Tough lessons that aren’t taught in school can be learned from summer work
By Jeff Woodburn
It’s summer and the kids are out of high school and home from college, but what are they doing? For the vast majority – 72 percent – the answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Studies reveal that as few as a quarter of all students age 16-24 have summer jobs. The number of young people temporarily joining the work force has declined consistently from about 50 percent a decade ago.
The poor economy certainly is a factor. So is the expansion of manufactured extra-curricular enrichment experiences, which most deem essential to winning over college admission offices, as well as potential employers. But, I would presume it has more to do with our prevalent culture of comfort and abundance that has become the norm for people of widely varying economic conditions.
Beyond the short-term money, menial summer employment gives young people a sense of responsibility, humility and rare common sense. Academic settings are hardly equipped to provide the tough love and simple truths that come from a few summers at the college of hard knocks. They are far too busy caring for our young people’s fragile self-esteem and protecting them from bullying glances and unwelcome comments.
While I was in high school and college I had several different jobs including cemetery landscaper, janitor, factory worker, dishwasher and carpenter’s helper – I learned as much in these jobs as in any classroom.
It was at my earliest job at the cemetery where I got some inkling of what life had in store for me. Every so often an old, vacant graveside would need to be opened up for a new burial. The old lots were too tight for a backhoe to fit around the old tombstones, so I’d have to dig the grave by hand.
One day, waist-high in hole, I encountered a large rock that seemed immovable to me and my puny efforts. I went to the sexton and explained the finality of the situation. I remember thinking they’d just have to pick another spot to plant the deceased or find some machinery to solve the problem. I was off the hook, or so I thought. I was told matter-of-factly that it couldn’t stay there, and I had to get it out – one way or another. I dug, chipped and cussed away at the impossibility of this chore, but finally I got it out. I don’t remember any satisfaction or epiphany from this experience, only an aching discomfort.
My memory skips across my other summer jobs with ease. I recall the dreary rhythm of the night shift at old paper mill, degrading looks from some of my dormmates as I cleaned their toilets, rigid and demeaning social segregation that once defined the grand hotels, and trying to avoid the scorn of a hot-headed chef and a quarrelsome old carpenter.
My clumsy, low IQ hands just weren’t cut out for this kind of work. I tried to follow directions methodically to avoid notice or error, but this chased away any sense of authority, ownership or pride in my work. Mostly these jobs made me feel insignificant, often inadequate and easily replaceable. The hours passed painfully slow, but I got by and never quit.
My summer jobs hardly added to my intellect or training, but they made me tough --tough when dealing with adversity and tender when faced with human frailty. I can vividly access that old feeling that may have evolved into a chip on my shoulder passed down from my hardscrabble ancestors. It has mostly served me well by humbling me in success and sustaining me in failure.
Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is a teacher and writer. He's taught in middle and high school settings. Previously, he owned an award-winning real estate firm and was prominent in state politics. He and his wife and four children live on a small hill farm, where they raise poultry.