cough became so pronounced that I began gagging. I tried not to panic, but had to find water immediately. Professor Smithson was oblivious to my predicament and asked me to kindly pick up my things while I pantomimed that I would be back in a short time. At least that was my intention; who knows what he thought my hand gestures meant.

It’s not easy to find water quickly in an unfamiliar building, but I located a bathroom and hastily slurped water until my throat settled down. It was the men’s room, but no one else was there. The only hitch was that there was no mirror so while I could dab my eyes and nose, I couldn’t see my make-up. Only later was it apparent that black mascara and eyeliner had drifted south. Fortunately, since I used make-up lightly, it looked more sloppy than Goth-gone-wrong.

I returned to the professor, who gave me a long look and again asked me to pick up my belongings, which, I realized, included a confetti of receipts and wallet-sized cards. In order to retrieve things from their myriad landing sites, I would have to get down on my hands and knees, which would only have made the interview more uncomfortable.

So I sat there trying to continue the interview until he bellowed, “Pick up your things!” At first I tried scooping with my foot, which proved useless, so I confess I crawled across his office floor on my hands and knees retrieving most, but not all, of my possessions. Anxiety threatened to highjack my common sense as I obsessed about not leaving anything I would have to come back for.

Worse, my nose started running again and my tissues were missing. The “moisture” was accumulating on my upper lip and there was nothing in sight that could act as an absorbent. Since there was no choice, I decided to leave. My best friend, Rita, told me later, “Honey, it was the only thing a reasonable person would do.”

I grabbed what I had salvaged of my belongings and started for the door as I squeaked, “Thank you for your time.” But fate wasn’t done with me yet. The professor, perhaps feeling awkward for shouting at me, began expounding on his contributions, which were many, to “Ye Olde University” by launching into a description of every successful project he had overseen. Much as I tried to appear interested, my main concern was leaving as quickly as possible.

My upper lip was now full and I had mere seconds before the spillage cascaded downward. As the professor sing-songed without sign of letup, I did the only thing I could; I had to lessen the eventuality of simple physics. I slid my right hand under my nose, wiped furtively, and attempted to flee. But as I turned to leave, Professor Smithson grabbed the same hand to shake it in a farewell gesture.

When he slowly released my hand — how should I say this? — there was a persistent, silvery, dangling bridge of m-u-c-o-u-s between us.

Neither of us made a sound or a movement. He didn’t flinch in the slightest. I couldn’t tell you what his face looked like because looking at him was more than I could manage. Finally, I staggered to the door and left without a word. What could I possibly have said?

I called my friend Rita and after much consoling on her part she convinced me there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation. “Honey,” she moaned, “you have sailed on the Ship of Lost Causes... without a crew. Remember this: ‘Forward.’ That’s the Wisconsin state motto and it sounds like as good a plan as any.”

But the next morning, at 5:45 A.M., my phone rang. I thought it might be an emergency and was frightened about my family’s welfare. Unbelievably, it was Professor Smithson. All he said was, “I thought you should know you didn’t get the job.”

Even though I am not at my best, or even functioning, that early in the morning, instead of making a regrettable comment, I followed the path of maximum restraint and quietly said, “You’re kidding. I am so surprised.”

He did not say another word. My graduation day did not arrive a moment too soon. And the student Professor Smithson hired didn’t even last one semester.

~Kathleen McNamara

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