by Diana Bailey Harris
It’s 1974 and a woman desperately needs to find a job to keep her family together. An MA in Elementary Education and little practical work experience don’t get her far in the competitive world of San Jose, CA. In this two-part memoir, discover how wife and mother Diana Bailey Harris digs deep to find the chutzpah she needs to succeed.
“This is like when Tiger died!” Ben howled. Tears coursed down his sad little red face and I had to restrain my five-year-old from running after the car as his daddy drove away. Eight-year-old Miriam and six-year-old John cried, too. Tiger was our beautiful tortoise-shell cat who always seemed to enjoy being draped around Ben’s neck like a fox fur. Tiger’s death several months before was the first tragedy they’d experienced. Now in tears myself, I tried to comfort them. “We’ll miss Daddy very much, but he’s coming back. We’ll see him again in a few months. We’ll send letters. And we’ll talk to him on the phone.”
We were living in San Jose, California, the summer of 1974 and my husband, Mert, was returning to his position as assistant professor of English at a state college in upstate New York. After a three-year leave of absence to teach at Humboldt State in Arcata, CA, he had to go back to the New York in order to retain tenure. As a family, we needed his professor’s salary until I could find a job that would support us in the warmer climate of California.
See, Mert was diagnosed with FSHD (facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy) when he was a high school senior. FSHD is a hereditary disease that causes the muscles of the face, arms, chest and legs to waste away as one grows older. By 1974 Mert could no longer run or jump, and his feet drooped as he walked slowly and carefully. We needed to live in a more temperate climate, one without New York’s treacherous icy sidewalks. We needed to live in California and I needed a job to make that happen.
* * *
I’d had a couple of entry-level clerical jobs before Miriam was born in Berkeley in 1966. With a BA in English Literature, I wasn’t qualified for anything else. I’d checked out several books for new mothers from the library. A La Leche League book about nursing your infant was helpful, but I was demoralized by another book titled So,You Want to Go Back to Work. It was geared toward women who’d interrupted careers to have one or more children and later wanted to resume their professional lives. “How can I ever go back to work?” I’d asked Mert, “I’ve never really been at work.”
When Ben was an infant, Mert encouraged me to get an MS in Elementary Education. “You should have something to fall back on,” he said, “in case I get hit by a truck.”
After getting my degree, I’d worked as a substitute teacher. As the truck was now bearing down on us in 1974, neither my teaching credential nor my relevant experience made any difference. The Santa Clara County school district was closing elementary schools, not hiring teachers. I lamented, searching San Jose Mercury want ads for clerical openings, “I’m right back where I started ten years ago. As far as job qualifications go, nothing’s changed!”
“You need a little chutzpah,” Mert assured me. “You’ve got to assert yourself. You can’t just go in and leave your résumé and application with the receptionist at the front desk. You have to speak to somebody face-to-face.”
Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that can mean “unmitigated effrontery or impudence.” Mert’s advice was the alternate definition: “audacity; nerve” – a daunting challenge for the woman who’d been called a “mousy little English major.” But we needed to stay in California and it all depended on me.
The interviewing pattern became familiar and worse than tedious. Each time I talked my way into the office of a personnel administrator, he – they were usually men – skimmed through my résumé, then said, “Well, you have a great education, but not much experience. You’d be bored with the job you’re qualified for, but you’re not qualified for the job you’d find interesting.”
What a catch-22!
Mert tried to re-assure me. “You can do anything you set your mind to. Believe me, babe, you just need a chance to get in there and figure out what’s going on.”
“But how can I ‘get in there’ when they won’t even give me one of the ‘boring’ jobs?”
“Something will turn up one of these days,” he promised, “Just keep trying.”
* * *
I was still unemployed at the end of August, so Mert returned to his New York teaching position. We decided that I’d stay in San Jose with the kids and keep looking for work. If I didn’t find a job by Thanksgiving, we agreed that we’d give up, pack up and move back to New York. His departure was devastating to all of us.
Spurred by the anguish of separation, I got the directory of corporations from the Santa Clara County Chamber of Commerce and ratcheted up the chutzpah by cold-calling companies that hadn’t even advertised openings. The personnel clerk at a leading semi-conductor manufacturer read my résumé, looked me in
the eye and said in a low, cold voice, “We’re a high technology company. We don’t need anybody like you.”
I continued to apply for jobs advertised in the Mercury. In late September, the personnel guy at a company that manufactured magnetic disk packs sent me over to talk to the customer service manager who had two openings to fill: “department secretary” and “inventory control clerk.” I listened carefully as he described both jobs. I asked questions by re-phrasing his explanations to make sure I understood him correctly. At the end of the interview, this man looked at me and grinned. Extending both hands across the desk, palms up, he said, “Take your pick. Which of the two jobs would you prefer?”
Stay tuned for Part II to discover which job Diana accepted and how that choice set her on a career path that she embraced with chutzpah.
After 24 years as a misfit at Intel – think English Literature major meets hi-tech – Diana Harris explores true stories. Widowed in 1997, she retired in 1999. Since then, she has learned a little Italian, married Gary Piercy, traveled extensively, joined two arts boards, and launched her new career as a writer. She published Reflections of a Civil War Locomotive Engineer: a ghost-written memoir in July 2011 and is presently working on a sequel of sorts, Tenacity is My Middle Name: Adventures of a First-born Daughter. Her website is Ordinary Lives Illuminate History.