Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"This may be a stupid question, but...."

In the past week or so I've heard three different people begin conversations with those words. I totally understand the reason for the disclaimer. As a matter of fact, I've prefaced my own questions with it more times than I care to remember.

My high school graduation was on a Friday night. The following Monday, I began my first job. I was officially a secretary for a couple of East Texas lawyers. That particular Monday fell on Memorial Day, so nobody was in the office except one attorney, the office manager, and me.

The attorney dictated more than a dozen letters, I remember, and I captured in precise Gregg shorthand every word he spoke. I didn't have to ask him even once to slow down or repeat anything. I began to relax, to think I might be able to do this grown-up job. At the end of the dictation session, the lawyer handed me two client files. "When Jo comes in tomorrow," he said, "ask her if these files are ready to discard."

The next day I met the rest of the staff, including Jo. Sometime around mid-morning I took the two files to Jo and said, "Mr. S. wanted me to ask you if these files are ready to discard."

Jo, flipping through the files, replied, "Yep, they sure are." She handed them back to me without further instructions.

All day long those files sat on the corner of my desk. It seemed odd to me that they'd just throw the files away. What if the clients came back and wanted to discuss their cases again? I didn't want to ask for specific instructions because I didn't want to appear stupid. I was an honor graduate, I reasoned, and "discard" was a simple word.

Before I went home that day I threw the two files in the trash. The cleaning lady came after the office closed and emptied all the wastebaskets. Mine was nice and empty the next morning.

On the afternoon of my third day there, another secretary took me on a little tour. She showed me the law library, the office supply cabinet, and a wall of file cabinets known as the "discard files," where they kept the files on every case they'd had since the firm began in 1927.

I might have been only 17, but I was a girl who took pride in being honest and forthright, in doing the right thing. It was an innocent mistake, and it crossed my mind that if I confessed right at that moment, there probably wouldn't be any severe consequences. Nevertheless, I. Kept. My. Mouth. Shut. Once that opportunity slipped away, the innocence was gone. I worked there for a little over a year (until I got married). I thought about it all the time, but I never figured out a smooth way to confess.

Fast forward about 20 years to a time when I lived in a different state and had a different job, this time in human resources. Every time we hired someone new, regardless of the job the person had been hired to do, I told the discard-file story at the end of the new-employee orientation. "I don't care how stupid you think your question might be," I'd say with a smile, "we want you to ask it."

Sometimes sounding stupid is the lesser evil.


  1. discard means discard. right?

  2. I'm one of those people who ask the stupid questions and I often get the rolled eyes in response. I guess there's no way to win this one, is there, Velvet. Stupid if you ask, stupid if you don't. Geez.

  3. Oh Velvet, Good story! I really feel for you. I'm just a little shocked it took them THREE days to show you around... Holly

  4. Oh Lord, I love that story. My first job was for Dad. I'll never forget the first day and when he walked in, I if not ran then rapidly walked to him and wrapped my arms around him and gave him a kiss. "Good morning, Dad."

    Ahem. He asked me to come to his office and explained to me that perhaps my daughterly gesture would be best for outside the office and a simple "hello Dad" would suffice. Man I suffered that lesson but so understand it now.

    Big grin.

  5. Does discard mean trash? teehee
    I love it. Maybe what was in the files needed to be forgotten!

    We can't throw away special ed files at school for so many years and when we destroy them we have to run an ad in the paper...? Discard right?
    Sis 3

  6. It's their fault for not explaining what "discard" meant in that office. I probably would have kept my mouth shut, too. I wonder if they ever looked for that particular file?

  7. When people look at me as though I've asked the dumbest question in the world, I say 'Ignorance can be cured, stupidity can't so just tell me the answer.' I'm not sure what I would have done at that age but you sure turned it into a positive experience for many people who came after you. Carmon

  8. How lucky to get a lesson like that so early in life! I've always been to proud to ask the stupid question, who knows what messes I've left behind.

  9. Great advice! This story s/b told to all new hires anywhere

    peace and blessings


  10. Velvet...great story, I'm going to have my daughters look at this one.

  11. There really is no such thing as a stupid question (unless it comes from your own children who want to know such things as "Can I put peanutbutter on the dog!") and you offer a wise lesson for those starting out in life. I am going to share with my about to graduate from high school teen-age son!


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