Breaking the Waves

I spent one blessedly-short summer in the retail industry, selling high-end clothing on commission in SoHo.  I hated it.  Having to constantly think about numbers, and using formulae for everything from accessories to jokes, was not my natural style.

Halfway through the summer I had lunch with a high-school friend and his mother who were in town.  Carole was unlike any other friend's mother I'd ever met: "young at heart" sounds cliche, but she really was dreamy in the way of an adolescent girl, constantly perched on the edge of some alternate reality.

We all sipped our juices. (Well, I barely touched mine; I'd watched the barista make it, with three apples and a huge hunk of fresh ginger, and it made my head want to explode.)  She asked me how work was going, and I told her truthfully that I didn't like the job.

"Humanity is so strange," she mused. "People come in . . . waves."

I thought this was probably over my head, philosophically speaking, so I didn't think much about it until my next shift.  Then I started to notice how right she was.  There were long, nearly unbearable periods of boredom, pacing the marble floors and obsessively spacing hangers and tucking in tags.  And suddenly, my hands were so full I wasn't even sure I was getting credit for every sale; I didn't have time to walk each client to the register, as I had to be in the dressing rooms assisting the next one.  This happened even at the oddest times: not just during the lunch rush, or on weekends, but smack in the middle of a weekday morning, when the crowd consisted of separate parties of one and two each.

I'm no sociologist, but you must have had the experience of getting in a short line only to see six people behind you a moment later (or, more unhappily, to be one of the six who simultaneously decide to bring their shopping to a close.)  I suppose, at heart, we are more group-oriented than we realize.

For a teacher, the Sheep Effect can be frustrating.  The first year I taught Creative Writing, the class was capped at 12 with a waiting list.  The second year, it reached 12, but several students dropped it in the first week; I finished the year with 8.  The third year, four signed up, and one dropped it halfway through.  This year, no one signed up at all.

If anything, I promoted the class more eagerly as I saw the numbers start to dwindle, but my efforts seemed to have an adverse effect.  My greatest fear happened this year: there was no class at all, no pool from which to choose work for the school's literary magazine.  I'm running it as an after-school club instead, and given the overextended schedules of our students, you can guess how successful that's been.

But the students' course selection forms are due this week, and suddenly the wave is cresting again: half a dozen have dropped by to ask me excitedly about the course, and as many teachers have remarked that they've been signing off left and right (it's an honors course, so requires the consent of their current English teacher.)  I can only hypothesize that since so few have taken it in recent years, the aura of mysterious enticement is back up.  Perhaps it will break in a year or two, and we'll be right back where we started.

Why do people work this way?  Jack Handey was right.  Mankind is a mystery.