THEY CAME BACK TO ME TODAY, the words of the Dutch janitor, the one who was always there before everyone else, the one who always had the tea water ready in advance of 10 o’clock, the hour we were required to stop what we were doing and come for tea, to take a morning break. Together. Everyone in the office. No excuses.
Each of us, at different times, groused about it – in the very nicest way, of course – that we had to stop midmorning, mid-project, mid-flow and sit to tea. Waste of time. Why couldn’t we grab a cup and take it back to our offices, keep working?
BUT our boss esteemed the practice and enforced it.
“You just never know what you might learn,” he’d say.
We never had formal staff meetings, but tea at 10 was mandatory.
“It’s ten o’clock. Come!” he’d call out, passing through the hallway.
Occasionally someone was bold enough to question it. But he’d smile and give the same speech he always gave. “We all get working on our own things and lose touch. But sometimes what one person is doing or thinking helps another….and so you see, you just never know what you might learn. You can’t put a value on that and you can’t plan for it to happen. You just need to keep showing up.”
All well and good. But we younger ones on staff were multitaskers, to-do list keepers, worshippers of efficiency. We valued measurable productivity above the intangible, immeasurable “maybe” benefits of tea and 10 minutes of chit-chat.
* * *
THE TIN was brought to the table and passed around, the tin kept in the freezer, the one with the remains of cookies or cake from birthdays past or leftovers from a goodie brought in by one of us.
It was engrained. Even on days the boss was absent the rest of us kept the date, gathered around the table in the room just off the kitchen, just in case he stopped in to check on us. That’s how important it was to him. And we knew it.
Oh my, I started out to write about the janitor’s words, but got caught up in this memory. Tsk, tsk.
I RAN OUT of GAS on the way to work one day. Just a mile away, but it took over an hour to get rolling again. I arrived late, flustered and eager to tackle the pile on my desk, but I no sooner put my things down than I was called to tea.
Rattled, I went quickly to the kitchen to fix my cup.
“What’s the matter?” the Dutch janitor asked.
“FRUSTRATED because of the gas thing. It’s put me behind.”
He understood, nodded.
“FEELING STUPID. Such a waste of time,” I muttered.
He reached for the tin, to carry into the room where we sat.
“But did you learn anything, Marilyn?”
He had this thick Dutch accent. I can still hear his long drawn-out ‘learn’ as in “Did you l-u-r-n anything?”
A moment to reflect. Stop, breathe, think.
“Yes,” I said and I told him what it was.
“Well,” he said. “If you learned something, then it wasn’t a waste of time.”
And it’s funny how some sound bites stick in your head. Those words. In exactly his voice. So many times I’ve heard them.