BOSTON — Late Friday afternoon, our young communications assistant entered my office with slumped shoulders and a woeful expression. She had just stuffed, stamped, and sealed a critical 200-piece mailing - but forgot to include the response form. She still was in a state of disbelief, dumbfounded that she'd overlooked the entire stack of forms sitting right on her desk.
This was the final blow to a mailing already late and fraught with errors, including misdated letters. Until now, I had deemed the mistakes too minor to warrant further delay.
But we had to make it easy for people to respond, so this was an absolute deal-stopper. I expressed my disappointment, then congratulated her on catching her mistake just before, not after, the last daily pickup.
It brought to mind one of my own foolish mistakes from roughly 30 years ago that still evokes vivid memories of creaking wooden floorboards and the heavy odor of fertilizer and pesticide.
At 15, I had landed my first "real" job at Brown's Seed Company in downtown Toledo, Ohio. Every spring afternoon and on Saturday mornings, I reported for duty, thrilled to be earning a penny more than minimum wage: a whopping $1.26 an hour. My formal entry into the work world was packing garden seeds for retail sale.
In no time, I had mastered the commercial spring balance and was weighing out equal portions of a couple dozen types of vegetable seeds, marveling at their distinctive shapes and textures.
The work soon became automatic: Delicately trickle seeds onto a square of thin paper on the scales, funnel the piles into brown kraft envelopes, mark the contents, and neatly stack the packages in drawers according to type and weight.
The seeds acquired personalities of sorts: the unpredictable, coquettish carrots; the sturdy, angular beets; the smooth, flattened, and gentle squash.
As I grew faster at this task, my mind strayed frequently to my next biology exam, history term paper, or the coming summer. Then one day my arrival at the store was met with a scowl.
As soon as I hung up my coat out back, Mr. Brown gruffly escorted me to the seed counter and placed a package of pinto beans on the scales, asking me to weigh it in front of him.
At first I didn't grasp the problem, but then I realized that I'd been reading the needle wrong and was packing four times the amount of seed intended. That explained why the chunky envelopes had seemed so hard to seal lately....
The innocent mistake hung over my head like a lurid crime as I labored without pay that afternoon, reweighing every package under the stern glare of Mr. Brown from his second-level balcony office. I felt mortified that he might think I had cheated his company on purpose and practiced a self-righteous protest in my mind: "But I did my best." Yet deep down, I knew the truth that I had not been focused on the boring task at hand.
Shortly after the overweight-seed-packet debacle, Mr. Brown shifted me to different tasks, with what seemed no greater success. Customers grew impatient as they watched my fruitless searches for desired merchandise. Leaves broke off young tomato plants that I clumsily tried to wrap. Although I never felt adept at anything, I did try harder to focus and especially not to daydream.
On my last day at Brown's Seed Company, Mr. Brown handed me an envelope, directing me to open it immediately. To my astonishment, it contained the unimaginable sum of $100.
He brusquely explained "Use it to further your education. You're going to need it." Apparently, we both knew my future would not be in the seed business. What I did not realize was how valuable the lesson of focus would be, learned from someone who was both understanding and kindly after all.
Now it's my turn to guide and encourage a highly educated person who is working her mental way through boring jobs. My assistant and I talked over possible solutions to the bobbled mailing and decided to redo the whole thing, and do it right. She volunteered that Saturday to rerun the letters with corrected date and other improvements, and redo all the envelopes.
This time she remembered the response form.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society