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 (find the first part here), discover how wife and mother Diana Bailey Harris digs deep to find the chutzpah she needs to succeed.
I chose “inventory control clerk,” because I thought it offered a better chance to learn the business, to “figure out what’s going on.” I scheduled customer orders and generated shipping documents. One day, when my immediate supervisor took his pregnant wife to an appointment with her doctor, I filled in for him at the weekly production control meeting and began learning about manufacturing capacity constraints.
Mert and I wrote each other every day and talked on the phone every week; even so, the aching lonely nights seemed interminable. The short Thanksgiving holiday was an emotional roller coaster: up with happy hugs, down with sloppy sobs. Christmas vacation was like a long, slow water slide into a pool of tears.
There was a re-org at work early in the New Year. My additional responsibilities included regular attendance at the weekly production control meetings and regular meetings with the Division General Manager and market segment sales managers to review product allocation.
Chutzpah kicked in again: I asked my new supervisor for a raise. And I got it! But the raise didn’t seem quite big enough, given the increase my job scope. So I went over his head to pursue the issue with his manager.
A couple of weeks later, the Division General Manager who shuttled back and forth between the San Jose plant and corporate headquarters in southern California, summoned me to his office – ostensibly to discuss the current forecast. I started to explain differences from the prior month but he interrupted, changing the subject.
“Last night,” he confided, “I asked my personnel manager to look in his big book for a good title for a ‘pushy broad’.”
Me? A pushy broad? That was a long way from the mousy little English major I used to be.
“So,” he asked, “how does marketing planner sound to you?”
I loved the title – and the 35% raise.
* * *
Mert was so lonely that he took Miriam and Ben back to New York after spring break. John, our middle child, got to be an only child for a while. Mert and I worried: “Are we scarring them for life?” But this wrenching disruption was the only way we knew to end up where we needed to live.
Mert, Miriam and Ben came home for the summer, a temporary reprieve. Our warm amorous nights were too short and too few; our goal not yet won. Much more disconcerting, I observed that my company was selling one product for less than it cost to produce. Demand dropped for a product that we could manufacture in abundance and there wasn’t enough capacity for the product in highest demand. Even I could tell that this meant trouble, so I studied Mercury want ads again. The big semi-conductor company that had so profoundly rejected me ten months earlier ran an ad for a marketing product administrator in July.
“Listen to this.” I read the job description aloud to Mert. “I know how to do this! It’s essentially what I’m doing now.”
I revised my résumé with my new, pertinent experience, mailed it in, and called up to schedule an interview. This time, I secured an appointment with the personnel manager. It was still a high technology company and I was still an English literature major with a master’s in Elementary Education, but because of those few months of directly relevant experience now on my résumé, she – yes, this personnel manager was a woman – sent me to talk to the hiring manager. After I answered – and asked – many questions, he looked me in the eye and asked one more question: “You’re just what we’re looking for. Why do you want to leave where you’re at?”
Less than a year before, when I heard that chilling, “We don’t need anybody like you,” I felt like a deflating balloon, shriveling in my chair. With the context completely reversed, I felt like I was levitating as I answered his final question.
The division manager who recently promoted me groaned when I reported that I’d been offered a better job. “In good conscience,” he admitted, “I can’t make you a counter-offer. If we’re still here in six months, please come back and talk to me.”
Six months later, several of my former colleagues called me, to ask if there were any openings for them at my new company.
My new salary was pretty close to what Mert earned and we were confident that we were strong enough for one more year of this crazy arrangement. So Mert, Miriam and Ben headed back to upstate New York in September 1975. Nights were as long and excruciating and holidays as bittersweet as the year before.
When I got a good performance review and a raise in the summer of 1976, we knew that we could stay in California and bought a house of our own. Our reward came just in time: Mert’s muscular dystrophy had progressed to the point that he could no longer safely get around campus in winter snow and ice. He had to retire on disability.
Chutzpah and sheer tenacity paid off – big time. I’d been hired – twice. I’d been called a “pushy broad” – only half in jest. I’d earned raises and a promotion. Our family was reunited; I was the breadwinner and Mert the house-husband.
Many of my new women friends encountered problems at home as they, too, earned raises and promotions. Their significant others felt threatened and demeaned because these women were more successful than they. I was lucky: Mert liked to describe my accomplishments and then say, “Isn’t she wonderful? I’m her manager, you know.”
I knew. In a very important way, Mert helped me discover my true self, the self who knew how to learn. Knowing how to learn, how to analyze, synthesize and communicate – as I soon came to appreciate – is the fundamental value of a liberal arts education. Combine that skill with a little audacity and nerve and a person can exceed her – or his – wildest expectations.
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.