Fewer kids are seeking summer employment, so say the reports. According to The Atlantic there’s a good reason why fewer kids are seeking summer employment:
Education is to blame, rather than indolence. Teens are remaining in high school longer, going to college more often, and taking more summer classes. The percent of recent high-school graduates enrolled in college—both two-year and four-year—has grown by 25 percentage points. That is almost exactly the decline in the teenage labor-force participation rate.
I guess school is as good a reason as any to delay working. It should be noted, however, that going to school doesn’t mean these adolescents are necessarily learning any thing. In my experience in education, the reason we have an increase of adolescents in summer school is because they didn’t do the work they were supposed to be doing during the school year.
From the time I was 13 on, I always had a summer job. My very first summer job was babysitting, of course. There was a gal who lived a few trailers down from us who had three kids. Young’uns. Her husband was in Vietnam. I didn’t babysit for her every day but I did babysit for her several times a week. I think I made 50 cents an hour. It wasn’t a bad gig. The kids were sweet and always easy. We’d go to the pool or read books or go for walks around the trailer park. But I lost that job when we moved out of the trailer park and into a brick home in town.
My next summer job was as a cashier at a Victory Drive-In. Oh. Man. Was that an eye-opening job. For those of you unfamiliar, a drive-in was a place to see the movies outdoors. It might sound hokey but it was a fabulous way to spend a summer’s eve, especially in Georgia where the nights are not windy, but often the most pleasant part of living in the South.
I would sit in this little tiny booth and cars would drive up, hand me their cash and I’d pass them tickets. After the picture show started, I’d leave the booth and go inside and work the popcorn counter. I learned some great skills at that job. I learned how to work a cash register. I learned how to count and multiply. Back then a person had to do the math in their heads. There was no iPhone or computer to do it for you. I learned how to be kind to people, all kinds of people.
Working at Victory Drive – known as the more seedy side of town – I had ample opportunity to encounter all sorts of people. Victory Drive-In wasn’t really a family place. There was often more sex happening in the cars than onscreen. Life was better when that was the case. Trust me. I lost my virginity in the front seat of a car, albeit it wasn’t at the same place where I worked. That would have been against company policy. (If you want the full story, including the part where the cops arrived, you’ll have to read AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED, and yes, my children know the whole story). I did think that old beau might look me up after that book came out but I reckon he went into the witness protection program instead.
My job at Victory Drive came to an end the way all great summer jobs do – when school started back up. Besides nobody goes to the Drive-In when the weather turns. The windows get too steamy to see anything.
The next job I got wasn’t a summer job. It was a weekend-job. I worked at Lerner’s Department Store in Columbus Mall. I already knew how to work a cash register thanks to my previous work experience. But I was much more well-suited to the seedier side of town than I was to waiting on girls my own age with credit cards. My sister and I got to go clothes shopping twice a year – in August right before school started and once right before summer started. Mama would give us a $100 and we had to buy all everything we’d need for the school year with that. Usually that meant one pair of shoes and a couple of dresses or pantsuits. (girls weren’t allowed to wear any pants except pantsuits until my junior year).
That pantsuit rule was an outgrowth of the Southern Baptist form of Sharia Law which stated that women shouldn’t dress like a man. I once heard a preacher (not mine) give an entire sermon about women wearing pants with zippers in the front and what a danger that was to society. I am not lying, y’all. I’m sure there are folks at Dallas First Baptist (who held that nationalistic take-God’s-Name-In-Vain rally) who could still make the argument that women wearing front-zipper pants is an abomination that has lead to all sorts of fornication. Trust me. Fornication is a lot easier to achieve in a dress than in pants with a zipper fly. But then again, maybe that’s why those old white men prefer to keep women in dresses, heh?
I got sidelong there. Sorry.
That job at Lerner’s was an utter bore. I wasn’t much of a clothes horse, seeing how there wasn’t money for that sort of indulgence. Despite its name, I didn’t learn much working there. I was all the time having to fold clothes and be sweet to snotty people. I much preferred being sweet to people who appreciated the kindnesses. I did learn pretty quickly that people with money were a lot more demanding than people without money. It didn’t help that the man who owned the store fell into the “Have” category. He was stern and rarely gracious. He thought everybody was out to cheat him. I didn’t really like looking at people the way he did, so I decided it’d be best if I up and quit before he up and fired me. I suppose the one thing I did learn from that job was that not everything is going to work out like you think, even if you are a hard worker.
