I Forgot How Smart I Used to Be

It was 2016.  I was working for at&t and it was pushing retraining of the current workforce. AT&T was  pushing it pretty hard.  They called it “Workforce 2020”. The message to the employees was to either train up in technology or get out.  The company’s CEO was quoted in the NYTimes, 02/13/2016.

“… employees must “retool” continuously.  He added that those not spending five to 10 hours a week of their personal time in online learning will “obsolete themselves” with the technology.” 

AT&T had quite a few employees who were what I think of as the backbone of America. The people who were most at risk of losing their jobs. And I was worried, not so much for myself but for them.  Middle aged women, dressed not quite so fashionably, carrying an extra 25 pounds or so.  That weight that you can’t shed after the last child is born and you don’t have time to shed once you’re working and have kids in school.  Clothes bought on sale at Macy’s or Ross or TJ Maxx, sometimes colorful but not always quite in style.  These are the women who bring their lunches to work, who make casseroles for their neighbors and bring snacks to the kids’ ball games.  These are the women who have NO time for themselves.  How they were expected to put in an additional ten hours a week of their own time.  An additional ten hours where they were focused and alert and not distracted by the needs of others, was beyond me.  These women were my age and somehow looked older.  With no children and with many years experience in technology I did not feel at risk.

Technology moves at a lightning pace and I was constantly reading, taking classes, workshops etc., just to stay relevant.  I had two professional certifications that required ongoing learning to stay active.  AT&T’s employee motto had been “from womb to tomb” for years.  It was a culture of once you’re in, you’re in for life and you get to retire with a  lovely pension and full benefits.  At one time at&t had been the biggest employer of software engineers in the world.  It had, during its history, moved from designing software to buying off the shelf software and acquiring software companies that had the products it wanted.  I had been an employee of one of those acquired startups.  Like fashion, the mission was changing again, back to being a software innovator and design company, at least this was the goal.  Many of the clerical functions were being consolidated, by software, or moved to lower rent areas.  AT&T was eager to jettison the expensive pension and health plans of the aging employee base.  It was airing commercials to attract young and technical employees.

I had started too late to get the full womb to tomb benefits but the company had been pretty good to me and had allowed me the flexibility to tutor young girls.  I now turned my focus to the employee base.  I decided to volunteer internally to help some of the employees retrain.   Since software is the foundation of technology,  I set up an internal workshop to introduce them to coding.  I used the curriculum from code.org .  I reviewed several introductory workshops with a woman who was in my  mentoring group to choose the class that would be the kindest “dipping the toe into coding” that we could find.  It was in game form using angry birds. 

“T” had a full training center in the basement of its San Ramon facility  with several classrooms and internet connectivity.  Sadly, it had not updated its technology to go with its new mission for its employees to tool up.  Undeterred, I had the women bring in their own laptops or electronic notebooks or even smartphones to do the exercises.  I listened to the conversations as the women filed in.  

“I did quite a few classes in information technology but the company moved me to a project management role.  I was never able to get a technical position.”

“Oh me too!  but I’m in accounting and I hear they’re moving the whole department to St. Louis.”

“I actually have a degree in programming but I haven’t done it in so long, I work in human resources now, that I don’t even know… hell I can hardly work my own tv system at home”

This last one was greeted with some knowing chuckles.

Quite a few of these women had technical backgrounds but since the company culture had historically been hostile to female technologists these women had been pushed aside into administrative positions: project management, accounting, human resources, and secretarial roles.

Once everyone was in and settled a woman asked “Martha, why are you doing this?  you’re not getting paid are you?”  

“We all need to train up or we’ll all be out of a job.”

“What department are you in Martha?”

“Chief Security Office.”  The Chief Security Office oversaw the network security needs of the company as well as providing guidance for newly developed products for customers.  One of my certifications was in internet security.

“Aren’t you technical?”

“Kind of, but I still need to constantly be training to stay relevant.  Ladies, let’s begin.”

It was a beautiful fall afternoon and although the room was looking rather worn and used, the afternoon sun was warming.  The ladies were in good spirits and my two helpers,  Manoj, a 30 some odd year old programmer,  father of two, and Michelle, an Environmental Specialist who stars in musicals in her free time (god knows where she finds the cycles for that!) were walking around the room.  A retired female executive was auditing the class and taking notes.

I heard:

“Oh! this is fun!”

“I can’t wait to play this with my grandkids!”

“What a great way to teach this stuff!”

“I forgot how smart I used to be.”

And on that, “I forgot how smart I used to be,” I turned my back on the class and tried not to cry.

