I was in one of my fed up moods—sick of my job, my boss, my industry. For the past twenty years I worked in the garment center, so it wasn’t surprising. Committed to making an escape into something more enjoyable and not knowing quite how to do this, I decided to start by taking a small step. I enrolled in a twelve week course in Copyediting at NYU that promised to teach me a practical skill in a field that at least included writing. I hoped to master this technique and be able to score an entry level position in publishing that would provide my ticket out of my current hell.
The class met on Tuesday evenings. I found the classroom, already filled with eager students, and swiveled into one of the plastic chairs with the writing table attached, in the back of the small room. I hadn’t been in a classroom like this since college, about twenty five years ago, and noticed differences from those I remembered. A dry mark board replaced the blackboard, the chairs were small, cheap and uncomfortable, but I wondered if this was only because I no longer occupied the body of a twenty year old but was instead trapped in one that was forty-eight, complete with an arthritic hip and a knee problem.
The class was comprised primarily of men and women in their twenties. There was one overweight, gray-haired man who appeared to be my age, stuffed into the seat ahead of me. Ah, a peer at last.
Ms. Cahn was a woman who looked to be in her seventies. She alternated between two sets of eyeglasses, depending upon what she was attempting to read. I studied her, sizing her up, trying to figure out her story. It’s something I do, creating possible stories for people; it keeps me entertained. She was dressed conservatively in a pastel blue twin sweater set with sensible slacks and wore shoes designed for comfort. There was no wedding ring on her finger. I wondered if her husband had passed away and she lived alone now content with the old cat that had replaced him, taking freelance copy editing work and teaching as an adjunct professor to make ends meet.
We went around the room, each person stating their name and where they were employed. One by one, my classmates called out the names of various publishing houses: “I’m Amanda and I work at Knopf as a publishing assistant.” “My name is Jessica and I’m an editorial assistant at Scholastic,” “I’m Karen and I’m a research assistant at…” There were some reactions as people learned they worked for the same company, thereby helping to form a connection, binding them, so to speak, as some of the books they helped to produce.
When it was the older guy’s turn he said, “Well, my name is Robert and I’m a retired lawyer. I’m taking this class because my girlfriend said it would be a good thing for me to do.” It got a bit of a chuckle from the room, but I was wondering if by enrolling in this class, he was making some last ditch effort to salvage a relationship. Or was his girlfriend just encouraging him to get him out of the apartment so she could continue her rendezvous with the younger, hotter guy she met recently in Yoga. This is where my mind went.
Then it was my turn. “I’m Fran and I work for a children’s dress manufacturer.” This got a reaction from Ms. Cahn, mixing surprise and delight, a typical response from someone outside the industry. I decided that I would maximize on this interest in my vocation, even if it was misguided. I needed an edge if I was going to try and compete with these younger, energetic, upstarts.
By the third class, the retired lawyer was gone, causing me to wonder if perhaps his girlfriend left him after all, even after he agreed to attend. We were down to a group of about twenty: seventeen women and three men.
It was during the fifth class, when we began discussing “coding,” that I became lost and couldn’t figure out what the instructor was talking about. I waited as I often did when watching some cloak and dagger movie where I am clueless as to the plot but sit there waiting for the point at which it will “click” and all will become clear.
It was then that I realized that I seemed to be the only one who didn’t get it. I decided to wait until the break to ask Charlotte to explain it to me; she was a knowledgeable student who always got “Excellent” on her homework.
Towards the end of the semester, we welcomed two guest speakers from the industry: one gentleman from Design and another from Production. Both men alluded more than once, to the unrealistic timetable associated with the different phases of book production. How publishers were merging, cutting back on staff while pushing relentlessly to get more books out in shorter a shorter period of time. It sounded very much like the garment industry. This was an ongoing theme in the class I overheard in conversations between students. Low pay, grueling hours, pressure. I had somehow stumbled into the one industry that made the garment center sound like paradise.
But I’m not a quitter. I never walk out on movies no matter how bad, and I finish books that I start, no matter how boring. I continued to show up every week for two hours of endless rules about punctuation, grammar, spelling, whether or not to capitalize after semicolons, only to learn that I do not want to be a copyeditor. If I want to be tortured, I can stay where I am and at least get paid a decent salary for my efforts. Maybe everything new looks exciting from the outside. I guess I was judging this book by its cover. I hadn’t realized I had already read it.