After my post on my son’s first job, I reached out to a few friends to hear from them about their high school work experiences. Neighbor Allison Fultz, a lawyer at Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, wrote that she
worked as a teaching assistant in a Saturday morning program for gifted kids that I had attended in elementary and middle school. It was quite varied and a lot of fun. And I clearly remember that my father absolutely did not let me skip one day when a bunch of friends (OK, including a boy I was pursuing) were going in to NYC. My father gave me that lecture about the importance of work and the fact that people were relying on me to show up, a lecture I recall to this day. It was also my first exposure to whack-a-doo parents and their still-sweet kids.
What I learned: 1. I gained great pride and a sense of agency from earning my own money. 2. It was my first brush with adults not behaving rationally in public – some of the parents were difficult and demanding, and I had to learn to deal with them firmly but courteously. The kids, by and large, were great. 3. Camaraderie among colleagues is essential. Us teenage helpers got along well. 4. It may sound corny, and was like band, theater and chorus, but being part of an effort that’s larger than yourself conveys great pride and a sense of agency.
I went to high school in the late 1970s, and had a number of jobs I hated: caddie, sandwich maker, cafeteria worker. But the one job I liked (and held for fifteen months) was a “houseman” at the Holiday Inn in Bethesda, Maryland. I worked in Banquet Services, setting up rooms for parties and meetings—rolling out tables and chairs, piecing together dance floors and then taking it all down when the events were through. I liked the job because, unlike other jobs I’d had, it was largely unsupervised and never required customer interaction. I worked in teams with one or two others. We got a list of assignments at the start of the shift, and left when those assignments were complete. After-school shifts typically ran from 3-8. Weekend shifts started earlier. The housemen were almost all guys from my high school, college-bound, for the most part, living with parents, and looking to make money for records and stereo components. In contrast, the customer-facing side of Banquet Services was a group of waiters, who served food and beverages at the parties and meetings that the housemen set up and tore down. The waiters were paid more, but were also adults—primarily Latino men with families and rent and car payments and responsibilities we had no curiosity for. There was a generational, racial, and cultural divide between us, obvious even to a sixteen-year-old. What I never considered until much later was how difficult their lives must have been compared to mine. A record album cost $4.99. I could buy a new album every two hours of work. I doubt that the waiters thought of their pay in those terms.
And my college classmate Vaughn Halyard, who runs the Cedar Rapids-based media shop StoryLounge, reminisced about both his first and best jobs in high school:
The first job I had in high school was at a KFC at 14 and half. It was Wisconsin, labor laws were lax, and the money seemed good. It was real world, and I soon found there was little consideration for the need to balance work, education, sports, and homework. School work was disallowed during work hours, which actually made perfect sense given we were pressure cooking battered chicken at about 1200 degrees.
The best job I had in high school was working for one of our track coaches who had a tree trimming service, a fantastic experience that I’m certain would be illegal today in so many OSHA ways. I started at 15 as a “Grunt,” trimming and hauling stumps, scraps, and limbs. We were unburdened by back supports but did have harnesses and tree safety equipment. Most importantly, we had our own hard hats, which were stylishly macho.
I learned the value of perseverance, job promotion and advancement, teamwork…and cash payment. It is with those earnings that I paid for a Jeep that served as a pathway to instant promotion, via a trailer hitch that enabled me to pull scraps and stumps to the junior “Grunts” for them to deal with. I learned about seniority via execution and promotion to “Sawman” (one who uses a chainsaw) and ultimately to a “Squirrel,” one that climbs with spikes and pre-cuts limbs and branches before the tree is felled. In that Jeep I would travel to logging camps in upper Wisconsin and Michigan and serve on crews up there, which was culturally interesting. Before meeting me, the only black people most of those guys had ever seen was on TV or at the movies. Sadly, I’d think twice before venturing back into some of those areas today.
Looking back, the biggest life lesson I learned is that, given the working conditions and risks involved, it is most definitely a miracle that I’m alive to look back at a fantastic set of life lessons.