Monday, March 29, 2010

Memory Monday: My First Job

What did my first job experience have to do with The Exorcist?

Thanks to Barbara of Life from the Roots for the inspiration for this subject.

The first job I ever had was in my freshman year of college as a Russian major at Georgetown. We were poor, so I had a scholarship, a federal loan, and a work-study job. I was almost as excited about having my first job as I was about being at Georgetown and starting Russian studies.

I worked in the language lab. It was used by students of the School of Languages and Linguistics (which, to my eternal irritation, no longer exists, though the individual language departments do) to practice and perfect pronunciation and grammar skills. Language students were required to spend a certain number of hours a week studying in the language lab, depending on the language and the level of the class. For instance, as a student of Intensive Basic Russian, in addition to five hours of grammar class and five hours of drill class each week, I was supposed to spend six hours practicing in the language lab. Added to the 15 hours I worked there each week, this meant that I spent nearly an entire day each week there.

So I got to know the ins and outs of the language lab pretty well. This was back in the Stone Age of Technology, so the tapes we used were reel-to-reel, which meant that they broke easily (my husband still refers to them as “splice-to-splice”), the machines they ran on broke easily, and the tempers of the people who had to use them or repair them broke easily. On a bad day, as many as a third of the machines would be on the fritz. When the number of serviceable tapes got low, we had to wait for a “qualified technician” to make new copies from the master tape. And students had the habit of putting in most of their required hours at the very latest time possible (Thursday, since the signed time cards, when required, were usually due on Friday). The language lab closed at 10:00 p.m. weeknights, so 9:00 on a Thursday night when many of the machines had decided to die could be an ugly time, indeed.

Some professors were very strict about lab time requirements; others were more lax. The Chinese and Arabic professors may not have checked cards, but any student of those languages who did not keep up in the lab hadn’t a chance of keeping up in class, so those students were pretty faithful. Russian students were also regular attendees, but an additional incentive was that Dr. L., of whom everyone was terrified (more about that in a separate Memory Monday … or several), kept track. Likewise, Professor M. (French) was extremely particular about perfect pronunciation and was known to hand out horrible grades for minor imperfections, so most of the French students could be counted on to show up. German and Spanish students were a spottier bunch.

I learned a lot about the differences among students that year. Some of the American and international students who came from wealthy families had never had to work, never had to clean up after themselves, and never had to learn to “be polite to the help.” Being a scholarship/work-study recipient with an accent that identified me as a “hick” might have put me at a disadvantage, but it was one of the times when my shyness disappeared and I found a backbone, as did several of my fellow language-lab workers from similar backgrounds. We got fed up with the “I’m entitled” crowd pretty early on and learned how to deal with them.

Then there were students who didn’t want to put in the time but wanted us to sign off on it. I didn’t keep track of what each person did in his cubicle – study, listen to tapes and repeat the material, read a book, sleep, or whatever – but I could read a clock, and I was not going to sign my name to a lie.

One guy spent about as much time trying to get us to sign off on false times as he did actually working on his language. “Aw, come on, I spent 20 minutes, and I already know this stuff inside out. There’s no point in me doing 40 more minutes.”

“If you have 40 more minutes, then here’s the next tape in the series – you can get a head start on the next lesson,” I replied. A sigh, a shrug, and then resignation. He took the tape and put in his time.

Work at the language lab was not the most stimulating way to pass one’s time. Occasionally there was the excitement of a “machine gone wild” – miles and miles of ribbon spinning out of control.

The best entertainment, however, was for those of us workers who were Russian students. For, on the inside of the lids of a few scattered Russian tape boxes – perhaps eight in all – were the stories of Zaklyuchennyy, aka “The Prisoner.” My introduction to these literary works (they were short, but they were brilliant) clued me in that life as a student of Russian at Georgetown was going to be a Big Adventure and a Wild Ride. Although a few other Russian Department faculty members appeared as minor characters, these stories were largely inspired by Dr. L., who taught Intensive Basic Russian and was the head of the Russian Department at that time.

I don’t want to give too much away before I actually write the My Life as a Russian Student memories, but let’s just say Dr. L. was awfully strict. The Prisoner wrote from the point of view of a poor, put-upon student of Dr. L’s. The most famous tape-box epic was Pero, or “The Pen.” It was an account in purple prose of a terrified student’s horrified realization that he has not brought the required pencil to Dr. L’s class, but has only a pen. And there was a Gorey-esque illustration of the hapless student, perishing from fright. We could identify.

One especially vivid memory I have of working late at night at the language lab, which was located on the fourth floor of Walsh building and had a view onto 36th Street, was watching the filming of the movie The Exorcist. Just half a block away, on the cross street (N?M?), they were filming the dramatic scene in which Max Von Sydow arrives, gets out of the car, and takes that immortal pose. The fog machines were going full blast, and they shot the scene over and over and over again. But we (the students who were supposed to be studying and I) remained glued to the window in fascination until it was time to close the lab. It was spooky, and some of us walked back to our dorms together because it felt strange and a little unsafe to walk by ourselves.


  1. Greta, had no idea it was Russian. Man had a year of that at the Naval Base, DC. Loved today's post, the stories about the other students. Felt like I was right there with ya!

  2. Thanks, Carol! It's funny, sometimes college seems like a long time ago, and sometimes it seems like yesterday! I could feel the crisp autumn air when I remembered watching the filming.

  3. Greta, I loved this post. I agree with Carol when she says she felt like she was right there with you! You tell a great story!

  4. Greta, thanks for the mention. I enjoyed your story also. My friend's (the one who gave me the gift at the DAR) sister and husb. bought that house!!! Amazing.

  5. Greta, I didn't know you went to Georgetown! I'm a 2008 grad, and I was an Italian major (History too - surprised?). The language lab currently is in the ICC (second floor, I believe), and mostly used, at least by the Italian students, for watching foreign-language DVDs.

    When I was doing college interviews my senior year of HS, the Georgetown interviewer asked me why, if I wanted to study Italian, I was applying to the College instead of the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics. I looked at her blankly, because I was applying to BOTH - the FLL was part of the College! She didn't realize it had changed. I didn't realize it had ever been different.

    Hoya Saxa!

  6. What a great time you must have had, Greta. I love that I've learned something else about you - however, there's not a connection with us on this one! Russian - Wow! I can't imagine. I had enough trouble with 3 years of Latin!

  7. Michelle - Thank you; I am glad you enjoyed it. Barbara - That's amazing; that house is one of my strongest memories of Georgetown. Katie - that's awesome that you went to Georgetown! Yes, the language faculty was SLL for a while; I believe before that it may have been the Institute of Languages and Linguistics. Judy - yes, I've always been a language geek, but I know they're not everyone's cup of tea!