In the Suburbs: Not everyone just phones it in
Published 7:00 am, Sunday, August 2, 2015
I had only called to complain about my New York Times subscription bill, but the result became a wonderful conversation with the lady in accounts payable. It’s very easy to forget that these folks are just like you and me and that many have wonderful personalities and do try to help. She really empathized.
I was transferred to this very nice woman to see if she could offer me any new promotions to lower my monthly bill for the Times. When I explained that I am a teaching assistant on a tight budget, especially in August, she came back with a great 12-week promotion (I only get the Sunday edition) that cut my rate in half and proceeded to tell me that she had been a teacher.
The woman is based somewhere in Iowa, near the Quad Cities, and said she had been a teacher in Arizona, but the cost of living was just too steep for her and her family. So she decided to move back to Iowa, which had been her home.
She was just so pleasant, and we got to talking about my quest to become a teacher and the various hassles I’m going through with certification. Our business discussion had lasted all of 10 minutes and the rest of our conversation lasted a half hour.
The Times rep shared her various classroom woes and the grief she went through trying to become certified in Iowa. Her biggest regret was learning that none of her previous experience would apply and she would have started at the lowest rung and she wouldn’t have been able to afford to live even in Iowa. I told her how sorry I was to hear that and that I pretty much expected the same conversation if I ever had any interviews. .
The lady explained that the toughest part of retiring was leaving the kids behind. She had taught high school and loved it.
We talked about what kind of teaching I had done and what I was looking for in my own future. And when I mentioned I had learned that there was a suggested retirement age in Connecticut and I was one year away from it, she jumped in and said that the age restriction bordered on age discrimination. I told her it was funny she should mention that. Because I had just read a piece in The Times about a teacher in Branford who sued his district to regain his teaching status.
I said I hoped I’d never reach that point. I just want to be certified so I can try for a full-time teaching job or even a long-term sub position. The lady indicated that subbing was not a direction she wanted to pursue. She thought she’d have no control over which schools she’d be in and what the students might be like.
I told her I liked the charter school I was in and especially the diverse urban population. I added that I’d really enjoyed my short stint as a social studies and business teacher.
The whole conversation reminded me of those completely unexpected chats people occasionally have on long plane flights. People love to share their experiences, personal, intimate and dark with total strangers because they know they’ll probably never see the person again.
While I never asked the woman her name, I received a full overview and perspective on her family, including how many kids she has and how they’re managing their own financial challenges in Arizona. She told me that one has already moved to Iowa with her and another is considering it.
Our chat made a sticky July afternoon go by more quickly. I had been grappling with a few column ideas before we talked, but none were as intriguing as this one. I decided that a lot of people would probably identify with this kind of low-key, out-of-nowhere conversation, especially when it comes to things like payment complaints or calls to complain about products or services.
I have found that when I am sounding the most agitated, the really good representatives don’t begin the conversation with, “And how has your day been so far, Mr. Gaynes?” If they’re really good at their jobs and are astute, they’ll simply engage me in an informal conversation and stick to business and how they can help. Then if there is an opportunity, just as this woman realized, the representative will quietly move toward discussing how I’m doing that day.
Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to talk to this lady again, but if not, she made my day.
Steven Gaynes’ "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.