Wednesday, February 15, 2012

At Random

I learned the word “chutzpah” after living in New York but it was something I always had.  It surfaced whenever I felt unsure.  In college, when I needed to find a part-time job, the woman I was baby-sitting for said she’d get me an interview for an editorial position at Random House.  Random House.  It sounded so important.  It sounded wonderful. I imagined someone asking: "Where do you work?"  "I work at Random House." While I loved books and the sound of it all, I wasn't sure what qualifications I had to offer or what I would actually do at a publishing house.  “Anything they ask,” she replied.

Getting ready for the interview, I imagined I'd be sitting across from an older, graying-at-the-temples, pin-striped-suit, wing-tip-shoes kinda guy.  Those types were familiar to me — they usually wanted to protect me so I wasn't nervous.  But I got nervous when I was facing the brown afro and beard, plaid flannel shirt, brown suede-fringed vest and jeans of a 30-something Jewish guy in an office with a huge arch and a red wall filled with a display of over-sized Eschers!

“So,” he said plunking his work boots atop his desk, “tell me, what’re you looking for?”

“Well," I stumbled, "I don’t know exactly.  You see I’m putting myself through college and babysitting’s not enough — I was hoping to find some kind of part-time job…” I trailed off weakly.

“In the School Division, we develop educational materials for the K-12 market in reading, language arts, and social studies, though K-8 is our predominant focus.  We produce basal series, textbooks, multi-media learning units and filmstrip programs in all those areas  does that sound interesting to you?”

I had no idea what a “basal-series” was — the only basal I knew was a cell-carcinoma.  “I love teaching and learning. I always thought I’d be a teacher some day but now I’m not so sure.”

He started shuffling through some papers in his hand while he talked.  “Well," he said a bit distractedly, "how about  you start here as an editorial assistant, say 10,15,20 hours a week — whatever you can swing with your schedule.”

“You’re offering me a JOB?” I asked in shocked disbelief, the energy draining from my body.

He looked up from his papers.  “Well, yeah.  Don’t you want one?”

“Well, I don’t know if I can do the job you have in mind." I was waffling.  "I mean my grammar’s not that good  

“Whaddaya mean your ‘grammar’s not that good’?” he said sitting up in his chair.

“Well, I mean I know when something’s not right and usually I can fix it, but I’m just not certain why it’s wrong.”

“Well you can learn can’t you?” he asked incredulously leaning forward over his desk.

“Well, yes but  well, I’d hate to disappoint anyone...why don’t we try it out for six weeks? That way you can see if I’m good for you and I can see if this works for me.”

Steve Brown leaned back staring at me with a blank look on his face. I don’t think he quite knew what to say but he gave me the job.

I loved, loved, loved working at Random House, “the house that Bennett Cerf built.” It was a treasure trove of everything I’d hoped Manhattan would be for me.   After working in a drycleaners most of my young life, streaming into a skyscraper on 50th and Third, filled with floor-to-ceiling window-filled offices with executives and row after row after row of books, was a dream.  Minions of worker-bees crammed into elevators to ride up to their cubicles with IBM Selectric typewriters and our wonderful reference books to read and refer to  the Chicago Manual of Style, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Random House College Dictionary.  

One of the projects I was assigned to was a copyright renewal for the Random House School Dictionary. It required a minimum of 10% updating before the copyright could be changed.  I was instructed to look at the front and back matter and only make changes there.  At first, I did just what I was told.

But then, my new training kicked in and I started thinking about what I was working on.  Things were changing.  The country was becoming more sensitive to the growing diversity within our schools. The word "multi-cultural" was surfacing. We worker-bees were being trained to do a “sex-ethnic count” on whatever manuscript landed on our desks.  How many males? How many females? How many Native Americans [a change from American Indians], African-Americans [or should they be Black-Americans?], Asians [did this include people from India?], Hispanics [Latino/a were not yet in common usage] ?”  I started looking in to the body of the dictionary, looking at the words and their definitions and  to my surprise — I couldn't find “Mexican-American,” “Hispanic,” or “Chicano.”

Thinking about all those schoolchildren who wouldn't see in their dictionary the terms that others used to refer to them upset me. I went to see Steve.

“Steve, there are words missing from the dictionary that we have to add.”

"Excuse me?"

"We need to include the words Chicano, Mexican-American, and Hispanic as part of this revision. I can’t imagine that we’d do a revision and not add these words.”

“Are you crazy? Do you have any idea of the costs you’re talking about incurring? You add one new entry and it changes pages and pages of type! Entire sections would have to be reset — at minimum! What're you thinking?  We can’t spend that kind of money on this revision!”

“These words are MISSING from the DICTIONARY, Steve! We HAVE to. Think of those kids — how can we NOT?”

Steve just shook his head angrily and shooed me away with his hand.

I left his office tears streaming down my face.  I couldn’t go back to my cubicle (no privacy) so I ran to Lee Kosmac’s office in Marketing because I knew she’d let me hide there and I knew she’d listen to what I had to say. Even though I was in overalls and saddle shoes and not yet out of college, she always treated me as a person of value. Still crying, I told her what happened.

“You can’t argue with him about doing what’s right. The only way to convince him is to show how it effects him in the wallet. How is it hurting their bottom line? How are they losing out financially by not doing this? That’s the way to get through to him, not because it’s right, but because it’s costing the company money.”

"But that's wrong." I looked up pleadingly, hoping she would see it as I did.

"Not in business, honey." she said soothingly.

I took a deep breath.  “How can I do that? I don't know how to do that.”

“Well, I’d start by seeing how our competition, Macmillan and Harcourt Brace — who are outselling us — are doing, and if they include those words in their dictionaries.” 

I checked the five top-selling school dictionaries for those words.  I called the Texas Book Depository (one and the same) to get the sales figures for each of our competitors’ books. I worked on a memo that Lee guided and reviewed to spell out how much we were losing in sales. I went to the boss.

Steve read the memo with his cowboy boots propped on his desk. He looked up at me, scratched his Afro-ed head and said, “So, we’re losing sales?”

“All of Texas,” I replied.

“And you think it’s because of these words?” he asked.

“Well, it can’t help.  Look at the student population.  I can get you figures on the percentage of Hispanic kids in the system if you...“

“I think you’ve gotten me enough,” he smiled, and the next thing I knew, editors more knowledgeable than me were working on the revision of the Random House School Dictionary.

With Lee’s generous mentoring I won that battle and used the lesson she taught me to win many future battles throughout my career: in business, money matters.

Looking back, I should've told Steve we needed to include the word “chutzpah” in that edition.


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  2. Wow! what a great story! My respect for you grows by leaps and bounds the more I learn about you. You brought cultural sensitivity to the publisher of a major dictionary, and as a youngun to boot! I think I need to take chutzpah lessons from you!



    1. Thank you Chris but honestly, I didn't BRING cultural sensitivity to RH, they already had it and taught ME to have it; I just held them accountable...and when I look back, it did take some chutzpah to do it!

  3. I"m impressed and yet so not surprised, this is just so you :-)
    Every time I see an infomercial I think of you as well.....