Lessons

by sarahgroat

During college, I interned at a small publishing house with their editorial department for a summer in New York City. It had been my dream all throughout college, and I pictured myself as one day being a world-class editor in book publishing. I was mostly given safe tasks that an intern could complete without ruining anything. The company was small enough that I would regularly see the president as he bustled past my desk during his day-to-day activities. Well, I would see him out of the corner of my eye as I stared at my desk, completely avoiding eye contact, of course.

Frequently, I would answer the phone in place of the executive assistant whenever she was in a meeting with him or out to lunch. Though she knew several of the callers by name, I knew none of them and nothing about what they wanted. I was typically expected to say, “I’m sorry, he’s not in right now, may I have your name and number?” Sometimes those oh-so-important people would leave just a partial name, or no number, or just start up a conversation with me anyway. As an inexperienced intern with no actual idea what I was doing and expending enormous amounts of energy pretending I did, those were the most anxiety-inducing moments of my life.

Until they day she was out sick.

That day, I took over even more of her daily duties, such as booking a car for the president’s important date with a client that night, internally flailing all the while.

In the afternoon, I was instructed to go into the president’s office for the first time and take notes for him. Queue ducking under the desk to hyperventilate and slap on another layer of deodorant.

“Don’t be scared,” one of the employees told me, “He’s all bark and no bite.”

Helpful.

I collected myself and walked in. Maybe it was the failing deodorant or the deer-in-headlights expression on my face, but apparently he could tell I was nervous. He proceeded to make small talk with me that consisted mostly of a lecture on the merits of the Great Russian Writers. He rattled off their names. Dostoyevsky? Tolstoy? Chekhov? I hadn’t read any of them.

None of them?”

“No.”

He shook his head as if to say, You don’t know what you’re missing, you uncultured heathen.

Well, that’s what it felt like, anyway.

For the rest of the afternoon, I scrambled around trying to keep up with note-taking, order taxis, check reservations and generally manage his life for him until finally he was successfully out of the door and I took what felt like my first breath of the day.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up in the publishing industry of New York, but I did read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. I had learned an important lesson that day, which was that I didn’t want to be caught in the embarrassing position of having to admit I had never read Great Russian Literature ever again.

Next book on my list: Walden, or A Book that Has Been Sitting on my Shelf for Five Years.

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