Where have you been?

At my last job, I went down to shoot the breeze with a colleague at work. We had some work things to talk about, but mostly I just wanted a break and a chance to vent. He happened to be African American, and had expressed his dislike of Africa. I was giving him a hard time about it, going on about how Africa is a continent not a country and many parts of it are magnificent. We had been talking for more than a half hour, when the person in the cube next to us joined it.

She had been listening to us for the whole time. We were ignorantly tossing around opinions about Africa. It turns out she had been to African frequently, her husband was from Ghana. She actually had first hand knowledge to share. But she couldn’t join in our conversation until her official break. She had a headset, and was part of the call center.

Me and my friend, in the council of ignorance, didn’t have that kind of restriction. We didn’t have timed breaks, or a computer keeping track of our productivity.

This woman did. She shared her experience with us and I learned more about modern Ghana. I also learned more about what kind of privilege I’d been enjoying so effortlessly in my career.

I’ve never had to do that kind of job. I would have a lot of trouble in that kind of tight control where I couldn’t make my own decisions about when to move around.

I remember my dad telling me is about Henry Ford and how he came up with the assembly line, and what a champion of the worker he was. “He paid his workers enough so that they could afford to buy one of the cars they were manufacturing.” The implication was that he wanted the cars to be for the common man, and he wanted the common man to do well.

Such a very American idea. America was founded on equality, all men (whoops…not women quite yet!) are created equal. If we are all equal we are all the same. Except we are not all exactly the same.

Women are only the most obvious example of those excluded. We are equal with lots of differences. And the work we do is part of the differences.

It wasn’t until I started reading David Halberstam’s The Reckoning a few years ago that I learned another part of the story. The highly paid Ford assembly line workers? They were miserable. He hired the best mechanics to turn widgets like machines all day. Very little skill was required and none of the genius that had turned them into the best mechanics so desired by Ford. The inhuman work conditions required high pay to keep people from leaving. And even so these engineering types would still leave, to have an opportunity to use the skills they had worked to achieve.

All this flashes through my mind as I talk to this woman at work about Ghana. She spent her 10-minute break talking to us, headset around her neck. Not getting coffee or visiting the bathroom as I was free to do at any moment of the day.

I think of all the choices I have, and the choices I didn’t have. The risks I took, and paths I didn’t take. The schools I went to and the ones I didn’t.

My daughter is in school now. We planned for her school since before she was born. My husband went to this same public school. It’s so different from the one I went to.

Mercedes, BMWs and Teslas drive through the unloading areas. Other cars too. But the affluence is intimidating. There is a friendly man who holds the stop sign in the crosswalk to keep the kids safe. Sometimes he is in cargo shorts and flip flops, sometimes in a suit. Turns out he is Executive Vice President for a national enterprise of something. Other moms and dads of similar employment volunteer at the school in a flood of community involvement.

I don’t think they have timed breaks on their jobs. Then again, I wonder how many have been to Ghana. I hear it’s beautiful.