By Thomas Sullivan*
The elevator carries me up toward the top of Seattle’s tallest building and lets me out on the 45th floor. I stroll down a corridor lined with art work, push open the heavy oak door at Adams & Associates, and step into a room filled with cubicles and blaring phones. Behind the marble-topped reception desk I see stressed-out people in business suits scurrying about.
I’m relieved that I’ve worn my charcoal suit with pinstripes. When interviewing, I always try to match my surroundings. But for a for-profit school run by a temp agency, I had no idea how to dress. I went high end and got it right.
A receptionist greets me with false enthusiasm. I follow her clacking high heels into a spotless office. Tall, leather-backed chairs surround an antique mahogany desk. Through the ceiling-to-floor windows I see the shipyard cranes far south of downtown.
I hear my name and spin around to see a petite woman dressed in an Ann Taylor outfit, her hair coiffed to perfection. It’s Kimberley, the owner. We shake hands and grab our seats.
The first stage of any interview is always a strange dance of snap judgments and feigned excitement, where each person tries to gauge the other’s worthiness — like meeting your teenage daughter’s boyfriend for the first time. But I’m well matched for a job teaching computer software to adults.
Kimberley’s school is a startup teaching software applications and basic computer practices like email and web-searches. It will be a subsidiary of the main staffing business. Its customers will be “nontraditional” students: daytime workers who need a night class; seniors learning computing; unemployed workers retraining. Many will be learning computer apps for temp jobs they get through Adams & Associates.
If this job works out, it will be the second time I’ve worked for a private training school. My first involved teaching computer applications to low-income people in South Seattle who were seeking jobs as secretaries, bookkeepers, etc. Many were hoping to escape difficult backgrounds or bad relationships. The school was expensive to attend, but students were encouraged to get federal loans which, they were told, they could easily pay off when they found work.
I had no idea at the time how easy it was set up a private college or how poorly regulated they tended to be. My employer turned out to be a cut-rate operator who used ancient computers, older software, and outdated curriculum. Unwittingly, I became part of a predatory scheme where people, often recruited at Welfare offices or Unemployment bureaus, ended up with few skills but plenty of debt. I left the school soon after a salesman complained to me that he was being pushed to scare students into signing up for our program (“If you don’t enroll here, you’ll end up having no future.”). A year after I slunk away in shame, a group of unemployed graduates and former teachers launched a class action lawsuit. The feds started investigating student loan fraud and the company shut down.
I’m expecting better results here. Kimberley seems like a sharp operator. She got my name right when we shook hands, unlike the interviewer at the last school, who was holding a half-eaten doughnut in his other hand when we first met. And Kimberley’s plans for her new school sound solid.
“Where do you think the school will be a year from now?” Kimberley asks.
“Right where it’s located now?” I say.
* * * *
SIX MONTHS LATER (In the South Seattle branch)
Pam bursts into the classroom shortly after our team meeting is slated to begin. Her frizzy hair bounces above her face, which is marred by deep, workaholic wrinkles and baggy eyes. The Staffing Specialists scurry to their cubicles and start calling companies eager to shed labor costs by hiring temps. Pam is the company’s #2, just in from downtown. No one wants anything getting back to Kimberley. People summoned to headquarters rarely return. Everyone remembers Jake, our last office manager, who ended up in the Anchorage office, dispatched to our northern gulag with little advance notice.
Pam is like a cross between Vladimir Putin and an ashtray. I can smell her cigarette stench from ten feet away.
The meeting begins with an update from the Sales team. In addition to her many duties downtown, Pam also oversees the sales force at the school. She listens to the feeble results and shakes her head. The two salespeople shift uncomfortably.
Pam glances at her watch, lurches out of her chair, and marches over to the whiteboard. After drawing two intersecting circles she starts motivating, Tony Robbins style. We sit and nod silently. The core concept of the lecture is “synergy”: multiple bodies working together yield better results than each body operating independently. Like honeybees. Like co-workers with far greater concerns nodding their heads in silent despair.
When the meeting ends I stroll to the restroom, thinking that we didn’t address the IT roll out. We’re starting a computer networking program next month, and the equipment issues are pressing. We don’t have servers, and Pam thinks we can just use regular computers, which “look the same but cost less.”
As I re-enter the classroom Pam says, “Let’s do lunch.”
Pam and I drive the one block to Sanfords, which is tucked between a Jiffy Lube and an Arby’s. We settle into a padded booth near the back.
Pam fires up a skinny cigarette and takes a sustained drag. A moment later she blows out a stream of smoke, exhaling dragon style.
I try making small talk by asking Pam what she has planned for the weekend. Pam flashes a wicked grin. Her pointy, sharp teeth are dark yellow, almost black in places.
“I have to go to the office in Anchorage…I hate Anchorage, especially in the winter.”
A waiter arrives. Pam orders the popcorn shrimp. I get the roast beef sandwich.
Pam takes a power drag on her cigarette, turns her head sideway, and blows an ash-plume of smoke over her shoulder. Then she turns back and says, “So what’s this about Kurt needing computers?”
