THE BLOG
06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tales From the Census Trail: Training Week, Training Wreck

If Captain "Sully" Sullenberger ever claims to be Jesus, I might just follow him. This is the only coherent thought that crosses my mind during the 13th hour of Census Training.

To think that Sully singlehandedly persuaded 155 strangers -- united only by their destination and desire to live -- to follow instructions and escape a sinking airplane in less than 5 minutes is remarkable. Today, it takes 54 enumerators -- united mostly by our enthusiasm for $11.75 an hour -- approximately 49 minutes (yes, I clocked it) to fill out a time sheet under the direction of our trainer Trudy. Trudy is no Sully, and if this group of Americans had been on US Flight 1549, we'd surely be swimming with the Hudson River fishes.

It's the second day and second row of training; my forehead sticks to the Census Manual that I'm using as a flotation device. I make note of the exits, suffer the turbulence and hold my breath so my ears won't pop. Training is not yet a train wreck, sinking ship or metaphorical disaster, but it appears as though it's becoming one. Let me explain.

I'm sitting in front of a self-identified hipster who's reading The Aeneid. There's a John Candy lookalike wearing a fisherman's vest and fedora hat straight out of The Great Outdoors. The guy next to me was a nice surprise. I haven't spoken to him since he crushed me in a hard-fought campaign for Middle School student body president. If only I had known that "win or lose, everyone ends up working for the Census Bureau," it might have lessened the blow.

Everyone does work for the Census Bureau. Everyone includes a laid-off lawyer who started delivering pizzas in January, the retirees dozing off in the front, the husband and wife hippie duo dressed for Woodstock, and the students behind me playing BrickBreaker on their iPhones.

Everyone also includes our Census trainer. She's a dead ringer for Trudy from Steel Magnolias, hence the nickname. She's older, full of smiles. Wearing strands of pearls and polka dots. She's exactly who you want to teach you about hot rollers and Lycra. She's not who you want teaching you about diversity in America.

In the South, we preface unbelievable failures with the sugary sweet condescension of a "Bless her heart, but..." It's a nice euphemism for "Holy [insert choice expletive], you're not going to believe this, but..." Lately, I've been hearing both phrases in reference to my shortcomings, so it's now my favorite colloquialism.

But Miss Trudy, bless her heart, manages to inadvertently offend every race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, Northerner and ethnicity in two days of training. By the third offense, which has something to do with "all the Hispanic-speaking Americans," I expect the Candid Camera guy to pop out from under a desk. Or Michael Scott to open the door and reveal The Office: Census Edition.

None of this happens.

Instead, Trudy accidentally refers to the nonexistent "Oriental box" on our enumerator questionnaires. (And then blushes in embarrassment. Bless her heart and the hearts of multiple continents.)

She assures us that "Men won't know their children's birthdays; women go out and buy the birthday presents!"

She takes her shoes off.

She warns us people may invite us in for food: "Now this isn't in the Manual, but this is the South. We invite people into our homes for supper not like them Yan... goodness, Northerners who wrote this..."

She warns us that it's possible we may encounter some men who live with men and women who live with women...in the Biblical sense.

To explain the importance of question six, she then delivers this colorful line:"If an Eskimo tells you he's an Eskimo, but he talks like he's from the backwoods of Tennessee, you mark that he's an Eskimo... even if he's NEVER been to Alaska.

At this point, I start weeping. Hyperventilating. I wonder if I should fake some sort of outrage or offense. I fear someone may start a riot or "Go Census" on all of us.

But I glance around at our ethnically diverse room of enumerators, and no one looks too angry. Most are in stitches. Some shake their heads, amused at the government's never-failing ability to choose the worst possible candidate for any given position.

Trudy, bless her heart, can't teach us much about diversity. Instead, she teaches us that some things transcend it: absurdity, humor, shock and misery. The pain of a slow-ticking clock and the heat of a Southern classroom. Anger that not a single Census employee thinks to turn on the air conditioner. These are the universals.

But perhaps what makes Trudy so offensive on paper is why we enumerators found her, surprisingly, endearing. The same words that often spark violence and hatred made us, a snapshot of America, come together.

Even though the well-meaning Trudy is completely unaware of her faux pas, a large cluster of enumerators starts rooting for her success. Pat, the former student body president, starts chanting: "Don't do it, Trudes. Please, don't say it." An African American student behind him chimes in. A Jewish man -- who swears he wasn't offended by her guarantee, "this will be harder than door-to-door witnessing" -- tries to help her when she can't pronounce "Guamanian."

During the shocking train wrecks and trying adversities, we Americans sometimes forget the boxes we check.

Before we escape Day Two, Trudy leaves us with one last gem for the road: "I just wanna say that I'm so proud to be an American. We're the best country in the world."

She paused to think. "I'm not saying we're better than anybody else, but..." She ended that sentence with a sassy wink.

I wink back at her despite my dual citizenship. I, too, am touched by the Census camaraderie.

Trudy isn't the Sully we need for Census training. But, ironically, her antics prove what Sully's survivors did: in times of crisis, boredom, and complete absurdity, Americans of all backgrounds bond together and survive the most terrifying or monotonous of days. If we don't survive, at least the melting pot goes down in chaos together.

So thanks, Trudy. You may have highlighted what makes America the best country in the world... so long as we're not better than anyone else.

Disclaimer: Names, places, and faces have been changed to protect the innocent and the ignorant. If you think you can determine the identity of anyone discussed, you're wrong.