School of Life

One could say I grew up in Alabama. Alabama was my first venture away from my West Virginia home. It was the classroom where Gary and I met day and night for a four-year course called Marriage 101.

Alabama was where we learned how to find a place to live—quick. A couple learns fast when they pull up to the house they thought they had rented and discover it is not livable.

Alabama was where I held my first adult job. It was the place that taught me how to summon the courage to stand up for myself.

As soon as our feet touched the southern red clay, and we unpacked the U-Haul, Gary’s veterinary education began. I had enrolled in the school of life without even applying.

My classes started by way of a secretarial position for the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University).

I was a 20-year-old homesick newlywed. Whenever I think of that confused young girl, I am reminded of a miracle: Gary remains married to me.

He and I exemplified the literal definition of living from one paycheck to the next. They say you can’t live on love, but you can. We did.

I had never worked as a secretary, but, as it turned out, I was good at it. Dr. Broniarek, the department head and my boss, was a greying, broad-shouldered, tower of a man whose words sounded more Polish than English.

It mattered not. In the beginning, my biggest obstacle was answering to Mrs. McCutcheon. I did not feel old enough to qualify to be a Mrs. Anyone. Besides, Mrs. McCutcheon was my mother-in-law.

While other secretaries were adept at stringing out the work in their baskets, I was not. If there was work to be done, I didn’t rest until it was finished.

I pounded the keys on my word processor until my basket was empty. Then, I’d clean my office and desk and write letters to my family.

Even though they had their own assistants, other professors in the engineering department started dropping work into my “inbox.” I didn’t question the new development—until another secretary stopped by my office during lunch one day.

“You know you are supposed to get extra pay for doing grant work,” she said.

I did not know. Nor did I know what to do about it.

After a few weeks, I decided to talk with Dr. Broniarek. The thought of a confrontation made my stomach flip and flop, so I talked with God first—while driving to work that morning.

The conversation was one-sided: “Please, God, don’t let me cry. Please, God, don’t let me cry.”

I didn’t cry, but my shaky demeanor revealed a tenderness in my boss that I had not recognized. Somehow, I managed to explain the situation. He listened.

Dr. Broniarek patted me on the shoulder and spoke to me in his Polish-American brogue.

“Is OK, Mrs. McCutcheon. I take care of it. Not to worry,” he said over and over.

That lesson in how to address and listen to sensitive issues in a non-confrontational way has stayed with me. It continues to sustain me in dealings with superiors, coworkers, friends, and family members.

Alabama taught me more than a few big lessons, but it also showed me that problems I thought were ginormous were, well, not so much.

Alabama is where I learned that a girl who holds a grudge against her husband has no best friend to talk with.

It’s the place I first locked keys in a car—more than once. It’s the state of my first checking account overdraft.

Alabama is where I discovered there are good people who are willing to help wherever you go.

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