I remember the first time I walked into the cafeteria in Buckley Hall, which was my college dorm at The University of Connecticut. Upon entering the dining hall, I immediately found myself waiting in a short line to “check in.” This was in 1982, before computerization had wended its way into these places, and there was an employee named Sophie whose job it was to make sure only Buckley Hall residents dined in that particular cafeteria for each meal.
Sophie appeared to be about 60-65 years old and clearly loved her job. She greeted me with a big smile and asked my name. After I told her my name was Ron Drotos, she looked in her alphabetical file, found the 3×5 index card with my name typed on it, and efficiently placed my card on a separate pile to record the fact that I was present at that meal.
I remember thinking Sophie was a nice person, and I enjoyed interacting with her at my meals throughout that first day of the school year.
The big surprise, however, came the next day.
As I walked into the cafeteria and reached the front of the line, Sophie greeted me by name. Yes, you heard that right! Her entire face lit up as she smiled and welcomed me with “Hello Ron.” I couldn’t believe it!
This woman loved interacting with us students so much that in just a day or two, she had memorized the names and faces of hundreds of university students and sometimes even had our index card in hand at the moment we walked through the door.
Whether she was a “people person,” an extrovert, a natural grandmother, or had a photographic memory, one thing was apparent to me: Sophie loved her job. She loved us students, she loved knowing our names, and she loved greeting us three times a day.
But all of this came to a sudden end a year or two later.
I’m not sure if it was at the beginning of my second or third year of college, but at some point the school decided to computerize the cafeteria sign-in process and give us all digital cards to use when checking in.
Sure, Sophie was still there, but there was no need for her to look up our names anymore. We just handed her our cards and she scanned them. Quickly and efficiently. (I’ll bet she was told by management that this would “keep the line moving” or something similar.)
On the plus side, the computerized cards enabled us students to now dine in any cafeteria on campus, which came in very handy when we had classes on the other side of campus. No more missing meals! And it undoubtedly made it much easier for the university’s record-keeping and accounting departments.
But at the same time, I was saddened.
Sophie had lost something. Something precious.
Yeah, sure, she still greeted us with a smile, but the twinkle in her eyes had dimmed. She used our names when she remembered them, but without the opportunity to spend even 10 seconds with each of us and our name cards, she lost the opportunity to memorize them all. The process had become cold and mechanized.
Sophie’s world was disappearing, and I could sense that she knew it.
Almost four decades have passed since I’ve last seen Sophie, and I’ve returned to the memory of her from time to time. There’s a lot in there.
There’s the story of a woman who embraced a challenge and used it to remain positive and inspired from moment-to-moment in what for others might be considered a dull, boring job.
There’s the story of a woman approaching her advanced years who surrounded herself with young, lively college students. This undoubtedly kept her youthful.
There’s the story of a woman who used a routine job function, that of looking up our names on 3×5 index cards, to challenge herself intellectually and keep her brain extremely active for hours at a time.
There’s the story of a kind woman who used a challenge to inspire herself and connect with others. The study of music can be like this too, if we use it that way.
And there’s the story of a changing world, with pros and cons existing simultaneously.
Perhaps most of all, there’s the story of a young college student, living far away from home, who felt loved and appreciated every time he went to the dining hall for a meal.
Thank you Sophie.