The outsider


What Joanne M. Smallen learned from an outsider

It was 1969, and I worked an eight-hour evening shift in a warehouse filled with high shelves of brand new books. My co-workers were a group of women hired all at once; we were told to work solo, each to a pair of shelves. To fill the seemingly endless line of trays surrounding the shelves, we were told to jot down a title from the sheaf of orders, find the corresponding book on the shelves, return to the tray with the book, check it off, and start over again. We quickly realized that if one woman called titles to a partner who picked the books off the shelves and handed them down for traying and checking off, we could fill more trays and cut our climbing by half. As a bonus, we could talk while we worked.

At the dinner break, we crowded around a table, unwrapped our bagged meals, and talked some more. Our conversations were kept casual, to brighten a tedious job on top of a day of childcare. But our quick and cheery chats passed over one of the women who joined us most evenings for dinner. Thinking back, perhaps this was because she didn’t act as though she had much to be cheery about. One of the few times she left us during the dinner break, someone said, with a tentative invitation to laugh in her voice, that it was probably a fast-food run. I don’t recall that anyone laughed, but neither do I recall anyone saying anything at all.

One evening, I was partnered with this woman, the “outsider,” when the supervisor singled me out for a criticism I thought highly unfair. Humiliated, I took shelf duty so my voice wouldn’t betray my distress. My partner began to talk to me, commiserating with me in a quiet and comforting sort of way, without feeding my sense of outrage. After I felt better, we began to talk about ordinary things, things I talked about with the other women.

The next evening as we gathered for our shift, our supervisor ordered us back to working solo. He didn’t like us talking while we worked. We complied as if we had known all along it couldn’t last.

Our conversations during the dinner break continued with my comforter still the outsider. I set aside my sense of betrayal to hang on to my place in the group. When our project was over, we had a little celebration during our break. I brought a cake decorated to look like the book sticker we used. I don’t remember if my comforter of that evening, the woman who made one long night better, was there. But I remember her now.

At the time of her story, Joanne M. Smallen had just eight credits toward her B.A. and despaired of ever earning it. She earned her Ph.D. at age 59.