The Memorable Impression I Made While Interning at a Literacy Nonprofit

Part of a series about the best and worst internships we’ve ever had.

During the spring semester of my junior year in college, I was attempting two things for the first time in my life while studying abroad in London: leaving the country (and being out of my mother’s reach for an extended period of time), and trying to be a real employee who contributed something to an organization and the work they were trying to do.

My internship was with a literacy nonprofit in Central London. I worked four and a half days a week, which was a real adjustment for my undergrad self, especially since before I left I was working in a supermarket deli. It was my first time working in an office for more than a summer break.

First, the clichés are true. My British coworkers were unfailingly polite, friendly, but not as earnestly warm and nurturing as other bosses had been. I was desperately eager to make a good impression, but also the youngest person and never really able to get past being intimidated by all the well-spoken Brits.

I usually spent some time every day dealing with irrational anxiety over things like making tea and going to lunch. There were two main spaces where everyone had their desks, and if you were going to go make a cup of tea in the little beverage room, it was standard office courtesy to ask if anyone else wanted some. And usually a few people did because they were British and drank tea all day. Gathering the courage to stand up and announce I was making tea took a good week because I didn’t trust myself not to use a strange voice, stutter, or handle more than one mug.

My work ranged from updating different pages on the nonprofit’s websites, research, and special jobs like taking a file and carefully shaving away any typos and grammatical errors that turned up in the organization’s publications. I mean, I understood; as a literacy organization, a grammar error or typo is a little embarrassing. I typically filed pages for a few hours at a time, and felt really proud and validated when my coworkers commented on my good attitude and commitment to shaving paper. Just so young, earnest and eager to please!

One time I went out to the pub with my office after work to celebrate something—someone was probably leaving. The director of the nonprofit was there, which was a pretty big deal. This was more than a month into the internship, and I was starting to relax a little. I drank a pint, needed to use the bathroom, and I excused myself.

I was having a good time and feeling relieved that I had, kind of, managed to become someone on the team people liked well enough. So I was pretty confident as I strolled over to the bathroom, following the lit green man running sign.

It was trendy bar. When I got to the hallway where the bathrooms were, I wasn’t sure which was the women’s restroom. I picked the room with the green man sign right over it. That door turned out to be the emergency exit, which locked behind me.

Here’s something everyone who’s been to London probably realized sooner than I did: the little green running man in those signs is not running to the bathroom because he needs to go. He is running from some kind of emergency and needs to leave very quickly.

This emergency exit/false bathroom door opened into a dark hallway, with a door at the end surround by signs that said OPENING THIS DOOR WILL SET OFF THE BUILDING ALARM. (The British-sounding version of that message.) So I was trapped in a hallway, between one locked door and a door that promised to make a lot of loud noises and embarass me in front of everyone my office/in the bar.

I pressed up against the locked door and stared out into the hallway. Someone had been right behind me on the way to the bathroom, but had kept quiet if they realized I wasn’t intentionally making an emergency exit. I stood there for about 8-10 minutes; starting out the little window in the door, knocking. At least one lady I can remember ignored me. I mean, if it was me I might have assumed I was trying to creep into a bar through a back exit, but I hope I would have given myself the benefit of the doubt after seeing my hysterical face peering through the window.

So I was frazzled. And I still really needed to pee. Busting through an alarmed door and causing unknown mayhem eventually won out over peeing my pants in a hallway. I hurled myself through the door as quickly and violently as I could, so I could get some momentum in escaping the cops who would clearly immediately swarm on the hallway.

Of course, no alarm went off and I ended up following a series of weird, industrial hallways and staircases until I finally came out in a shopping area a good block and a half away from the original bar.

I walked back and casually strolled in, optimistic that no one would have noticed how long I’d been gone. Of course this was absurd and my coworkers immediately said, Where in hell did you go!? We looked for you and checked the bathroom and you were gone!

They really loved the story, though. And I was happy to have something entertaining to tell them. Even when my coworkers told me the director of the nonprofit sincerely thought I had become overwhelmed with being part of a casual social situation and had decided to escape without telling anyone.

It was so painfully awkward, but also pretty great: We all had something to laugh about, which prompted more awkward stories, and made for a pretty great night. And I had an internship on my resume that led to more internships, but no more paper shaving.


Maura Canavan is a copywriter in Boston. She’s rarely trapped between emergency exits these days. Photo: v1ctor


13 Comments / Post A Comment

kellyography (#250)

This is a great story! Also, I have never been overseas and am only familiar with the green running man from watching last week’s Castle.

@kellyography Slate did a really interesting series on signage that included the history of the green man, and why he’s used everywhere else in the world except the U.S. I can’t find it right now but worth looking up!

Megano! (#124)

@stuffisthings Oh OK this explains why I don’t understand why the author would think he was running to the bathroom. Although still, why would there be a sign of a dude running to the bathroom?

kellyography (#250)

@questingbeast Holy shit, this series is the best thing I have ever seen.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@kellyography Seriously! There goes the rest of my day. Thanks so much for this @stuffishthings @questingbeast

questingbeast (#2,409)

Haha I love this. Particularly ‘Gathering the courage to stand up and announce I was making tea took a good week because I didn’t trust myself not to use a strange voice, stutter, or handle more than one mug.’ I have done this in new jobs! I was SO THIRSTY but SO SHY.

All of this – from the tea fear to the emergency exit – is something I have/would do.

joyballz (#2,000)

I did this AT work once. I had a temporary building pass for class and it apparently only worked for the floor that I was on. I didn’t find this out until the restrooms were being cleaned and I walked upstairs to use another one. Couldn’t get in on any floor or back to the original floor. Had to walk downstairs, ended up between the kitchen and the emergency exit with lots of scary messaging about sirens and alarms. Luckily someone was working in the kitchen at the time and came around to lead me through some odd doors to the first floor lobby. Finally got back to class and we all had a good laugh to go along with a “what not to do” story.

nonvolleyball (#305)

@joyballz ahh, I got so excited to tell my husband’s story below that I didn’t realize yours was nearly identical!


I used to work at an art museum, and came in before security had unlocked the building. I used my boss’ keys to open the security entrance, not knowing that the door was still locked NOT because it was too early for the regular staff to be in, but because the security guy had had a family emergency and wasn’t there yet to turn off the alarm. The alarm started going off because I didn’t know the code, and the police had to be called off. That was awesome/not embarrassing AT ALL.

EM (#1,012)

I live in fear of accidentally setting off emergency exit alarms. I know that fire doors (KEEP CLOSED) and emergency exits (ALARM WILL SOUND) are different but I get panicky before opening a fire door JUST IN CASE it sets off an alarm.

nonvolleyball (#305)

this is my husband’s story, so I could be getting some of the details wrong, but right before he took his GREs–or maybe his SATs?–he went to go use the bathroom, but it was one floor down from where the test was being held, & his decision to be efficient & take the stairs led to him getting trapped in the stairwell (because it was a Saturday, the doors back into other floors were locked–& he was on something ridiculous like the 22nd floor or something).

he started running frantically toward the ground floor, trying each door that he came to, & fortunately a custodian heard him & let him back into the “active” part of the building, where he was able to use the bathroom & get back in time to take the test. he is now a PhD, so clearly this didn’t derail his academic career–but as he recounts it, there was a moment when he was like This Incident Will Ruin My Entire Life.

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