Sister Tater said that she was thinking about that recently, how all three of us kids learned to be hard workers. Workaholics really. Fortunately for us, we found things in life that we enjoyed doing and that we are all good at doing. That makes working seem more like an adventure. Since I left the job at Lerner’s I have rarely been bored at a job. (Well, there was that time I worked at a grocery store facing cans. That was without question the most boring job ever, which is why I quit 30 minutes into it. A person learns by a certain age that some jobs are so ill-fitting it’s just best to keep moving.)
After Lerner’s I went to work at a uniform shop near the Medical Center. The bulk of my clients weren’t nurses or even healthcare workers. They were church ladies. At that time in Georgia, African-American women would buy white uniforms – shoes, stockings, the whole kit-and-caboodle and polyester dress – to wear as church ushers. They’d come in groups and find a uniform that would come in all different sizes, buy a half-dozen of them, and order shoes to match. It was always a big production. They’d be in the store half the day, swapping stories, telling the latest church gossip, laughing. So much laughter. And they’d drop a bundle of money, which always made my boss happy, which kept me employed. I worked that job clear up to my senior year of high school. Besides teaching me how to balance the cash drawer at the end of the day, that job gave me insight into the African-American community, something I’d been isolated from throughout the bulk of my life due to segregation. I met so many good-hearted people while working that job. That was the hardest job for me to give up. It paid well enough to keep gas in my tank and allowed me some self-sufficiency. I could shop at Learner’s on occasion.
My next job was one of the most difficult. Mama was a supervisor at a nearby care facility, just around the corner from the uniform shop. She needed someone to come work as an aide. I thought I wanted to be a nurse so I agreed to work for Mama. It paid well and gave me more hours than I was getting at the store.
Oh. Honey. It was tough.
I cannot for the life of me tell you why it is that I can write books about murder and all sorts of criminal activity, yet, being in a room with ill people makes me weak in the knees. There was a veteran at the care facility who was missing a third of his skull, directly over his right eye. His head was concave. There was a woman in Room 238 who, although only in her 50s, was curled into a ball like a sleeping kitten. She had arthritis so bad, she couldn’t straighten out nothing. She’d lay in that bed and holler all day long “NURSE! NURSE!” over and over again. She was a smoker and would need somebody to hold the cigarette to her lips. Her hands were balled up, unable to grasp even the smallest things. And yes, at that time, in that place, we would hold that cigarette to her lips and let her smoke in her bed.
Then there was the former beauty queen in the room down at the end of the hallway. She was just a June bug shell of her former self. Her head was shaved like a white nationalist. Her hands were curled too, although her body was rigid straight. She never said anything, ever. Never made a sound. Not even a whimper. She’d been a car wreck. Over her bed was a picture of her former beauty queen self. Unrecognizable now. I didn’t know until that job that young people could live in old people’s nursing homes.
Mrs. Bickerstaff had a room all to herself. A private room was an unusual thing. She was the only one on the floor with a private room. Her family made their money from bricks. Or so somebody told me at the time. Mrs. Bickerstaff was a sweet bird of a woman. She could sit at the piano and play from memory any hymn called out to her. But she would wander the hallways calling for “Charlie”, her long-dead husband. She would talk to him and their children all day long. She was never ugly and never demanding. I loved working with her.
But I didn’t have the stomach for cleaning up body fluids. Even after I had my own children, Tim learned right quick that if the kids threw up he’d have to deal with it. I trained my kids to vomit in the toilet long before I taught them to go potty in the toilet. It was a matter of self-protection.
I learned pretty quickly that I would never be a nurse. Any leanings I might have had prior were swiftly put away. Nope. Not me. I would go on to work in other care facilities just because it was a skill I learned that qualified me for the work, but I was always far more interested in the patient’s backstory than I was in their current welfare. I wanted to know who they were before they arrived at this place. Mama just wanted me to clean them up and make sure their rooms were clean.
I didn’t love all my summer jobs, but I do love that I had all that experience by the time I got to college. It helped me know myself and what kind of person I wanted to become.
I learned that money didn’t motivate me.
I learned that being kind to others was far more valuable than having power over others.
I learned that working hard, even at jobs you don’t like will earn you the respect of even people who don’t like you.
I learned that there’s a reason they call it work and not play.
I learned that everybody has a story. Some are more fascinating than others. Some are just plain awful. But even a man with a concave head needs to be heard.
The best kindness of all is listening to people who need to be heard, and that might not necessarily be the loudest person in the room.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).