2 men from an Agency

And a Woman

Nothing costs societies, across the globe, more money than an unwanted child. Even at 24, as immature as I was, I was somewhat pragmatic about money. Somewhere in somebody’s file, the CIA or the FBI, or perhaps both, there is a picture of a young woman, 24ish holding a cigarette and a latte, wearing a blazer, leather shoes, fake nails, and a scowl.  This woman would be me “marching” in a pro choice march.  Why was I scowling?  I was scowling because I was working full time and putting myself through school.  I had about 20 units left to go.  And, and, why did I feel I had to protest in favor of getting health care?  Isn’t everyone pro affordable health care?

I am 60 now and I have continued to participate in pro choice, uhm, gatherings over the years and at 27, I had an abortion myself.  I have often imagined the discussion that might have transpired between the two analysts who might have been reviewing my file over the years.

Early Monday morning, Jim and Paul are reviewing tapes:

Paul:  “Oh thanks for the coffee Jim.”

Jim:  “No problem, Paul.  Would you look at the scowl on that young woman’s face.  What is she? 20? 25?  shouldn’t she be out having fun or something?  Why the hell is she even out there on a Saturday morning.”

Paul:  Chuckles and says  “She’s out there because she thinks that she can ‘make a difference ‘.”  

Jim:  “Oh right, like we thought we’d be making a difference when we became analysts or admin in a spy agency.  Now that Suzie’s pregnant I’m just happy for the good medical benefits.”

Both men chuckle and make the appropriate notes in the file.

3 years later.

Jim:   “Wait, haven’t we seen this one before Paul?  Oh yeah, here she is.  She’s been attending protests for years and now the pro life folks are protesting against her as she crosses their line to get into the clinic for an abortion.”

Paul:  “Christ, Maureen was telling me that her friend Deborah went to get an abortion in Tennessee and they had armed guards outside the clinic.  Armed guards!  Can’t these people get jobs or something.  Or, I know!  Can’t they do something interesting that we can monitor?”

Jim:  “I’m not sure which one we’re supposed to be monitoring, the pro life protesters or the pro choice protesters or the ones getting an abortion.  Well, this one, this one’s ven diagram overlaps two of those.” 

Paul:  “I know.  This is not a good day for her.  Hey, who’s that person in the picture who dropped her off?”

Jim:  “She looks like an aunt or something.” 

Paul:  “She looks stoned.”  

Jim:  “Good on her, this can’t be fun for anyone.”

Paul:  “Well, how’s the baby?” 

Jim:  “Justin isn’t a baby anymore, he’s a toddler and doing great!  We tried for a second one but there were some issues with the fetus and Suzie had to go in for a DNC.” 

Paul:  “What’s the difference between a DNC and an abortion Jim?”

Jim:  “Hell if I know, but it’s been really tough on Suzie, losing that child.  Tough on both of us, truth be told.  But we have Justin and we’re keeping it together for him.  We’re going to try again next year.”

13  years later.

Paul :  “There’s our girl again.  Didn’t she get married at some point?”

Jim:  “Yeah, she did, to a Scotsman.” 

Paul:  “Foreigners!  Take our jobs and steal our women!”

Jim:  “Well, the file shows that he had a very flexible relationship with the job thing so he wasn’t stealing our jobs.  Maybe that’s why our girl/woman got rid of him.”

Paul:  “Hmmm.  Wonder where he is now?”

Jim:  “Back to his homeland it says here.  Oh!  it appears that she’s ditched the leather shoes and blazer.  She’s becoming a bit of a slacker.  Baseball cap, sunglasses, no more fake nails.”

Paul:  “Shit, Jim, look at this!  she’s working in cyber security, for the phone company no less.”

Jim:  “Paul, maybe we should have gone to work for the phone company.  Maybe we’d get more interesting spy work than watching these protesters on tape, year in, year out.  I wonder what kind of spy stuff she gets to do.”  Jim  

Paul:  “Well, the phone company does feed us quite a bit of our intel.”

Jim:  “Mighty white of them, isn’t it?”

Paul :  “Yeah. Jim ?  You know I’m black, right?”

Jim:  “I do.” 

2017

Paul:  “God these people are relentless.”

Jim:  “They are.  I don’t know how they find the energy”

2021

Paul:  “Well, Jim, I’m retiring next week”

Jim:  “Me too, me too.  Thank God we don’t live in Texas.  DC has been hard enough with constant politics but I’m starting to believe that the Texans are crazy!”

Paul:  “You know better than that Jim, it’s a few that make the most racket.” 

Jim:  “And the laws.”  

Paul:  “True that.  And here’s our girl.  She’s a grandmother now, you know. ”

Jim:  “I wonder if she still thinks that she’s making a difference.  “

Paul (smiling):  “I hope she does.  If people like her didn’t protest the whole country would be like Texas.  On the other hand, maybe we’d have something more interesting to track.”

