Thursday, March 15, 2012

In which I lie lie lie to my boss

I finished college a semester early, in December, just so I could save one semester's worth of tuition, which would have been about $2,000. I was living rent free in the garage apartment of some very nice people who lived in a fancy neighborhood not far from the Small Private School campus. Their only request was that I occasionally babysit their nine year old daughter, but if I had something else going on, they would say, "Don't worry! We'll have the maid stay." They were just nice, nice people who had some space and hated to see it being wasted.

In January, I started grad school in English at Big State School.

What a mistake that was.

I hated it. It was boring. It was not challenging. There was no writing. I did discover I have a knack for reading Middle English out loud. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" rolled trippingly off my tongue, but I could not believe that I was in grad school and we were reading the text in class instead of discussing it.

So I dropped out. I just quit. But I didn't officially withdraw - I just stopped going to class. There was method to my madness, though. If I were not a full-time student, I would not be on my parents' health insurance any more. I knew this even though this was 1985 and I was only 21, which is why I roll my eyes at the people who are shocked, shocked that they can't get insurance once they let their coverage lapse and then discover they are sick. This information was not a secret even 26 years ago.

The result of my not attending class was that I got an 'F' in every class. Every class, that is, except the PE class I was taking - squash and racquetball. I got an 'A' in that class. Even though I attended only half the classes.

The other result of my not attending - and getting almost all 'Fs' - was that when I started at Ut's graduate school of business five years later, I was on academic probation. I didn't even know it. They admitted me, but put me on double secret probation. I found out a year later when I was talking to my advisor and he mentioned I had recovered quite well from my earlier academic misdeeds.

I had found a few part-time temp jobs while I was still in school. One job was working at the bookstore during the book buying rush. For those of you under 30, let me explain. In the old days, you would go to class the first day and get your syllabus. That was after you had already stood in line for a few hours (at Big State School, anyhow) to get into (hopefully) and to register for your classes.

On the syllabus would be a list of the books you needed. You would go to the bookstore and hope that your books would be there. Sometimes, they wouldn't have arrived. Usually, there were almost no second-hand copies and if there were second-hand copies, they weren't much cheaper than the new books. You collected your books and then waited and waited in line to pay for them. At the end of the semester, you would try to sell them only they always seemed to change the edition - as if differential equations changes so much from one year to the next - so you were stuck with a book you no longer needed.

But the bookstore job didn't last. Now that I wasn't a student, I really needed work. I wasn't out too much tuition. At the time, I think grad school tuition was about four dollars an hour. Maybe that was undergrad. Maybe grad was $12 an hour. I think I paid about $35 an hour for business school. Whatever it was, it was a lot less than I paid for college and a lot less than anyone is paying now. I think tuition these days is a big racket and college kids are getting screwed.

I somehow found a temporary - tax season - job at the IRS service center. It paid almost seven dollars an hour, which was almost twice minimum wage at the time.

The money was especially good when you consider that we spent a few hours during training assembling our training manuals. You know - taking hunks of paper and putting them into a three-ring binder. I calculated the cost to the taxpayer of our assembling the books. Thirty new employees/trainees x two hours x seven dollars an hour = $420.

The state school for handicapped children did this sort of work for one dollar an item. So not only were the feds overcharging the US taxpayer for this work, they were depriving handicapped children of the chance to be useful and to earn some cash.

A lot of my cynicism about government work started while I was working at the IRS. There was a lot of waste. For example, we had to complete timesheets every week, accounting for our time in six-minute increments. How to complete the timesheet was a big part of training. There was a work category on the timesheet for completing the time sheet, which I found rather metaphysical. Wait. That's not the right word. What's the word for when what you are doing refers to what you are doing? I think there's a word. Maybe it's German. Some of the best words are German.

If I had stayed there - as my supervisor asked me to do when I told her I was quitting, I would still have a job today and would have one until I wanted to stop working and then I would have a very nice pension.

It was an easy job. Kind of tedious, with some moments of comedy. I was reviewing 1040xs, which is the form you complete when you made a mistake on your taxes, like forgetting to include a deduction. It wasn't always clear what the taxpayer was trying to do, so I would call to ask.

There is a feeling of great power in saying, "This is the IRS."

That gets people's attention. Nobody makes you wait. They get the person you are calling for.

I tried to use my power for good, of course. I felt so bad when this couple wasn't allowed to take the deduction for the two foster children they were raising. I tried to find ways where people would get more money back. Legally, of course. If people made mistakes on their returns, I corrected them. Nobody should be punished for a math error on his 1040x.

It wasn't hard. I started on time and left on time. I got paid.

That doesn't seem so bad now.

Hours were 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Those hours were not a problem. Except for Friday. Not that I usually had anything going on Friday nights. My college boyfriend, Calvin, was still in Big Southern City. We didn't have the money to travel back and forth that much. Even with gas at 1985 prices, a 200-mile trip was daunting. 1985 prices went with 1985 wages.

One of my roommates was a drama major. She had a role in "Sweeney Todd" and my other roommate and I wanted to see her perform. I had listened when some co-workers and I were taking our break, drinking our cokes in the shabby little break room.

Taxpayers, you will be glad to know that although the IRS wastes money on putting together training manuals, they do not provide lavish break rooms for their employees. The whole office was grim, with a Brazil-like feel.

My co-workers were talking about their strategies for not returning to work Friday night after their supper break, which was an hour. "I'm just going to tell our boss that my car broke down," one said.

Another chimed in. "I have a friend who fell and hit her head in the shower once. I'll say that happened to my roommate and I had to take her to the emergency room."

In retrospect, there was probably no reason we couldn't have said, "Would it be OK to take the second half of Friday night off without pay?"

Actually, in retrospect, there was probably no reason I couldn't have gone to the play on Saturday night, instead. What was wrong with me?

But no. We had to be big fat liars.

I usually didn't leave work for supper. I usually brought something to eat and stayed in the break room. But the Friday that my roommate was in the play, I went home at supper time. I didn't leave anything at work.

And then I didn't go back.

I didn't even call.

Because my excuse was going to be that I had gone to take out the trash while I was home and had locked myself out of the apartment.

I have locked myself out of my car once in my life and I have never locked myself out of my home. Never. When I locked myself out of the car, I was lucky enough to be a college student (i.e., young and attractive enough to inspire gallantry) on the base where my dad was stationed. I walked back to the BX and asked one of the clerks to call the MPs for me. They came and unlocked the door. I owe you one, taxpayers.

But if I were locked out of my apartment (which I wasn't), then how could I call my boss to tell her that I wasn't returning to work that night? All I could do was wait for one of my roommates to get home and let me in. Oh the tragedy.

I went home. Met roommate #1. We went to the play.

I felt guilty the whole time.

As well I should have.

Shame on me. What kind of work ethic was that?

When I got to work on Monday, I found my supervisor and told her my lie.

She just looked at me.

She was no fool.

"I hope this doesn't happen again," she said.

I shook my head. "No, it won't," I promised.

And it wouldn't. I felt too guilty.

For the rest of my work life, I did not miss a day unless there was something genuinely wrong. I think I have taken five sick days in 14 years of corporate work. If I wanted to goof off, I just told my boss I was taking a vacation day. I don't lie very well.