Monday, February 4, 2013

The Day Iron Man Packed It In

From ABC News ("Postal Worker Retires After 44 Years Without Sick Day," January 29, 2013):
On Jan. 31, Deborah Ford will retire from the U.S. Postal Service after 44 years without using any of her sick days.

Though her colleagues and the local media, including the Detroit Free Press, applaud her level of commitment, Ford, 64, doesn’t see what the big deal is.

Born and raised in Detroit, Ford will be retiring from her job in payroll and timekeeping management for the city’s main post office.

“I was trying to do the best I could, and that just evolved into working all my scheduled days,” Ford said.

Ford said when she was sick, she would simply “shake it off.” For appointments, say, with the doctor, she would use vacation days. [...]

“It’s just part of our work ethic,” she said.

This lady sounds rather like my least favorite person in the workplace: that coworker who insists on coming in even though they've caught the common cold, actually pats themselves on the back for their fight-through-the-pain work ethic, then gets everyone else sick and consequently disrupts overall company productivity far more than they would have had they simply excused themselves from work for a few sick days. Well, maybe not. From the article, it does sound like her colleagues appreciated her. Maybe she worked a job that didn't require her to be in close contact with other employees, or to handle items that would then be handled by others. Or maybe she just took excellent care of herself.

I'll admit, as much as I do not appreciate coworkers getting me sick, I myself, as a younger man, used to take some amount of pride in my own attendance record. Not to brag–I mean, I wasn't perfect–but I did use to receive annual commendations for superior attendance. These public accolades would so stoke my ego that I would even occasionally try to work through concealed illnesses in order to maintain my record. No, I wasn't exactly singled out for these awards, but, well, let's just say not everybody got one. Yeah . . . . Impressed yet? Ahem, anyway, that was nothing compared to a colleague of mine, who was singled out every year for his attendance record.

I was considered to have good attendance basically because I never took personal days. Like most people, I might take a sick day or two per year for legitimate illness. But this buddy of mine, John, actually did achieve perfect attendance–no sick days, no personal days, no vacation days, and never tardy. And he didn't just do this one year; he did it year after year for six years in a row.

That first year, I had not yet met him, but when I watched him receive his special certificate at the annual awards ceremony, I made a note of the name. I thought I was tough, but to not miss a single day? Hardcore. I set a target on his back. Clearly, there was still room for me to step up my game, and next year, I resolved, that award would be mine.

Alas, even fighting as hard as I could to work through my yearly cold, I was ultimately unable to make it through the year without my body breaking down on me at least once. Neither was anybody else, except for John. Once again, John stood alone, and, this time, I truly respected the accomplishment and admired the man. To do it once was more than I could handle. John, meanwhile, did it twice, and in consecutive years, no less! He was the better man; I could not deny it. I humbly joined his cheering section, as his streak grew exponentially more impressive with each successive year, to the point of legendary.

Then came the sixth grade.

From kindergarten through the fifth grade, "Iron Man" John's attendance had been impeccable, immaculate. Then, one day—an unremarkable day, like any other, except for one vital difference—class began, the teacher went through the roll sheet, and, when it came to John (coincidentally, because of his last name, John was always last on the roll in every class), rather than his reliable response of "Here" or "Present," there was nothing. In fact, John, normally seated at the same table as me, was not present. The vacuum did not go unnoticed. Fearful, uncomprehending whispers spread across the room—"Tardy? John? No way!"—and even the teacher appeared at a loss. For "Iron Man" John, whose very identity (as far as I was concerned) resided in his perfect attendance, to be late to class, it must have been something serious. Like, maybe his ride was involved in a collision? Or he was struck by a car while walking/biking to school? Or . . . well, whatever the reason, it had to have been something serious. But what could any of us do, except wait for him to arrive? Wait and pray.

John never showed up to class that day. Or the next day. He did show up the day after that, and he provided a shockingly banal explanation for his absence: he had been sick. It hadn't even been a serious, life-threatening illness. As I recall, it was just a cold, or, at worst, the flu.

He also missed several more days over the course of the rest of the school year. In fact, it seemed to me that he was absent more often than any other student in the class. He had gone from a perfect attendance record to possibly setting a record for spottiest attendance. It was like he was making up for lost time. Or . . . making up for . . . time that wasn't lost but should have been? And what bugged me most about it was that, after that first day, nobody really seemed to care. "Iron Man" was no more; he had packed it in, given up the ghost, let go of the rope, and, when the moment had come, it had come with less than a whimper. When the annual awards ceremony came around, I thought maybe he would get a "Special Achievement" award, maybe be invited to give a few words as a capstone to his magnificent run. But nobody mentioned it, and he hadn't merited the regular good attendance award for that year, so he ended up just a spectator. His story didn't even make the classroom newspaper.

I remember thinking, at the time, that it seemed to matter more to me than to John, and maybe that had always been the case. In the end, I can't speak for John. I have no idea what was going through his head at any point during or after the streak. Speaking for myself, I'm long past being impressed by any "office Cal Ripkens." We're given sick days for a reason. Use 'em, or else, if you come in and get me sick, I will send you to the hospital the hard way!

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