musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

just call me Nancy Drew

I started my first full-time job back in the 'olden days', before computers and internet, even before fax machines (yes, I am that old!). As receptionist in the Academic Department at the Toronto Board of Education, my job was fielding phone calls and greeting visitors. I answered questions about schools, enrolment, summer programs, teaching positions, and anything else the public wanted to know. Every once in a while, I'd be asked to descend into the catacombs – a dusty, poorly lit basement file room – where the academic records of long ago students were stored in rank upon rank of tall, green file cabinets. Some of my co-workers hated 'the tombs' but not me. I relished those assignments. Give me a name, address, and approximate date and I was off to solve a mystery. 

My quest usually began with a phone call from a worried citizen, let's call him Mr. B. He'd tell a story of arriving in Toronto by boat as a young boy, "I think it was nineteen-aught-five or aught-six." He might remember the name of the school or his first teacher, but not much else. "We lived on Scollard Street, I think, and I went as far as third grade." 

More than sixty years later, Mr. B was calling to ask for my help getting his government old age security pension. He had no birth certificate – many people didn't in those days – and no way to prove he was sixty-five unless those precious school records could be found. While Mr. B shared everything he could remember about life as an immigrant schoolboy, I would sit with the phone tucked between ear and shoulder, locating his street on a map and cross-referencing with a master list of schools in turn of the century Toronto. Gently interrupting his reminiscences, I'd ask if Jesse Ketchum Public School on Davenport Road sounded familiar. 

"Yes, that’s it! Oh, bless you, my dear, bless you." (Mr. B and other callers like him were always immensely grateful for every scrap of information we could find. I was well and often blessed in that job.)

Jesse Ketchum Public School, Toronto, photo circa 1900
from Toronto Public Library archives (public domain)

Armed with Mr. B's name and his best guess at the years he attended Jesse Ketchum School, I'd be off to the catacombs. It sometimes took minutes, sometimes hours of searching through tightly packed files, but I'm happy to say I never gave up and never failed to locate a former student's records.

Not all my accomplishments at the Board were worthy of such satisfaction, however. One debacle in particular haunts me to this day.

In addition to being the Board's information brokers, the Academic Department provided clerical support to area Superintendents and Inspectors. Each one had his or her own secretary, but I was the back-up person, taking dictation and typing letters when the secretary was away. One afternoon, Superintendent M called me into his office to prepare a letter for distribution to all elementary schools in his district. It was brief and to the point. Too many mistakes were being made by staff in the school offices. This reflected badly on the school, the principal, and (most importantly), on Mr. M. He signed off with a stern directive for immediate improvements and stressed the importance of accuracy in all correspondence with the public.

I returned to my desk with nerves a-jangle, feeling sure I'd forgotten all my Pitman shorthand and certain my transcription would be clumsy. But I typed the letter, careful to avoid errors and erasures (no auto-correct in those days, kiddies), and it looked good! After reading through twice to be sure it was absolutely perfect, I presented it to Mr. M for signature. Inter-office mail delivered copies to the principals of fifteen schools the next morning.

And then the phone calls started.

I don't think I'd ever heard the usually soft-spoken Superintendent M bellow until that day, but bellow he did. And it was my name he was bellowing.

“MISS COOKE! In my office. NOW!”

I went.

He handed me a copy of the letter. “Read.”

I read, and was puzzled.

He pointed to the last line of text on the page.

Where Mr. M had intended to stress the importance of accuracy, I had typed, "the importance of accruacy".

Catastrophe. Floor, open up and swallow me now!

Fortunately, most of the fifteen principals thought Mr. M had devised a diabolically witty test of their powers of observation. They had been calling, not to criticize, but to congratulate him for sending a message that would not soon be forgotten. I was sent back to my desk with a wink and a nod (where I resisted the temptation to remind him that he had read and signed the thing, after all.)

I have never again mistyped the word accuracy.

What's your most memorable at-work mistake or laughable typo?

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At 8:45 am, Blogger Kathye Quick said...

Lordy, I have so many that I can't cite just one. I am truly the typo queen of the universe even with spell-check and auto-correct.

Thanks for the morning smile! (as I already corrected 5 words in this post - LOL)

At 10:30 am, Blogger Sheila Seabrook said...

Ha ha, Cheryl, that's too funny! I've managed to delete all of my embarrassing accounting errors from my memory. Stupid things I've done...well, that's a totally different story!

BTW, I loved your tale about Mr. B. What a rewarding job!

At 6:53 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

LOL - your comment made me smile, too, Kathye! Thanks for stopping by.

At 6:56 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks, Sheila. I did love that job, even though all the dusty files would set off my allergies! As for work errors, I shudder to imagine the kinds of problems I might have caused if I'd been allowed to do any accounting! The mind boggles.

At 8:23 pm, Anonymous Anne Y Norman said...

Love this story, Cheryl! You have always been an inspiration and I see now that it started long before I met you - as we know that was several hundred years ago!

At 2:22 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

What a great story Cheryl. I know I have made many mistakes (I too started before the age of computers!) but the one that sticks in my mind is not my own. Back when I was a newspaper reporter in the 1970's, someone in the classifieds made a disastrous mistake (unless they did it on purpose) and a lovely couple were said to announce the "birth of their sin"! I saw the ad so I know it really happened. Spell check would not have caught that one.

At 7:14 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Oh, Susan, that's so funny! Definitely an announcement to carry in your wallet for posterity! (Or maybe not.) ;-)

Thanks for reading and may all your typos be caught!


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