From the Editor: Fountain of Youth

By Andy Lien May 31, 2012

Categories: Causes, Our Affairs, Our Lives

I’m sitting at my desk in the corner of Lavender’s office building, thinking of my first job out of college.  I worked for Twin Cities Public Television’s now-defunct corporate subsidiary, Point2Point Communication Solutions, in Lowertown St. Paul.  Our office was on the top floor of the building that now houses The Bulldog Lowertown; it’s exponentially cooler now than then.  Back at the turn of Y2K, it only housed a dingy convenience store and an Insty Prints.  Overlooking Mears Park and connected to our parent company by skyways, it was a fantastic setting for working; there was plenty to look at, it had access to other business people and lunch destinations, and there was a little hubbub, but not too much.

After the first time I lost my car in the parking ramp at TPT, I vowed to always park in the same place forever and ever, amen.  After the boss took me to lunch in the skyway system and then made me find my own way back, I decided to pack my pockets with bread crumbs for any future forays.  After a member of the board tossed his keys across my desk telling me to park his car as they slid to a stop, I learned that I was the lowest on the totem pole and some people will always slide their keys to whomever is paid to catch them.

I lived in a combination of earnestness, fear, humility, and righteousness.  Being a fresh graduate of Macalester College, I truly believed that I could change the world.  It was mine to dissect and deconstruct as a Social Scientist—my degree said so.  Though I started my first job asking to use the restroom every time I had to go, I had this odd flipside of confidence that made me feel like I was made of steel.  I sat at the front desk, answered the phones, and was the administrative assistant to a handful of creative, hilarious, personable people.  It was a job that I didn’t know was as fantastic as it was…until after I went to the next ones that weren’t so fantastic.  At age 22, I sorted the mail and answered the phones.  I did the bank deposits.  I took graphic design courses.  I had three weeks vacation from the get-go…and sick days were on the Honor System.  I loved it.  I had important work to do, a great place to do it, and I was paid money.  Yes, money.

As far as work and employment were concerned, I was particularly engrossed in the topic of Bentham’s Panopticon as a spatial model for my work space.  As the administrative assistant and receptionist, I was plunked smack dab in the middle of an open office area, surrounded by private offices.  I was the center of a wheel; invisible spokes radiated out from me and separated the offices of the company’s leaders.  If you Google Bentham’s Panopticon, you’ll find neat images illustrating a prison system that was similar to an Honor System.  Envision a wheel—in the center are the prison guards, radiating out from the center are prison cells; the walls between them are the spokes of the wheel.  Beyond the cells are windows letting in light and effectively backlighting the inhabitants of each cell for the prison guards to be able to monitor them at whatever time they wanted to.  Here’s where the Honor System similarity comes in; because of the lighting and positioning of the guards and the prisoners, the prisoners couldn’t see the guards and never knew when they were being monitored.  So, they never knew when to behave and, arguably, had to behave all the time in order to be in compliance with their incarceration.

What’s my point?  When I was 22 years old and working in the center of an office as the lowest on the totem pole, I was convinced that I was in a Reverse Panopticon.  It was a reverse model because I was the prisoner in the middle.  The people with power were all around me and able to monitor me at any time.  Not only did they have legitimate power over me, being my superiors, but they also had visual control over me as I never knew when they were watching or listening.  My Nonverbal Communications course reminded me how my desk, being accessible and visible from 360 degrees, left me without privacy. They could overhear my conversations and see what I was working on, so I’d best behave.

I usually did behave.  In fact, I was probably the best behaved then…when I was fresh and new and pliable. I realize that I’m comparing it to a prison system, but I think it’s because I was finding my way from a rigid school structure and into the freedom of adulthood. I was testing what I thought was freedom against what I thought was constraint when, really, there is good behavior in freedom, too.  Freedom does not just mean getting to do whatever we want to the point of misbehaving.  Perhaps, unfortunately, we’ve redefined what it means to misbehave, too.  There just aren’t tremendous consequences for getting things wrong, not listening, not handing in assignments on time, or treating others discourteously…at least not like there were back in school.  Perhaps we do need more of a Panopticon, reverse or not.

These past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with students volunteering from the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College.  What I’ve noticed about them is that they do what they are asked.  They are well-behaved.  They don’t necessarily ask when to use the bathroom, but I’d rather they didn’t…so that works out well.  They show up.  They call when they’re late.  They are smart and inquisitive and on the top of their games.  They still know good grammar and punctuation, not quite having slipped into what some of us might refer to as “business colloquialisms.”

Now that I’m no longer the lowest on the totem pole in the middle of an office (my position of power is located in the rear windowless corner of a former Kingdom Hall for Jehovah’s Witnesses), I can say that I really like working with these future and current additions to the work force.  It’s a shame that so many of the new graduates are not finding work—are you kidding me?  What they lack in experience, they have in work ethic.  They’re prepared to get the jobs done.  But, what they don’t know is that they’re not in a Panopticon.  I’m not watching their every move—because I know they’re behaving.  I trust that if I mentor them well enough, they might not backslide into lax adulthood like the rest of us have.

At least when no one’s looking.

With thanks,

Andy

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