Friday, October 3, 2008

You Are No Longer An Intern, and You Might Even Have One

Now, I don’t actually have an intern, mind you. But I’m surrounded by them, the bright young women and men who have golden eyes for my industry and collapsed into excited giggles when they got the phone call notifying them of their acceptance -- not knowing that on the other end of the line was an editor who had to do this four times a year, had been both burdened and blessed by interns of yore, and was just hoping that the coin landed face-up this time around.

One arm of my job involves coordinating the 15 or so interns my workplace has every semester for a project. And it can really suck sometimes. I’ve had adult women—women who have graduated from college -- look me in the eye and outright lie, and what can you do with that? They’re not six; I can’t scold them. (Maybe in my forties I’ll grow more of a professional backbone.) All 15 of them rightly consider their segment of the project terrifically important, and even though I agree in the abstract, when they want to chat with me about it they don’t realize that I often have no idea what they’re talking about, because to invest myself in the details of each interns’ project and then have to start all over again next semester is impossible. So I answer the best I can, and occasionally nod and smile my way through the details that don’t matter in an effort to get to what does and what I can actually help them with. In effect: I wind up patronizing them. I don’t mean to. But I know it happens. And as I write this, I realize it’s been a long time since anybody in the workplace patronized me. Not because I am particularly respected or anything like that; it’s more because of the weight that comes with having been in an industry for nearly a decade. Even the craziest person I’ve ever worked with (it turned out she was running a small Vicodin-Percocet enterprise from her cubicle; the staff had quite a free-for-all when she was abruptly fired), people didn’t patronize her. Granted, I work with mostly women so none of us are dealing with men telling us little ladies how to do our jobs -- but I know from my own tone of voice when dealing with interns that women can do it too.

But besides the relief that comes with knowing that I’m not going to be asked to do projects that are an utter mystery to me, or compete with my peers to distinguish myself in a transient group that inherently lacks distinction, or have zero sense of how my work affects the larger scope, comes a greater reward. (That is, besides the occasional opportunity I have to ask an intern to take care of something that’s time-consuming and otherwise a drag.) And that is: They thank you. I never fail to be surprised at semester’s end by who leaves me a thank-you note. The interns in my immediate department, sure. But interns in neighboring areas who I have little interaction with -- I’ve gotten thank-you notes for my guidance, when all I did was do my best to be human with them. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here (well, maybe a little, as I think mentorship is important); I’m saying that to be in a position where simply by doing your job, you’re able to inadvertently give a 20-year-old something that she feels is of value -- well, that’s nice.

I look back at my own internships and remember how mysterious and faraway the staff members seemed, how even their human foibles seemed a part of some web of the professionalism that I assumed they were always shrouded in. I didn’t realize that the associate editor unloaded her personal life on me because everybody else was tired of hearing it, or that the senior editor was being extraordinarily patient when I went in there and gave an excruciating amount of detail on a 200-word piece I was working on. I have no idea how our interns view me. I just know that I’m on the better end of the deal now.

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