O’Halloran and Murdock already had Barbara pegged as a loose cannon. Mickell, Scott and Ignatius simply shook their heads at every utterance from her mouth. Berry, however, was more outspoken with his opinion. “She’s uppity,” he had spat out on more than one occasion. Barbara could only imagine which of two probable nouns he wanted to place after that adjective.
As Barbara floated in the murky drone of her new co-workers’ pat dissertations on the various reasons she was wrong on this point, she wondered why it was she ever thought she could make it in this job. It was 1972. She was a woman. And she was Black. All around her, their cigars and cigarettes smelling as stale as their opinions were six White men all over the age of fifty-five; neither one willing to give her an inch. She tried to shut them out. Her brain was almost literally hurting. She considered acquiescing. After all, it was six against one. Just how important was this topic anyway? Was it worth her becoming a pariah her first year on the job? Should she not have been talking less and listening more? Jim Ignatius, the man closest in tenure to Barbara on the Style Board, had helped produce the 1962 Manual.
There was indeed plenty of intelligence on the Board. No one present at this table was here on a lark. Everyone here had to prove themselves before being ushered into the inner sanctum of the Government Printing Office. She was resented, but she was successfully coming to terms with that. She was the first woman, the first Black, and the youngest person to have been invited to serve on the Style Board. She really had nothing to prove, and that was far from what she was trying to do. But she did want respect. She felt she was getting none.
“We’ve got copies of just about everything McClory had to say about the holiday, including a handwritten speech. The apostrophe is there, there, there,” Murdock was saying, flipping the pages of a transcript and stabbing it with his gold plated Cross pen. “Is there a problem keeping the spelling that way? For God’s sakes, this is not even the name of the holiday. It’s Washington’s Birthday! Why are we arguing about this?”
“Nobody’s arguing except Angela Davis over there,” grumbled Berry. Barbara wondered what was in the cup in front of him. She took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. She had already resolved not to say anything else today. These old men were regurgitating the same gruel that they had been noisily slurping for weeks.
To Barbara, the logic seemed simple. The designation “Presidents Day” was beginning to come into vogue on the heels of the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which had just been signed into Law in 1968 and had become effective last year. The Law moved Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February, which placed it between Lincoln’s and Washington’s actual birthdays. While the Act never sought to merge the two days or change the name of the holiday, public perception and sentiment was doing just that. The words President’s Day, Presidents’ Day and Presidents Day were all being used interchangeably by the media, by the corporate world, most notably the advertising and retail sectors, and in schools as a substitute for the officially named federal holiday of Washington’s Birthday, and the Style Board had been tasked with reigning in an official rendering of the unofficial moniker. In the upcoming edition of the Manual, it had been decided that the reference to the unofficial name would be parenthetical, but noting all three renditions was out of the question. Barbara’s position was that whenever the substitution was used, the spirit behind the phrase was inclusion. Anything with an apostrophe was not only possessive but self-serving, which Barbara did not think was very presidential. “Presidents’ Day” wasn’t really being considered by the Board, so it was a virtual non-issue. “President’s Day,” in its singularly possessive form, seemed superfluous. Why bother? One President’s day seemed a little stupid. It clearly watered down the first President’s birthday.
Using the term “Presidents Day,” in Barbara’s eyes at least, conveyed a day dedicated not only to the men who had served in this capacity, especially the Father of our Country, but to the Office itself. It showed that the day did not belong to those men, but it honored their service and the American way.
Later the same week, Barbara asked the Board Chairman, Harrison Turner, to get involved. She asked if he could step in and make a decision on the matter, since he indicated that he agreed with her.
“So what you’re saying Barbara, is that you want me to come to the table and tell those old fogies that we’re going with your idea, and that’s final. Do I have that right, my dear?”
She immediately wished she could take back the request.
“Miss Knight, I don’t know how they did it at your previous employer,” Turner began, “but that’s not how things work around here. I am not Hitler, and your co-workers are not the SS. They are not here to do my bidding, or yours. I’m afraid that I’m sensing a bit of entitlement from you, which I’m finding just a bit distasteful.”
“Mr. Turner, I don’t mean to throw out that kind of perception. I really don’t feel entitled. But if you came to more meetings and saw and heard the way the board looks at me and talks to me…”
“I know everything that goes on in those meetings, my dear. Nothing escapes my notice. But on this issue, although you and I agree, there are six on the board that see it another way, right?” Barbara was silent. “You will really set yourself up for a fall if each time you disagree with them you think they have a vendetta against your age, your sex and your race.”
“Mr. Turner, you know they do.”
“Yes, I do.”
“And you’re excusing their behavior?”
“No, indeed,” Turner intoned. “I will speak to them about how I think you’re being treated. But I will not try to sway their opinion on Presidents Day. If you can’t do that by reasoning with them, or by using a different approach, there’s always the next edition.” Turner sipped his coffee. “Barbara, when the Manual is published, what will you find on the third page?”
“Our names. The Style Board, the other officers, and so forth.”
“That’s right. So if they make a dumb decision, the onus will be on everyone named on page three for that choice. So if they are indeed basing their veto of your idea on anything other than their strongly held convictions, then it will come back to bite them on their sagging asses.”
Barbara whooped with laughter. “Mr. Turner!”
“Barbara,” he said seriously. “Always know that my door is open. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir.” She stood to leave Turner’s office.
“And one more thing. You can win them over. You are smart, intelligent…”
“I’m smart as well as intelligent, Mr. Turner?”
Turner chuckled heartily before continuing. “They all know that you’re there because you deserve to be. They respect that fact, trust me. Their respect in you will do nothing but grow, but that’s only if you show them the same respect. You got me?”
Barbara shook Turner’s hand and left.
After her meeting with Turner, Barbara knocked on Berry’s office door. She told Berry that she was sorry about her behavior at the meetings. “I’m not one to shut down, or be intolerant of other people’s opinions, and I apologize if that caused you to frame a negative opinion of me.”
“I know how it is, Miss Knight,” said Berry. “I remember when I started out on this board, it was sheer hell. I thought I was invisible, and I felt so inadequate. But the key to your success here is to be a team player. We don’t have to agree on every point. But when the book is published, our one stamp is on it. We have to show a united front, and we must by all means be cohesive.”
Barbara shook Berry’s hand and thanked him. As she turned to leave, Berry said, “Little lady, you have indeed got what it takes. Congratulations on your appointment if I haven’t said it before.”
“Oh, by the way, I know that it’s a few months away, but Happy Presidents Day,” he said.
Barbara chuckled. “Spell it.”