 Jim:  “True that.”

That’s how I imagine how that conversation would go. I don’t think most people care or even want to think about abortion. Most people just want to let others live their lives in peace.

I am selling a pin with the suffragette colors on etsy. Eighty percent of the proceeds will be donated to women’s health organizations. Make me an offer.

We’re Mad Miss Martha

But Miss Martha we’re mad! we’re mad all the time and anyhow, we’re nice to you!”

“Kayla, you girls ran your teacher out of the school, off of the job.”

“But we’re nice to you!  We’re always nice to you!”

“That’s because you have to be.  I’m a volunteer.  I can’t come to the school without a teacher here and you just, you just ran her out of town!”

“But we’re mad!”

I don’t blame them.  They’re nine and ten years old and they’re all having their periods and their after school teacher this year, well she really thought a whale was a fish, but still… 

This year’s group of girls have been unmanageable.  I asked the principal, Ms. Zoe, “Is it my imagination?  Or are the girls just AWFUL this year.  I don’t even know what to say.  They’re AWFUL!”  

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she says, “I just want to put them all on a vegetarian diet and make sure they get lots and lots of exercise.  I really don’t know what to do.”

Ms. Zoe is tough and compassionate.  I had been volunteering at this school in East Oakland for six years by then and the nine and ten year old girls were just my favorites.  I LOVE that age.  Each year more and more of the girls in this age group were having their periods, were in adolescence.  Nine and ten year old girls.  This year, I think all but two were in adolescence and they were tough.  I could not get them to sit still and focus.  They had become unruly, even for the seasoned educators.  I would sometimes drum with the girls at the beginning of their after school program to get them all focused and settled.  The drumming periods were lasting longer and longer and they weren’t getting settled.  Not to mention that the drumming kindof scared the 22, 23 year old student teachers.

Something that nobody talks about, is that once a girl’s chemistry changes, the way the world views her changes.  So, she’ll be looking at greeting cards in a drugstore and look up and realize that a grown man is staring at her.  That man, that man, might not even realize he is doing it.  We are animals, pheromones are in the air and you are no longer a child in the animal world.

Most of us, men and women, don’t pay close attention to this.  Once, when I was tripping may way to menopause I was just about ready to cycle into one of my final cycles.  I was at the Y early one morning.  There I was, in my one piece bathing suit, my fins, the socks I wear with my fins to keep from getting blisters, my goggles, and my swim cap.  Really, nothing to see here.  I was swimming laps and some guy,  the guy I was sharing a lane with was like waiting for me when I’d touch off to start a new lap.  He was an ok looking guy, age appropriate-ish.  A little younger than me, but whatever, and he was a regular swimmer.  So, I go to do a flip and he tries to get some small talk in “Nice flippers!” ,  “The water is warm this morning, isn’t it?”  that sort of thing.  At some point I might have stopped to let him yack.  I didn’t take my goggles off.  A couple of weeks later I pass him in the gym and I’m invisible.  I am at the pool and not even a nod.  It was all a chemical thing, nothing to do with anything.  That’s the sort of attention these little girls were getting at nine.  Nine and ten years old and getting that kind of attention.

So the girls were cranky.  I couldn’t blame them.  Oh!  and yes, these girls lived in a high crime area.  The school was regularly put on lockdown because of shooters in the street and the school, an elementary school, had guards who wore bullet proof vests.  The girls were a bit distracted.

Sure, there had always been a cranky few.  

“Ms. Martha, Maria is cranky today because she didn’t get enough sleep last night, there was gunfire.”  

“Maria, did you want to go rest in the nap area?” I ask.

“Yes,” she responds.

But this year, they were all cranky.  And mad.

I’m sitting in my office as I type this.  An interoffice memo just came in encouraging us to all “stand for equality”.  This from the management team that campaigned for the President who promotes inequality.  I digress.  I’m emotionally exhausted.  I have a Masters Degree in Cyber Security Operations and tonight I’m working on a new prototype for my plague pin.

  • A copper shaft because copper’s anti microbial
  • A purple crown – purple is healing
  • A heart because it’s our strongest organ
  • A diamond pave arrow – strongest gem pointing in the “right” direction

Fraught with symbolism is my pin.

It feels like an exercise for a nine year old girl, not a middle aged professional woman.  But I’m mad and I’m sad and I have written lots of letters, made lots of calls, attended lots of protests and I don’t know what to do anymore.

Please message me directly if you would like a pin. Any and all donations will be forwarded to Girls, Inc. of Alameda County.