In the UK and Ireland (and I daresay other countries too), school pupils must complete a period of ‘work experience’ before graduation.
This usually involves a week of unpaid grunt work or shadowing at a local organisation. Some of my friends took jobs in newspaper offices, factories, a video shop and (perhaps most excitingly) an abattoir. I still shiver when I recall my friend Curtis telling how one abattoir worker would daily don a pair of scalped pig’s ears as if they were a Mickey Mouse hat from Disneyland.
I somehow got lumbered with the office of a local government department, responsible for allocating a limited number of government-owned houses to poor families. I recall that my dad was involved in finding the job (an unusual measure since the placements were usually selected by the school career advisor) but if my dad had pulled strings to find me something special, I’m not sure why I landed a placement so despairingly white-collar.
In the ‘reflective report’ I wrote at the end of the placement, I tellingly wrote, “I have learned that I would not like to work in an office”.
Here are some other memories from my first ever week as an employee:
– One day, I was given the task of rubber-stamping declined proposals from home-seekers. I chanced across an application from someone I knew. He had requested a bungalow on account of his rheumatoid arthritis but the government couldn’t help him. His proposal had already been declined, but I wasn’t prepared to rubber-stamp it for the files. I protested. Somebody else did it.
– On most days, I wore a satsuma-orange shirt and a novelty tie from my dad’s wardrobe. I think the one I’d selected had Popeye on it.
– A young, blonde Übermensch called Luke had a separate office on the side of the main open-plan one. Most of the women in the office fancied him and he knew it, so his office persona was that of a happy-go-lucky scamp who made his own rules. I wondered if this was why he’d been granted his own room.
– Luke once pulled me away from some menial task so that I might help on a more important task in his office. The task turned out to be playing ‘Solitaire’ on MS Windows. He said that if anyone came in, I should pretend to file paperwork, and he gave me a pile of old invoices to complete the illusion. Being a nerd and a square, I was worried that this waste of time would distract me from possibly learning something useful in the main office. Little did I know that playing Solitaire and pretending to work was perfect preparation for office life.
– Bored out of my mind one day, I used MS Paint to render a picture of Kenny from South Park being nibbled by rats. I set it as my desktop image. Because I sat near to a help desk and my screen was visible to the public, I was (perhaps rightly) asked to remove it.
– An older man who was ostensibly another drone but held some small unofficial authority on account of being male, white and in his fifties; would constantly bring me tea and biscuits. Sometimes he would deliver before I’d even finished my last cup. I remember wondering whether he was salaciously grooming me or just being nice. Unless I’ve repressed the memory of something terrible, I never found out.
– Luke’s job was mostly office-based but involved driving around the local area too. His task was to inspect the recently-vacated apartments in two large nearby tower blocks. One day, he took me out to visit the tower blocks. They were pretty grim. He told me not to touch the handrail in the stairwell in case someone had affixed dirty syringes to the underside. He was serious.
– The first flat I visited with Luke that day had soft pornography taped to the bedroom wall. The second flat had feces smeared upon the walls and the bed linen. Luke said I should wait outside while he took notes. He later explained (redundantly) that some of the residents were severely mentally ill. He once discovered a flat in which the resident had destroyed the flushing mechanism in the toilet but had continued to shit into it anyway.
– My field trip with Luke also took me to another office, which was a porta-cabin in the middle of Netherton. Inside and out were grey and dim, and everything about it felt temporary and neglected. There and then, I resolved to work really hard at my exams.
– Even at the time, I did not consider the horrors of the tower blocks to be worse than the abyss of office life. It was here that I learned about clock-watching. Sometimes I would look out of the window and think about my favourite television programmes for as long as I could, before looking back at the clock to see how much time had passed.
– A nice thing about working in this office building was that my girlfriend was doing her own work placement in the public library directly opposite. At lunchtime, I would go to see her. Sometimes she was being shown how to use the library computers and I had to wait. I didn’t mind waiting because I could look at the books. I remember being quite jealous that she got to work in the library with books while I had to play Solitaire and worry about the kind of person who would set dirty syringe traps.
– My form tutor came to visit one day to check that everything was okay. I decided not to mention the syringes and pornography and feces and clock-watching. She said I looked very professional in my orange shirt.
– Another field trip (this time with a young woman who I can’t remember much about aside from my slightly fancying her) took me to someone’s family home. We had bad news to deliver. The family had their Christmas decorations up in anticipation of the big day. It didn’t seem right to be delivering bad news (quite possibly an eviction notice) while Del Boy was on TV and a tree glittered with promise in the corner. Why was I there? It doesn’t seem appropriate that she took a random schoolboy along to a meeting like this.
– Doing some filing one day, I was surprised to see people called Vader and Shakespeare. Shakespeare, of course, is a local name, the Bard himself being from the area. But Vader? As in “Darth”? Even now that strikes me as a weird one. There was also a woman called Vera Spittle, whose name I have used in comedy sketches about twelve or a thousand times.
And there we have it: some fragments of memories of my school work placement and first time ever in an office (or indeed any place of employment if we don’t count my dad’s lorry or my mum’s home business). I’ve worked in offices since then, and have been as nonplussed about them as I was when I was sixteen. Never again!