Monday, November 10, 2014

Life Lessons

Life Lessons

The year was 1973. Bell-bottoms ruled, hair was long and our psychedelic mini-skirts tried valiantly to cover our butts. Glass ceilings were still firmly in place and cigarette smoking was ubiquitous. Nixon, a year away from resignation, was president and the Vietnam war had finally ended. The Beatles had gone their separate ways, “MASH” gave us a bittersweet peek into the Korean war and Marlon Brando, made us an offer we couldn't refuse in “The Godfather.” The race for space had concluded, with no clear winner, and we had a crisis of oil when OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo.

The seventies were my coming of age, learning about the world, years. I grew up on the south side of Indianapolis in a lower-middle-class white suburban community.  My mother, divorced from an abusive husband after twenty-three years of marriage, struggled to provide for her four children and didn’t have much energy to spare on nurturing.  At school I was the chubby, socially awkward, poorly dressed girl with few friends. Much of my childhood was spent with my nose buried in a book. I was out of high school before I had a first date and the other gender was a mystery to me. Although I had been married at twenty and divorced at twenty-one, I was still a very na├»ve twenty-three-year-old. My world, and my view of it, was very small.

In 1973 I stepped out into the larger world when I took a job as a bank teller at Indiana National Bank.  It was here that I had my first impression-making encounters with different races, ethnicities and social classes. It was when I became aware of the bias women faced in the workplace.  It was a time of change for me personally, and the world.  Like most gradual changes, I was not aware of them happening because I was in the midst of them.  It wasn't until I peered into the clarifying telescope of time that I realized many of the keynotes in my life lessons came during this period. They became some of the building blocks of my life philosophy.  

One of my first postings was at a bank branch in near downtown Indianapolis.  It was an old mausoleum style building located at 20th and Meridian, which was a waning part of the city.   Just blocks away from its front door were dive bars, prostitutes, and large populations of the urban poor. Being so close to downtown, it also served wealthy businessmen, foreign travelers and local business owners. My co-workers were just as diverse.  

I had never even met a black person before so this smorgasbord of humanity was a revelation for me.  I had the rare opportunity of being allowed to form my opinions of other ethnicities and standards of living that were not based on stereotypical ideas passed down to me from my own culture.  My brain was a dry sponge prepared to absorb the lessons being offered.

One morning a good friend and I were talking about our weekends.  She started tell me about how she and some friends had been out on Saturday night and wanted to go to a particular downtown nightclub. They had not been allowed to go in because of their skin color.  They had been turned away.  For me, a white girl from the south side, the idea that anyone wouldn’t be allowed to enter anywhere they chose was unimaginable. The wrongness of this had a profound impact on my understanding of prejudice. It opened my eyes in a way that reading something in a book never could.  

I also saw first hand the workings of the welfare system, as each month the welfare mothers queued up to cash their Aid to Dependant Children checks.  Many in true need; others working the system by having child after child.  I watched as young mothers, while standing at my teller window, explained to their very young pregnant daughters how to cash their own A.D.C. check.  Each new child brought into the world for it’s monetary value. It was a raw and revealing look into the nature of human beings.

 When I first started working at the bank there was a dress code for women.  We were only allowed to wear dresses or skirts. Over the years the rules relaxed enough that matching pants suits were permitted. That seemed like such a huge victory.  I didn't realize it at the time but the real victory that was happening was the advancement of women in the corporate world. In all industries, but especially banking, women were starting to put their high heel shoes on the first rungs of the corporate ladder. I got the first inkling that there might be a place for me in that world. I realized I could set goals and it was okay for me to have ambition. I learned a lot about self worth and the importance of a strong work ethic. All things I had never really considered for myself before.

In 1973 bank tellers processed transactions on a huge mechanical NCR teller machine.  They validated and stamped each document and accumulated running totals for day-end reconciliation.  The documents were sorted by hand and sent along their processing journey. In about 1980 the bank was making its first big steps into computerizing banking transactions.  I was chosen to join the team that tested the new system and then taught the other staff how to use it. Again, I did not realize the opportunity I had been given.  It was the computerization of the corporate world in its infancy and I was lucky enough to be there in the beginning.  The basic knowledge of computers and the skills I learned while I worked with the team were invaluable to me for the rest of my life.

I have had interesting jobs, met many unique people, and learned many new things in my life, but I always find myself going back to the basic truths I learned in those years at the bank.  Try to treat others fairly and don't judge because all people deserve respect, even if you don't happen to agree with them. Work hard and do the best you can with what you have and most importantly, never stop learning.  No experience in life is ever wasted. There is something new to be learned in each one. Sometimes you just need to look really hard at it.

Diana, for the Poplar Grove Muse


  1. I love this so much, Diana. My dad, an early computer guy, worked in bank data processing and this whole world feels so familiar to me, even though I wasn't old enough to work in it yet. (That would wait until the summer of 1976, when I worked nights in a data processing center in Pontiac, MI with a bunch of drug addicts who were just waiting to get a spot in the auto factories.) You depict so fully the simultaneous opening up of your personal world and the working world. Thank you for this historic glimpse into our recent past. MKP

  2. I loved this journey you took us on. And it reminded me that when we are immersed in life we accept things as "that's just how things are" until we gradually open our eyes and question. Thanks for this beautiful piece. RRS