Skirting the Issue In a Memorable Job Interview

`WHY should I hire you for this job instead of these other 30 qualified applicants?'' he bellowed in his professional, baritone voice as he pointed to a thick stack of folders hovering precariously near the edge of his massive mahogany desk.

Don't act nervous, I thought. Don't get flustered. Those were two of my interview goals. Mr. Dillworth was making me wonder whether I could meet them.

Luckily I had prepared for this question. It was one of many difficult questions during this grueling interview. I looked across his desk into his eyes and replied, ``You'll notice on my resume, Mr. Dillworth, that I not only possess the educational requirements, skills, and experience necessary for this position, but my qualifications exceed those required.''

He glanced down at the crisp sheet of double-bond paper and began reading. My entire life lay before him, condensed to 25 lines, typed in the carefully selected New York font and interspersed with agonizing revisions inserted at 4 a.m. the previous night. ``Hum, humf,'' was all he said grumpily from time to time.

I had already interviewed with not one but two teachers and then the principal the same morning. I managed to come up with answers to all their questions. But now the tip top of the iceberg sat in front of me. Mr. Dillworth. The Superintendent. He had earned a reputation for being the most stern superintendent in this part of the state. I was beginning to see why as he said, ``humf'' again, apparently not very impressed by what he read.

I had to get this teaching job. I was desperate. The school year began in 10 days. I was late in applying for jobs because all summer I had worked at another job and finished my graduate-school thesis. Few positions were open in the state; I'd checked. I'd have a wait a full year for a job if I didn't get this one, move, or else be a substitute. I shuddered, remembering horror stories about first-year teachers working as substitutes. It wasn't a pretty alternative.

While he read my resume, I took in a deep breath to calm my nerves and quickly glanced around his study, making sure not to move my head in case he looked up.

THE room exuded distinguished academic achievements in every nook and cranny: the gargantuan desk, the shelves of leather-bound books, the wing-back reading chair, the green globe lamp casting subdued yellow light on an antique fountain pen lying across a partially completed letter.

Books and files were stacked in every corner. The shades were drawn despite the early afternoon hour, but I could still make out framed diplomas and awards covering the walls. Two of his diplomas were earned at Ivy League schools.

He looked up at me over his bifocals, resting at the end of his nose. He was every bit as distinguished as his office. Even his angular nose seemed knowledgeable, nestled proudly between bushy graying eyebrows. He had graying temples, a white mustache, and wore a tweed gray sports coat with elbow patches and a gray tie.

His initial assessment of me had been executed in a brief but decisive glance when I'd first entered the office. Now he gave me the same look. This expression clearly stated his expectations: No small talk. I want direct answers and your speedy exit. I have more important work to do than interviewing you.

``How do you plan to resolve discipline problems in your classroom?'' he inquired, peering intently into my eyes.

His words went into my ears forcing other words out of my mouth.

He asked several more questions, which I continued to answer like an automaton. I didn't ask my prepared questions about health benefits because my fear was quickly intensifying. Instead, I began chanting encouraging thoughts to myself with compulsive ferocity. You can get through this! Hold on! It's almost over! After what seemed like an eternity, the ordeal ended. Just a handshake, a firm handshake remained. I'd done it! I beamed with relief inside. I am out of here!

With Olympic style, form, and confidence, I stood up, thrust back my shoulders, presented a broad smile, extended my arm forward, and grasped his hand firmly and squarely across his right palm. I gave his hand three solid ``I'm-the-person-for-the-job'' shakes.

``Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Mr. Dillworth,'' I said smiling.

``Humf, my pleasure,'' he grumbled. ``Once I've reached my decision, you can expect to...'' He paused. Stunned.

Why?

Because that's when my skirt fell off. All the way off.

When the safety pin, which had replaced a missing button on my blue skirt, popped open with a forceful burst, the skirt's fate was decided. The drop was neat and precisely executed: no bobbles on the descent, no snags from the side zipper, no bunching by my blouse, no hesitation over my backside. My extended arm in the handshake, along with some recent weight loss, gave it total clearance.

The barely audible glide downward ended with a gently muffled pat as the skirt made contact with the floor and produced a burst of air not unlike the flutter of a partridge's wings in flight. My skirt ended up a neat doughnut-shaped pool of material around my ankles and polished blue pumps.

I COULD suddenly feel the cool air in the hushed office start circulating around my exposed legs. We both had the same instantaneous, instinctual reaction: Pretend that it didn't happen. I didn't look down. Neither did he.

Our eyes pierced one another with desperate intensity as we continued pumping our hands in a handshake across his desk. His pause was so slight that it was barely detectable, just enough time for the skirt to hit the floor. Then he nonchalantly finished his sentence, ``expect to hear from me a week from Monday at the latest.''

Although I knew he could see everything peripherally from his standing position - my shirttails extending past my suit jacket and my lace-edged slip, he continued casually, ``Shall I contact you at the first or second telephone number listed on your resume?''

``The first number would be best,'' I responded. Our expressions remained unchanged. Completely deadpan.

Determined that I could pretend as well as he could, I presented my next rehearsed line with the grace, cool authority, and quiet dignity of an English butler. Although our handshake was completed long ago, I still grasped his thick hand because neither of us was willing to let go. As I gazed sincerely into his eyes, my steady eye contact implied, ``I'm a winner and I can keep my eye contact up even if I can't keep my skirt up.'' I spoke seriously and slowly, ``I look forward to hearing from you, Mr. Dillworth.''

As I spoke, never releasing the handshake or gaze, I gently bent my knees and squatted with a straight back in a quiet, controlled curtsy. I lowered my free arm to the floor and grasped the skirt's waistband. I then straightened my knees, bringing the skirt around my waist, where I continued to hold it very tightly. I assumed the position of someone casually resting her hand on her waist.

WITH my hand securely holding up the side of my bunched-up and lopsided skirt, I finally released his hand. I nodded a silent, ``Thank you again for your time,'' backed up to my chair, grabbed my pocketbook with my free hand, and backed out of the room, all the while politely nodding and smiling.

Never looking away from his eyes, I bumped into the wall and blindly fumbled for the door handle behind me with my free hand. Eyes still locked on his, I found the handle and opened the door. With one final dignified smile, I said, ``Goodbye, Mr. Dillworth.''

I glided around and through the doorway backwards before finally shutting the door. As I exited, I heard Mr. Dillworth say, ``Goodbye.''

Mr. Dillworth had promised to call within a week. Instead, I got a call from him at 7 o'clock the morning after the interview. In his stern authoritarian voice he said, ``You stand apart from the other candidates in my stack of files.'' He paused, I'm sure he was smiling. Then offered me the job. I accepted.

The next time I saw him, his nearly impossible ability to suppress a smile, accompanied by a quick wink was his only acknowledgement that the skirt incident ever happened. On each subsequent meeting, our knowing glances to each other left everyone in the school, students and teachers alike, wondering just what had occurred that would produce such a rise out of the subdued and serious Mr. Dillworth.

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