Kurt, who is the school’s IT chief, has been pushing Pam to get the equipment we need. Schools can charge students a lot more for an IT program than a basic computer program, since the jobs (like Network Systems Engineer) that students get after graduating are higher-skilled and pay quite well. But the equipment and teachers needed to do the training right is expensive, which violates Pam’s cost cutting and profit maximizing desires. Basically, Pam wants to charge students a lot and train them on the cheap. She and Kurt have now stopped talking, so I‘ve become the go-between.
“Well,” I reply, “Kurt needs actual servers to do the lessons.”
Pam stubs out her cigarette and quickly lights a second as a Rod Stewart song starts playing, something about Rod “feeling sexy.” I’m losing my appetite.
Pam asks, “Can’t he just go get one at that place?”
“Yeah, technically, but they’re expensive. I know I wouldn’t want to shell out $1,200.”
“That place” is Circuit City, where Kurt buys equipment with his own credit card, submits a receipt to headquarters, and then waits to get reimbursed, which takes months. Apart from Kurt’s outstanding credit card bill, our school doesn’t have its own budget.
Our food arrives. Pam waves a hand and says, “Go ahead, start…its okay.” She keeps working her cigarette while I fiddle with my water glass, buying time. I can’t start eating until the butt is out. It’s like having a picnic near the tailpipe of a running car.
Pam crushes out the butt, stabs a shrimp with her fork and moves it towards her open mouth. I feel like I’m watching a shark feed. I turn away.
* * * *
Jerry looks up from his cubicle.
“I have no idea what’s up,” he says, “but at least it’s quiet for a change.”
I step into the classroom, boot up the computers, and then check the afternoon’s student roster. It’s nearly empty. A moment later two students arrive and settle into their work stations. I stare past them into the empty main room. But it’s strange, everyone being gone at the same time. Even Carol, the office manager, is gone.
Pam blows into the office while barking into a cell phone pressed against her ear. She shouts at Jerry for about a minute and then jogs down the aisle to Carol’s desk.
I head for the coffee room. Jerry sees me and strolls into the coffee room ahead of me. Meanwhile, Pam is scowling at a computer monitor and swearing.
“Did you know about this?” Jerry says.
“About what?” I respond.
Jerry laughs, puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head.
“Everyone bailed at the same time. Even Carol. Pam just found out from Kimberley. I’ve seen some strange stuff before, but this takes the cake. This place is fucked.”
I stare at Jerry. I’m no stranger to turnover, but this is like Jonestown.
Jerry grabs a coffee cup from the counter.
“Pam’s on Carol’s computer trying to find the client information.”
“Okay Jerry,” I say, “I don’t understand. What’s going on?”
“Well,” he says, “Kimberly’s mom came out of retirement, got the Staffing Specialists down here to come along, and opened up a temp shop of her own. With Kimberely’s clients.”
I stare at Jerry in disbelief.
I’d only met Kimberley’s mom once, on the day before our school officially opened. We had a small celebration in a dingy banquet room at a nearby hotel and Kimberley’s mom dropped by for the occasion. She’d been retired for a year, having spent the previous forty building the temp-staffing business up from scratch before handing it off to her daughter. It was hard to tell whether or not she approved of Kimberly attaching a computer school to the original business, since she said little and mostly sat in a corner smoking skinny cigarettes that smelled like burning garbage. She was a grizzled, tough-looking senior who rose from humble origins in rural eastern Oregon to build the largest staffing business in the city. During four decades of constant work, I imagine she’d had little time to develop other interests that could keep her going as a retiree. The lady was stone cold and unnerving to be around, like the Grim Reaper. But why a mother would do this to her own daughter we never knew.
I wonder silently what it means for the school. And my job.
“Pam and Kimberely are calling the client companies, trying to get them back.” Jerry walks towards the door while I try to picture the mayhem that must be raging at headquarters.
* * * *
Over the next few months emails arrive exhorting the staff to “remain patient during this difficult period.” Kimberly battles her mother with lawyers while our office chews through a string of managers. Each is quickly crushed by the demands of team building and fake optimism in the face of reality. The occasional employee from headquarters visits our office bearing tales of employee departure, much the way a retreating soldier would relate grim tales of mass desertion on the front. Kurt quits and takes his credit card with him. The IT program is abandoned, saving potential students thousands of squandered dollars.
With Pam engaged in 24/7 crisis-management at headquarters, I’m saved from further power-lunches at Sanfords. Six months later the main company implodes and the school dies along with it. Students scatter to other schools to try their luck at the next educational company. It’s unlikely we’ll be missed.
*Thomas Sullivan’s first story for TYTT was Little Road Warrior: A Tale in Driver’s Ed in July. Living in Seattle, Sullivan is the author of Life In The Slow Lane (Uncial Press), a memoir about teaching driver education in Oregon. Visit his website at http://thomassullivanhumor.com. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: Thomas Sullivan, and djayo and igoghost — stock.xchng
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