My degree is in Speech Communication, but don't let that fool you, I can also write. Take that last sentence, for example. I wrote that. And this one, too!
Still not convinced, try these lovely writing samples below.
By Chris Gummert
I smiled through the whole thing. A pleasant grin reassuring everyone that things were gonna be ok. A quiet calm. Resigned to my fate. So I smiled. Not for me. I wasn’t even there. It was like I was watching it on TV. Totally detached. Surreal.
I remember it so vividly, but not in the first person. The pale blue of the walls. The calendar and the comics taped to the mirror. The shades that never really worked. I remember thinking the office seemed suddenly roomy, almost spacious. On any other day I would have felt claustrophobic and been inching toward the door. But today it felt cavernous. Maybe because I was already miles away. But I kept on smiling.
I could see that this was really hard for the two of them. The forms and formality. The matter of fact nature of it all. One of them was visibly shaken by it. Almost crying. Her eyes were tearing up. I felt nothing.
So I faked it. I smiled. For them. I smiled to keep them at ease. To soothe them. To make my passing easier for them. In all of this I never once thought of myself, just them. I made their work easier as they made mine redundant. I didn’t give them permission to put the knife in me exactly, but I showed them where it goes and looked the other way while they stabbed. And I smiled the whole time.
When they told me that my job was being eliminated I said, “I know.”
I didn’t know. Not specifically. Nobody did. It was handled so poorly. There was an announcement at a hastily called company meeting 6 weeks earlier. I remember it not because I was there, but because of why I wasn’t. I was in the hospital with my wife Jen who had just given birth to our daughter Sophia. That night I was home e-mailing my friends the news when one of them mentioned the full company meeting.
From the highest high to the lowest low in less than 24 hours. We were told, “There will be a restructuring that will likely result in layoffs.”
How will we restructure?
How many layoffs will be necessary to remain solvent?
What criteria are being used to evaluate our positions?
When will we know?
No answers. Just smiles and polite reassurances followed by the endless hushed speculation of the people on the chopping block. The water cooler gossip inadvertently amplified by the need to keep it so quiet. Weeks and weeks of “we’re still working out the details,” and “we will know soon” was chased by several drop-dead dates that came and went. Each heightening the anxiety of the unknown.
Finally a date was set. On December 8th, 2008 we would finally have individual meetings to find out if we still had a job. Six weeks of ax sharpening was going to come to an end one way or another. Six weeks of over-analyzing every conversation with management. Six weeks of closed-door meetings, of constantly looking over your shoulder. Six weeks of telling yourself, “I’m gonna wait to see if I still have a job before I take on that project!” Six weeks of wondering if this was going to be the last time you ever did some mundane task you’d taken for granted for years. After six weeks of entertaining a hypothesis, we were finally going to know the facts.
I had joked about bringing Sophie with me to my meeting. Strapping her to my chest like a suicide bomber. My 6 pounds of adorable job security. At just the right moment I’d unzip my coat and brush it aside like a gunslinger to reveal Sophie.
“I’m sorry, Sophie,” I’d say. “Looks like a lifetime of sweeping chimneys for you! No it’s not fair, but your wiry frame makes you a perfect fit for it. No, no, no,” I’d reassure her with a tear in my eye, “almost no one dies of black-lung anymore.”
And then they would be overcome by the cruel, Dickensian nature of the situation that they would have no choice but to give me my old job back, and a raise…and a fat Christmas goose!
Six weeks and now I’m here smiling as I watch my job dissolve before me in a sea of paperwork and legal jargon.
My mind drifts back to the performance review we crammed in before I went on paternity leave. It went perfectly. My supervisor was positively GLOWING! No areas that needed improvement. NONE! My wife and friends were so proud but all I could think was, “it can only get worse from here.”
I smile at the vindication.
I smile at the irony.
I smile out of politeness.
I smile out of fear.
I smile out of pure shock.
I smile because I don’t know what else to do.
There is talk of severance. Cobra. Unemployment. 401(k). PTO. EAP. Counseling. I am given my final paycheck. I am handed a lengthy non-disparagement agreement that I will need to sign to receive my severance package.
“You have seven days to return it to us with your signature. Take your time. Look it over. You can consult a lawyer before signing this if you’d like.”
I thought, “I couldn’t afford a lawyer when I HAD a job!”
I don’t remember the meeting ending. I don’t remember leaving the room. There may have been handshakes. There might have been hugs. I wasn’t there.
I remember walking back into the break room where people were waiting their turn at bat. People sitting on their hands, staring at their feet. A lot of nervous laughter. Everyone wanting to know, but no one wanting to go in next. It was awkward. I felt like I’d been to the front and seen the carnage and now everyone was expecting news of the war. They wanted to ask the question but feared the answer.
I’d seen the future. There were no survivors.
I mistakenly made eye contact with someone. They looked at me with giant eyes and expectant eyebrows and started nodding inquisitively to ask, “Are you staying?” I just shook my head. Dashed their hopes in a single move. They ran over to me.
There may have been handshakes. There might have been hugs. I didn’t say a thing. I didn’t have words anymore.
Just a smile and a nod.
I walked to my locker to collect my things. Make space for whatever came next.
Tickets from a Cubs game.
A disposable razor.
A wiffle ball.
Some old candy.
Photos and History.
Proof I’d been there. Done something. Clearly not enough. Not enough to make me indispensable anyway. Not enough to keep me around for the “restructuring,” “reorganizing” or “streamlining.” I’d been spared those euphemisms. Instead I got “laid off” or “fired.” I’d “lost my job.” It had “been eliminated.” My “job title” was “dissolved.” I was slowly being erased and I couldn’t stop smiling.
I walked through the building one last time collecting my things and wrapping up loose ends. I looked at the open projects and unfinished business I was leaving behind. I talked to my immediate supervisor about where things were. I didn’t want to abandon the company that had just abandoned me. We joked about my perfect performance review. He apologized. He was not part of the decision-making process. I said, “I know. I’ll be fine.”
And I smiled.
He was really shaken by it.
There may have been handshakes.
“Stop by anytime,” he said. “You’re always welcome up here.”
There might have been hugs.
“Not welcome enough,” I thought.
And I walked out the door.
Now I really wasn’t there.