French Friday: A Moment to Cherish

I don’t think women support each other as much as they could and should. Also, women don’t always give credit to the ones who support them, sometimes only because they are too young to realize that these older women who support them have been once young, too.

It happened to me, decades ago.

I was fresh out of school, a Master in French literature in my pocket, and had decided that I would no teach but work in the publishing industry. Unemployment was high in France, and I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that I could find the ideal job right away. My hope was to search while keeping a pretty much full-time babysitting job, which I never really considered a job since the three-year-old I was watching over was an adorable, smart little kid. Unfortunately, due to big changes in his parents’ lives, I was no longer needed. Overnight my plans shifted. I had to find a job. Now.

I left my résumé everywhere but was told to garder les pieds sur terre or to live in the real world: hiring was low, especially since I had no professional experience. I figured anyone had to start somewhere, so I kept going. Two weeks passed and one day I found a message on my answering machine. I had to call back one of the largest French publishing houses as soon as possible.

The HR department wasn’t located in the Parisian editorial buildings but in the nearby suburbs, only three metro stations away and an additional ten-minute walk, also at the other end of my metro line, almost an hour from my apartment. But I couldn’t care less as I got ready for the meeting.

Though I had always worked as a student, I had never held a clerical job that would have required owning a business suit or at least a professional-looking outfit. To be frank, I didn’t really think about it. So I showed up in my best pair of pants, which basically were jeans, only a shade darker than my regular faded ones, a blouse, also retrospectively too casual, and my leather satchel that already looked vintage. I was not yet 22-years-old and spent most of my free time reading and listening to music, going to concerts and to the movies rather than shopping for clothes and makeup.

On that early June morning as I waited in the lobby for my appointment, I observed several men going in and out from the building. I understood they were employees considering how the receptionist welcomed them. They seemed so comfortable in their well-cut suits and expensive shoes. One day, I thought, I will also be known by my name. I will also wear a smart suit and nice heels and carry a briefcase. My blooming dreams were cut short when a young woman appeared and asked me to follow her. She knocked at a large door at the end of a long hallway and stepped aside, leaving me facing the closed door.

A confident female booming voice replied, “Come on in!”

“Go ahead,” said the young woman. “They are waiting for you.”

Two women stood in a vast office, their backs turned to large windows letting in the pale Parisian light. One was statuesque in her knee-length, long-sleeved stylish dress, and about then years younger than my mother. The other one clad in a conservative belted dress that accentuated the fact that she was slightly overweight was older than my mother. The tall one intimidated me right away, but I wasn’t fooled by her colleague’s grandmotherly look. As they scanned me from head to toe I was fully aware that they meant business. I also came to realize that everything about me was wrong or at least appeared as such.

I would never get that job. I was too young. That was something I could not change. I looked too young. And that was something I could have altered. With different clothes, with other shoes, with my long hair tied and not loose on my back, with a little bit of makeup, with…

But I was there and the interview started.

After the standard questions about my academic and “professional” background the two women who had sat across from me the whole time stood up. I jumped up, too, which brought a first smile to their red-lipstick mouths. I blushed. Should I have remained seated? I decided against.

Now that the two women had turned their backs to me, facing the windows, my thoughts matched my heartbeats. I felt like leaving, fleeing even. They were of course deciding against hiring me. They could only find me unfit. It just took them an excruciating time to tell me.

This is when I overheard this brief conversation:

“Don’t you think she looks awfully young?”

“She is very young.”

“Do you believe that someone so young can…”

I will never know if they suddenly remembered me, but they lowered their voices. Their whispering voices didn’t make me feel better. The verdict had been given: I was too young.

As it is the case in other situations in life – I would of course learn that many, many years later- we don’t always read people very well when we are directly concerned.

I got the job.

You’re filled with energy, said the grandmotherly-looking woman, and God knows how badly we need new blood.

I was temporarily hired to fulfill the position of a woman on early maternity leave. There was the allusion to the possibility of a full time job and later to professional fully paid training in the publishing industry. Another appointment was booked in the next few days. A contract would be signed. It was crucial that I could start working immediately.

By then my legs couldn’t resist a crazy dance. My arms couldn’t stay calm along my sides. I climbed down the stairs, not as elegantly as I planned to do when I had dreamed of my future, but in such a quick way that the receptionist nodded in my direction. She had obviously seen many people go up to the same office and leave in different states of mood.

When outside, I trailed my fingers along the letters carved into the plaque that read the name of the prestigious company. A little bit mine now. Then I threw my fists in the air. In 2017, I imagine I would shout, “YES!” I would take selfies and post on Facebook and Instagram, letting the whole world or at least my social friends know about this YES moment. Back then, my small solitary jig on this grey piece of sidewalk was solely mine and it felt bold enough.

I would work closely with the two women who hired me, particularly the grandmother-looking one who would slowly warm up to me. I loved listening to the stories of her early professional career in an almost exclusive male environment. She kicked ass and thus wasn’t very well liked. The HR lady was single and people imagined all kind of reasons for her singlehood. After all, it was still a man’s world.

Patricia Kass singing James Brown. In English with a French accent.

Later, at work but also in other circumstances, I will learn that many men and as many women need to tag whoever doesn’t exactly fit any box. For their own comfort because difference feels so unsafe to them.

Despite everything I heard about my bosses they held their promises. One day, after a fully paid year of training, I entered the editorial building. I would see them on rare occasions now, but when we bumped into each other we spoke. About my job mostly, but a little more as years passed. Based on my co-workers’ comments, both were opinionated to the point of being unflexible. I could understand their point of view.

But these women had been trailblazers, too. And they had believed in me and gave me my proudest, most jubilant professional moment.

One I now cherish, so many years later and so many miles away.

 

This post is part of the Cherished Blogfest. The blogfest is hosted by Damyanti Biswas, Dan AntionCheryl PenningtonPeter NenaSharukh Bamboat, Mary Giese, Kate Powell, and Paul Ruddock. It is open to anyone who wants to tell the world about something or someone they cherish. If you want to join, click here. The window of posting for the Blogfest has been extended and is open until Midnight October 22.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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