By Kali Pearson
I had been an employee at the Ministry of Education and Training (MET) for less than an hour when I learned a most valuable lesson. In an attempt to get to know my fellow communications branch staffers, I had cruised by reception and commented on Steve’s great solitaire hand.
He responded with a smile, telling me proudly he starts every day with a game or two. I could have walked away right there. Instead I mentioned that my computer wasn’t equipped with the game. Let me tell you, Donovan Bailey ahs nothing on a long-time civil servant who has just been told that a fellow worker is lacking for diversion.
The 60-something-year-old receptionist bolted to the other end of the floor like a silver bullet and descended on my work station. I scampered after him in my too-fashionable shoes, trying to diver attention from “the situation,” but it was too late.
Within moments a crowd had gathered at my computer terminal. They were working furiously at the keyboard, clicking the mouse like a pair of defibrillators on a heart attack victim. I never saw them move that quickly again. At first I was petrified that my first morning at MET would be my last. But I know better now. My first day at the MET reminded me of a truth so fundamental that we learned it in Kindergarten: Diversion and camaraderie should always come before work. My immediate supervisor as actually the one to located the game in my file manager.
The Ministry of Education and Training is a place where overtime is scorned like an early morning jogger is by a fat man with a donut in one hand and a cigarette in the other. In this parallel universe, responsibility is passed like a hot potato and constant activity is unheard of. My summer at the MET was a gift from the slacker gods. Unlike many of my peers, I feel no pressure even as we sink deeper into the school year. I know that even if I can never hack it in the world of journalism, there is a place where I will always be safe from reality. My stupid government job has given me hope.
Although I was eventually promoted to more senior level spin-doctoring, a good part of my summer in the communications department was spent writing about young Ontarians’ hard at work thanks to Ontario Summer Jobs, in 1998. It was quite ironic, really.
Not that my job was free of challenges. It is no easy task to take two weeks’ worth of work and stretch it into three full months. I had my rocky days. Days when I had a little too much sleep, when I was a little too alert and the work got done a little too fast.
I can remember back to one of the early days. I showed up to meet my friend Melanie, who was also working a stupid government job, for our 10 a.m. break. I had a stack of papers in my hand. Melanie had been working for The Man a little longer than I, so naturally she showed some surprise that I would waste a scare resource like work on a break. I didn’t realize I had committed the perilous error of multitasking until later that day.
Melanie and I met again for our 3 p.m. break. I was bored and visibly agitated. “You’re going to get yourself fired,” she warned. Naturally I thought she was insane. I did good work, and besides, I thought that no one got fired from the government. That’s when she told me about “the slow down.” The principle is that if one finishes one’s work too rapidly, they would become redundant — they would be given “the slow down.” Those who couldn’t master the technique would self-obliterate and be fired. I had no idea. No one had told me.
As the summer progressed, days like that go easier. I learned to really focus on my breaks. The actual numbers on the clock lost all relevance. For example, 9:43 became 17 minutes to break (and consequently, 15 minutes to break preparation). On the hard days, I learned to linger a little longer in the hallway before heading outside to my usual bench. I would count each toddler as it crossed the hallway from the daycare to the outdoor playground. That hallway always reeked of infants and sometimes I would stand there, subjecting myself to the pungent stench permeating my clothing, before going outside.
I eventually got better at dressing for work, too. I stopped wearing a different outfit every day of the week, I steered clear of the GAP and I tried not to match so much.
My work at MET allowed me to focus on the important things in life, like how each fancy-rat (squirrel) has a different little face on its head, memorizing the playlist for CHFI and punctuality (10 a.m. break, 12 p.m. lunch, 3 pm.. break and 4:30 p.m. out).
Luckily my writing skills, which can erode completely in the endless stream of template press releases MET spews, were salvaged. Instead of the brief e-mail message that my friends with normal jobs were restricted to, I was able to write great, epic e-mails. I got back in contact with people I had almost forgotten. I got to know one acquaintance so well that I am actually living with him now.
By the end of the summer, I had mastered “the slow down.” I am sure it will serve me well. There is an incredible peace of mind that comes form only really having ot use the brain an hour two each day. Even by August, when my friends were finished their jobs and the e-mails had dwindled to a trickle of department-wide forwards, this peace remained. I remember one morning particular. It was 16 minutes to break (9:44 a.m.) and I realized that I had been trying to figure out how to remove the cap of my Crystal Springs bottle for almost an hour. The best part is that I was having an absolutely wonderful time doing it. I concentrated so hard on that bottle that I even missed a few minutes of my break. I had a little work to do, but I knew to let it wait a while.
I believe that this stupid job may well have saved my life. I have learned that all good work must breathe like a fine wine, that the mind is more able to wrap itself around difficult tasks when it is a little on the soft side. I don’t remember stress anymore and I don’t think there is room in my slightly evaporated brain to remember anyway. Who says the Harris government isn’t preparing Ontario’s youth for a better tomorrow?