Promise Me

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo property of Sara.
                           Photo property of  Sara.
Promise Me” is a memoir and a true, biographical account of my first summer job and the time I spent with my supervisor, Nancy—a ‘crusty’ woman who changed the trajectory of my life for the better.

The folding doors opened; I clambered up the short set of stairs; dropped my fare into the change receptacle; then inched my way down the narrow aisle that divided the seats on either side of the city bus. When it jerked into motion, I grabbed hold of one of the leather hand loops that hung from the ceiling, swaying back and forth as the bus buzzed down the freeway then zigzagged its way along the downtown streets. From the smudged glass windows, I watched the lavender early morning as it lit the faces of the steel-framed monoliths. Just before my stop, I pulled the wire signaling the driver to stop at the next corner. The bus bolted to a halt, and the folding doors opened. I stepped down onto the sidewalk and stared up at the glistening giant that now stood before me.

I walked forward; but the sidewalk, damp from an earlier rainstorm, forced me into a child’s game of leapfrog over small pools of water. I smiled remembering when I was a little girl and the fun I had after a rainstorm jumping in puddles and scattering water over my red rain boots. But those days were long past. I was 17 going on 18, and today was the first day at my summer job working for an insurance company in downtown Dallas.
I checked my reflection in the huge plate glass window; adjusted my dress; moistened my fingers; and smoothed my bangs. I slid through the revolving glass door and took the elevator to the tenth floor where Nancy, my supervisor, greeted me—her arms folded across her chest.

You must be my new summer recruit,” she said in a wheezy voice. Nancy twisted open her tattered cigarette case; retrieved a cigarette from it; and positioned it in the corner of her mouth. She struck a match then brought the tip of the match to the end of her cigarette engulfing it in the match’s tiny flame. She inhaled then flicked her match onto the floor extinguishing it underneath her shoe. Nancy did an about face. “Follow me,” she demanded, cigarette smoke billowing from her nostrils. She marched in perfect rhythm across the scuffed-up, gray linoleum floor; I obeyed and stepped behind her keeping my elbows tucked in as we paraded down the narrow strip of tiles between row upon row of neatly dressed, army-green file cabinets that appeared to be standing at attention just waiting for her next command.
We use a color-coded, alpha-numeric filing system. It’s all explained in here.” She handed me a rather crumpled, weathered-looking booklet. “Understanding this system will help you pull files for insureds whose policies are up for renewal. You pull files every morning. Once the policies are rated, typed, and mailed, then they’re refilled. Refiling is done every afternoon. Don’t leave until you’ve refiled the files in your section. This,” she pulled my time card from the clock card machine, “is where you’ll punch in. Remember to punch in every day or you won’t get paid. Be on time. No dilly-dallying in my department,” she said with her lips tightly pursed. “And remember, the work we do here is important, so don’t be sloppy.”

Using one of her yellowed fingers, Nancy tapped her cigarette ashes onto the floor by my feet and handed me a piece of paper. “Here’s your list of files to pull this morning. Bring ‘em to me once you’re done. Lunch is from noon to 12:30; you can bring your own lunch or eat in the cafeteria; it’s on the sixth floor. You get all that, recruit?”
Yes ma’am.” I replied, resisting the urge to salute.

Now, get to work!” Nancy did another about face and marched toward her office.
Thus began my first summer job. Despite Nancy’s surly personality, I liked working for her. Yes, she was direct. But she was clear and to the point, and I always knew where I stood with her. During the ensuing weeks, Nancy taught me some important office skills—typing, filing, time management, answering the telephone, problem solving, and handling conflict with strangers. As a result, I matured and became more confident. I also developed a taste for earning my own money and came to appreciate the value of hard work and an honest day’s pay.

So when summer came to an end, I contemplated quitting high school and continuing to work. But when Nancy learned of my plan, she hailed me into her office. “Look at me,” she huffed like a cannon, her chest pushing out smoke in rapid, deliberate bursts. “I don’t have a family. I don’t have a career. I don’t have beauty or a man. I don’t have money, and I sure as hell don’t have a future. Don’t settle for life here like I did. Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t do it!” she said with protest in her eyes. “You’re smart as a whip and one of the smartest recruits I’ve ever had. You’re sure as hell better than this place. Don’t be mediocre. You’ll trap yourself and become cynical like me. Leave this place! Graduate from high school. Go to college. Don’t come back here. Promise me!” Nancy ground her smoldering cigarette into her ashtray. “Promise me that!”

Okay, Nancy, okay!” I agreed, my face stiffening like iron and my body tensing with shock. “Okay! I promise.”

And was I true to that promise, never forgetting it nor the crusty woman who steered me away from a dead-end job and down the path toward high school graduation and later, college. College was difficult, though; and I often doubted myself and my ability to continue. And on more than one occasion, I wanted to quit. But in those moments when I struggled, Nancy’s advice echoed in my mind encouraging me and giving me the fortitude to carry on. I kept my promise to her and graduated from college obtaining a teaching certificate with a major in business, German, and English.

When I walked across the stage on graduation day and received my diploma, I looked out upon the crowd. For just a moment, I thought I saw Nancy applauding from a front row seat. She wasn’t there, of course; but she was there in spirit. To this day, I’m grateful for Nancy; her advice altered the course of my life and forever changed me. My college education strengthened me; broadened my perspective; opened endless doors of opportunity; and afforded me a life rich with possibilities and adventures that I wouldn’t have experienced had Nancy not been passionate enough and brave enough to challenge me to a promise—an agreement to claim a life beyond mediocrity.

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