My husband Olof’s parents and mine were similar in many ways and the one precept that they both held most dear was the intrinsic value of child labor. No job was too menial or too boring if it paid.
When my sister and I were 7 and 8, our mother got us our first jobs: stuffing and licking 1,000 envelopes for a local agency. At a penny apiece, it was far faster to lick the envelopes than use a wet sponge. It’s amazing we didn’t end up with brain damage from all that glue. I distinctly remember our little tongues desperately trying to produce saliva after the first hour.
Olof, meanwhile, was working in the family hardware store for $1 per hour where he learned to mix paint, make keys, and had the sum total of his sex education in the pipe-fitting department.
Over the years, I did the standard babysitting, retailing, and waitressing ($.53 an hour before taxes, $.45 after, gold nylon uniform: $20). I spent one summer as a clerk-typist for Scholastic Magazines in their book division in the pre-word processor days typing endless clean copies (with eight carbons) of a book called “No Hitter” about all the no-hitter baseball games up to that point. (It’s on Amazon for $.01, and no, don’t send me a copy. I’ve read it. 11 times.) I hate to start comments with the words “kids today” but truly, kids today have no idea what a boon to humanity the word processor was. Space travel and penicillin have nothing on it. I can say with some conviction: a world without carbon paper is truly a better place.
Olof and I used to like to play “who had the worst summer job?” One thing about horrible summer jobs is that wretchedness quickly becomes relative. Olof worked one summer as a roofer in the East Bay’s brutal 100-degree summer heat, in a perpetual knee-crippling crouch position pounding nails hour after hour. The next summer, concluding that anything indoors had to be better, he scored a job as summer vacation help cleaning toilets at the Pittsburgh, California steel mill. Even though it required an investment in a hardhat and steel-toed boots, it was out of the hot sun and paid union wages. Relative to roofing, what was not to like?
My worst summer job by far was proofreading telephone books. And yes, this is a job, and yes, for some people it was a career. People get really touchy if their name or address or particularly phone number is listed incorrectly in the phone book, so some human — that would have been me — sat there cross-checking the microscopically-printed galleys line by line with the typewritten list.
I’ve observed over the years that career counselors don’t list 90 percent of jobs that people actually end up doing. I’m trying to imagine, for example, some perky high school student’s yearbook listing: “Future goal: career in the telephone book proofreading industry.”
For both sets of our parents, summer employment provided cash for the expenses we were expected to pay, but I think they regarded it as character building as well. Not that I was ever inclined to be rude to waiters or sales clerks, but working in those fields gives you a new respect for the job. Forget two year’s mandatory military service. Everyone should be required to work retail.
I mention all this because I often hear parents say at this time of year that they don’t think it’s worth having their kids take a $10 an hour menial job when they could be doing something educational. Both Olof’s and my parents would have said that it’s all how you define “educational.”
Of course, there’s no requirement that summer jobs have to be ill paid and boring — even if many of them are. My older son, a diver, was lucky enough to combine a life passion with income by supplying giant keyhole limpets to a Scripps Oceanography researcher. And a high- paying job can be pretty miserable too, as my younger son discovered during a career-goal-changing Summer From Hell working 100-hour weeks for an investment banking firm. Still, I think some of the best education he received was three summers earlier working as a minimum-wage juice bar employee delivering custom wheat grass combinations to downtown La Jolla business folks. He said he’d never felt so invisible.
So are we better or even different people for our summer job experience? Different, certainly. Both Olof and I also would agree that most of our summer jobs were excellent incentives to pursue higher education in the hope of never ever doing any of these jobs again. Just as important as knowing what you want to do in life is knowing what you really, really don’t.—
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