Never do the Minimum

I woke up with this story in my head. I had to write it down.

I started work in an old school in the office as an assistant. My first day there, they took me on a tour showing me all the people, places, and history. Several veteran teachers teachers stood out. In the main office, I was shown my desk and given a pile of tasks. I noticed a stack of dusty papers on the counter with envelopes next to them. They were the old purple mimeograph type copies. I asked the office lead what those are for. She just harrumphed at me and walked away. One of the others in the office pulled me aside, said the lead had printed them years ago, placed them there, and no one should touch them.

I continued my task and learned my role very well. I quickly became very efficient getting things done often before lunch. My coworkers praised my work, indicating the person I replaced had been a grump who complained all the time and often stayed late to accomplish the same tasks. I thanked them and said, I was only doing what was needed. The lead overheard some of those and harrumphed everytime.

I continued to watch the office lead. She came in promptly on time each day. She would walk to the table with the dusty letters, harrumph. Then go make coffee, take a sip and labor through her morning rituals. She did not seem happy, but did everything on her task list remarkably well. She seemed drawn out and tired, but managed to get everything done properly. I smiled and tried talking with her, but was always met with a scowl and few words.

I talked with the office worker who had pulled me aside before and asked what was the story for the lead. She said that she did not know what happened. Legend was that she use to be super nice. Everyone loved her. She was planning for her retirement. One morning she was sitting at her desk with a smile on her face greeting everyone. Everyone came in, greeted her, and went on with their day. After a while sitting there, she got up, make a pot of coffee, took a sip, then did here routine. This repeated every day with her smile getting less and less each day. Everyone assumed that some tragedy had struck. People tried to ask what was going on, but she would not answer. She would vaguely wave at the papers. It quickly became agreed that no one would touch them.

Since that time, years have passed. Many people have come and gone. But the lead has stubbornly refused retiring despite having passed full retirement more than a decade ago. I spent the day carefully noting everything the lead did. I hatched a plan. This person who had tirelessly served the school for many years and had some untold tragedy would have the perfect day coming up. I talked with several people to lay the ground work.

The next day, my accomplices and I arrived early. We worked diligently to handle everything. Mail was sorted, announcements correlated and delivered, student attendance logs correlated, notes prepped for parents, substitute teachers requested. All her normal duties were done. With just a little time left before the leads arrival, I tackled the 2 big challenges no one else dared to do. I dusted off the stack, neatly folded each letter, stuffed them into the envelopes. I was not bold enough to read them. Then placed the finished stack neatly on her desk. I made a fresh pot of coffee, placed a cup on her desk, and had just managed to get to my desk when she arrived.

I heard the door open and her shuffle to the counter. She stood there looking at the counter for a good 5 minutes. She then went to her desk to see the fresh coffee. After taking a small sip, she then went to do her routine. After going through her list, and realizing everything was done. She sat down at her desk and began crying. I was beginning to think I had done the wrong thing with everyone in the office staring at me.

Finally, she got up, picked up the stack of letters, and pulled a folder out of her desk. After staring at me for a minute, she entered the principals office and shut the door. 5 Minutes later, I heard laughter in the office and she came out. She had such a large smile on her face that I instantly knew that her old self of legend was back. She slowly went around the school handing out the envelopes to many of the teachers and staff. When she was done, she came up to me and asked that we speak privately.

She said thank you for doing what was done today. She knew it was me because of the way everyone stared at me. She had printed the letters years ago. It was her way to find a replacement. She figured that whoever took the initiative to process them without asking would be a good replacement. She would sit and wait for the volunteer. Then be able to retire, knowing the office was in good hands. The first day she thought maybe it wasn’t noticed. Then as the days grew on, her optimism began to fade. She had finally resigned herself after a few years that the school could not run without her. Each new office hire had failed due to being warned off about touching the stack.

She said my dealing with the stack exceeded her expectations. Despite being warned not to touch them, Not only was the stack done, but I had managed to get the school to accomplish the work that she thought was her doom for the rest of her life. She realized that she could retire, knowing that the office was in good hands. She had turned in her retirement paperwork, recommended my assignment as lead and had only one thing left to do. Reaching in her sweater pocket, she pulled out one last envelope. Placed it in my hands, then smiled again as she went home early for the first and last time ever.

I keep that letter as a reminder to always do more than minimum. You never know when a small thing can change someones life. Her letter is short and sweet.

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