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