Wednesday 29 January 2014

Queen of the Half-Wits

It was a copy of The Guardian that did it. Delivered one morning in place of our usual Telegraph, I'd idly skimmed through part of the Educational section and spotted  an ad., to which, having first dug out a C.V. - I replied; more out of curiosity than real expectancy. Despite my lack of a degree, or even 'A' Levels (always pointless to be creative at such times, particularly as Americans are renown for checking) following a lengthy interview, I was amazed (and dazed!) some three weeks later to find myself on the staff of what was referred to as 'The London Programme' - a branch of America's Boston University - in charge of 'Student Affairs' (a title which fast became the butt of unlimited ribald remarks).  The 'Programme' offered one 'Semester' ('Term' to us) of study in London for between 250-380 students (some already Graduates, some not) who, after their first five weeks of study were placed for the remainder of their stay in a Company Internship appropriate to their choice of future career.
Before accepting my new job, fearing any repercussion, I'd sought G's opinion, prepared only to 'join up' if offered his full approval. Remarkably sanguine, he'd - unpredictably - appeared totally in favour, offering a thoughtful 'I think it will do you good.',  more like his old self. These odd  patches of reasonableness were increasing  but  for  very brief periods,  often catching me out: particularly as he also seemed to have developed a talent for acting. Confusing? Very - bringing to mind the words 'A--e and Elbow'. But soon, a form of pattern emerged, with each 'difficult' period 'flattening-out' to an easier, pre.- illness time: the phrase 'The same but different' somehow summed it up. I understand that any form of brain-damage or disturbance - whether the result of accident, injury,disease, tumour or stroke - may result in strange and alarming symptoms - altering personalities in a second and  producing dismay and disbelief in the onlooker, especially when experienced for the first time. But, in reality, any improvement had to be for the better.
And the children? What of their feelings regarding 'the job'? Disapproval? Maybe: but whilst direct accusations were never actually voiced, their silence, I felt, said it all. Feeling like a deserter - praying that neither G. nor I would regret what had  essentially been  my choice, also full of guilt at my selfishness, I immediately began to think of reasons to turn it down. Incredibly however, B.U.(Boston University) and I were to remain together for almost six years. 
Based in Kensington, B.U. was an easy, thirty-five minute journey from Stockwell, our nearest tube, and On Day 1. I arrived in good time, having spent the entire trip wondering if I'd made the right decision. At least G. was safely at work and as both sets of car keys were stowed safely in my bag, there was no chance of his taking off  again if he happened to be first home (in the early days, he'd twice liberated a set and whizzed off for an evening paper: my desperate 'You are not insured; please try to understand' on his return had meant another frantic call to the hospital).
What's the phrase 'Separated by a common language'? At times, certainly - but on the whole, working for B.U. made for a fascinating, memorable time - with more than a few highlyamusing, as well as tricky, moments. Almost on arrival I was met by Jill, my boss, who,  before introducing the other members of staff, pushed open the door to my office, revealing a light, good-sized room, complete with sofa and tissues  - plus the largest safe I'd ever seen 'For student valuables, hard-to-get films for the Media class and extra cash...And there's only one key and you have to keep it'...Next, up on the first floor I was introduced  to the other staff as they arrived, before being left left with Doug, a startlingly bright and cheerful ex-Cornell University Psychology Graduate, recently employed for a year as a 'General Assistant'. His words of  'Right, I'll now go and get you the Mac' left me puzzled, asking 'Er. What's a Mac?'(my knowledge of technology beyond the simple electric typewriter amounted to nil). His face said at all.'You know? The Mac? The computor'. Disbelieving, but finally aware that I hadn't the faintest notion as to what he meant, his slow, baffled reply has to this day remained  etched  firmly upon my memory 'You mean you don't know what a computor is'?
This was only 1988, but quite obviously I had immediately qualified as 'Queen of the Half -Witted' (even more so in '89 when the students were requesting directions to the 'nearest Internet cafe).' Whilst the first of a few surprises 'the Mac' was perhaps scariest of all, with part of the job involving the creation of an informative, interesting and chatty student  newsletter  - 20-24 pages, produced weekly on 'The Mac'. Once again 'Fear concentrates the mind' as super-technocrat, Doug, put me through my paces.  The first edition, or rather, my first edition, featured, among other riveting pieces, a 'mini-biog. ('You must include a one-page profile of yourself' ) the execution of which had probably involved more energy, bad language and angst, than expended upon the entire construction of the Empire State Building. But after actually getting the thing together, it needed to be printed: one for each student and one for each member of staff: (around 300 that first term). More technology. This time 'A very simple piece of equipment' - a photo-copier - presided over by Pauline, a young Australian girl, from Sydney, whose dry sense of humour often saved the day. Intimately acquainted with all office machinery, Pauline could scarcely believe my effect on 'her' photo-copier (anyone familiar with the Fonda-Parton  film 'Nine-to-Five' will know what I mean) and before long - 'St. Pauline'  would often volunteer her services. But as a complete change from the previous months, no set-up could have served its purpose better.


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