in which I do not become a Unitarian after all

(Check out Part One and Part Two of this story.)

So two weeks before Christmas, I once again eschewed the Sunday sleep-in, put on my best blue sweater and black jacket, and metroed down to the Unitarian church, this time alone. My nervousness about being there without The Boyfriend Buffer was balanced by my greater familiarity with what I was getting into: I knew how many blocks to walk from the metro; I knew someone would be standing outside the church to greet me; I knew that someone would stop me before I entered the chapel and ask me to make myself a name tag.

The chapel guardian was a different woman from last week, although she was also brisk, friendly, and middle-aged. When I slapped the sticker reading “Siobhan” onto my lapel, she handed me a songbook and said, “Now, Siobhan, you take the best seat in the house. And if someone’s sitting in it, you tell them I said it’s yours.”

I laughed. Really laughed – she was funny. In fact, she reminded me of someone. I couldn’t think of whom, until I entered the chapel and sat down.

Before I worked at my current college, I taught at several different CEGEPs around Montreal. They had different atmospheres, different cultures; each student body and staff body had its own personality.

I chose my college for a number of reasons, most of which had to do with the sense of support and belonging I felt as soon as I walked through the doors. And that sense of support and belonging started with Kevin, the man behind the desk at the print shop.

When you teach college, the print shop is often the first place you go when you arrive at work. You go to make copies or, more often than not, to pick up copies for that day’s classes. This necessitates interacting with the print shop people.

I had worked in colleges where the print shop people were downright mean. They yelled at you if you asked for more paper. They inspected your requisition slips with raised eyebrows, tore them up, and barked instructions about how to fill them out properly. They sighed a lot. I never really questioned all this. I supposed that working at the print shop was an unpleasant and underpaid job, that teachers were generally idiots when it came to print shop protocol, and that print shop people had to put up with a lot of garbage and had every right to be mean.

Then I met Kevin. The first time I walked into Kevin’s print shop, he shook my hand, introduced himself, and asked my name. He placed the requisition slip in front of me, asked me if I knew how to fill it out, and stood with me while I asked questions about the various checkboxes. When I asked if there was any possible way for the order to be filled in less than 24 hours, he said, “We’ll do our best. Drop by before we close at five. Nice to meet you, Siobhan. Good luck here at the college.”

Every time I walked into the print shop after that, Kevin greeted me by name and asked how I was doing. Not only that, but as I stood at the copier or filled out my requests, Kevin greeted every single person who walked into the shop, by name, and asked how they were doing. I work at a big college, the second biggest in Montreal; there are only two print shops, so approximately half the teachers in the college saw Kevin on a daily basis, and the others probably all came in occasionally. He knew all their names, and asked how they were doing, every day.

Not only that, but my initial assessment of a print shop job was correct. People are idiots. They fill out their slips wrong, they make unreasonable requests that are impossible to fulfill, they break photocopiers, they walk in out of the cold with their coffee spilled down their coat and their hair sticking up and are just dying for a fight. Not only that, but the print shop is also the mail room, and print shop employees have to deal with students. Students wander in wanting to drop off papers for teachers, but they don’t know their teachers’ names. They try to use the staff photocopiers. They break photocopiers. They mutter monosyllables and refuse to look you in the eye.

And yet I never saw Kevin lose patience with anyone. He looked up section numbers on the computer to find teacher names for confused students. He soothed rattled employees when the ancient copiers jammed. He said, “No problem.” A lot. And no matter how wound up you were when you walked into that print shop, after a couple of minutes with Kevin, you felt like the world wasn’t such a bad place.

Kevin retired a couple of years ago, and people around the college cried. (I did.) But he created a sort of culture in the print shop that has been sustained. The employees who are still there, or who came in when he left, are perpetuating the same attitude. They smile at you and say hello. They bend the rules if they possibly can to get you your stuff when you need it. And there’s a section on the print shop counter called “Kevin’s Corner,” where the staff paste the jokes and cartoons that Kevin emails them on a regular basis.

I realized, as I was sitting there in the Unitarian chapel thinking about Kevin, that we were already well into the service. The announcements about “Please stay behind after the service for coffee” had already been made. The congregation was standing for the first song. And I stood too, and looked around, and thought, What am I looking for here, exactly?

As I’ve explained in earlier posts, my attraction to Unitarian Universalism was partly based in a sense of connection with its philosophy, and partly based in a desire to belong to a community. As I stood there singing – another song about “freedom,” in a key that didn’t quite sit right for me – I thought, What kind of community was I hoping to find here?

I’ve been looking for a bunch of like-minded people who value individuality, who believe in social justice, who want to work hard to make the world a better place, who want to support one another in their personal, professional and spiritual growth.

But, I thought, I already have that community. Those are the people I work with.

My college, and my department in particular, have a reputation. Our students may not always be high-achieving or even bright or even fluent in English; our buildings may be falling down; we may not have any money or any fancy A/V equipment. Some of our programs may be limited in scope, and we may have to work two or three to a very small office. But there is a culture of support, growth, and absolute dedication to our students’ and our teachers’ learning. We know each other. As a department, we often socialize together outside the college. We like each other – although of course, as in any community, some of us are difficult. And we have a common mission: to make the world a better place, one student – and teacher – at a time.

This revelation hit me like a thunderbolt.

I looked around again. There was no doubt in my mind that this chapel was full of good, conscientious, thoughtful, intelligent people. Given world enough and time, I would perhaps like to hang around with these people, and get to know them, and bring them into my world. But in a few weeks I would be going back to work after a much-needed hiatus, and there was a whole community waiting for me there that required my full attention and energy.

I didn’t stay for coffee after the service that day. I thanked the minister and, in particular, the chapel guardian as I left. And on my way home in the metro, I took out the book I was reading – A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism – and made the following note on the flyleaf:

After all, if we love our work and find it meaningful, how is it different from worship?

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10 responses

  1. For me too our colleagues (including you!) have given me much fellowship, encouragement and inspiration. By the way, I hope someone passes this along to Kevin. He deserves to hear his praises sung so eloquently.

  2. I’d pass it along to him myself if I could, Maia – any idea how to get a hold of him? I guess I could ask at the print shop.

  3. So rare, and so appreciated. It entirely changes your working life. I sometimes forget, and then I look around, and listen to my friends complain about their jobs where the biggest problem is the toxic, nasty atmosphere. I really lucked out.

  4. Sniffle! amen, sister-friend-colleague.

    Kevin was indeed the embodiment of all the reasons I chose our college, too, and I am so glad that the Kevin-vibe has been kept alive by his successors.

    I remember early in my time at our place, attending DGEC and marveling at the fact that we naturally congregated, and not in that awkward “you’re the only other people I know here” way, but in genuine “you’re the people I want to hang out with” way. You, and a select few others, in particular, I now count among my closest friends, and I thank you for articulating that.

    Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, or lack thereof, in other realms, a sense of community is a divine gift. Thanks for this.

  5. Thanks, ad and Maggie.

    Yes, Maggie, I am repeatedly reminded of how lucky I am to work with the people I work with. It may be just dumb luck that we all ended up in the same place, but it may also be that many of us chose to be here because we have the same priorities. We recognize and value some of our particular challenges, and we also recognize that in many ways, we’ve got it really good. We walked in here and thought, “This is the place for me.”

    Here’s hoping that someday everyone gets to feel this way about their work and their workplace.

  6. Pingback: in which I become a Unitarian: part two « Classroom as Microcosm

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