With Harvard in the news this week, I’m reminded of my brief stint on the office staff of the college. I set out as a pioneer in 1955 to make my mark as a writer with my newly-minted Smith College English Literature degree. The train from Maine brought me to Boston where, after pounding the city pavements, I landed a job in Cambridge as an assistant secretary at Harvard College. Not quite where I wanted to be, but Harvard after all! I’d be starting at the bottom, but I was on my way.
To what? As an English major I knew how to spell. As a ninth-grade graduate of Typing 1, I knew how to return the typewriter carriage at the end of the line, install a new ribbon when the type faded, and paint over my errors with the little wite-out brush.
My supervisor, Miss Mabel Herning, had a nose so small I feared her glasses would slide off the end of it. Pointing to a sleek black armchair embossed with a gold Harvard seal she said, “You see that chair? If you’re here twenty-five years you’ll get one of these, so it’s something to look forward to.”
Having started me off with a goal, she handed me an eight-line letter to type on my manual typewriter along with several sheets of 5×8 letterhead stationery along with carbon paper. (Copiers had not yet been invented.) I realized that producing four carbon copies would require more accuracy than I had achieved in Typing 1.
To fit between the five pieces of 5×8 letterhead stationery, I had to cut two pieces of carbon paper in half. Then I alternated the carbon paper with the letterhead and rolled the seven sheets of paper into the typewriter.
I made my first typo on the first line. With no way to correct the four carbon copies, I tossed the seven sheets of paper into the wastebasket and began again. Soon my wastebasket overflowed with papers, so I emptied the mess into my desk drawers to keep Miss Herning from noticing,
“Where is the stationery,” I asked Miss Herning when I ran out of letterhead and carbon paper before lunch. She pointed to the supply closet.
I finished the eight-line letter at four p.m., typed five envelopes, and returned the completed assignment to Miss Herning.
She smiled. “Thank you.” She didn’t ask me to do anything else.
Well, I didn’t get fired. But I never got my Harvard chair either. Two years later I got my Mrs. degree and left Harvard forever.