The Growing Pains of Why We Work
Throughout my life the nature of work and what going to work for me as a person has changed over the years. What started as a simple quest to obtain mere spending money has evolved in directions that as a teenager I could not possibly have imagined. My work life began at the age of 13, when a friend from junior high school was earning pocket money giving out flyers for a local ‘psychic’ who was trying to promote her business. My first hourly wage? A womping $4 an hour! After a few days working for her, I upgraded to a new cell phone store that had just opened in the area….for a raise *drum roll* $5 an hour. In those days cell phones were relatively new and not many people had one or knew what they were capable of doing, so having a young face able to explain what was on the flyer to potential customers was probably a nice selling point for the establishment owner.
I can still remember handing out flyers on a cold winter’s day and being approached by an elderly gentleman who took a flyer and decided to give me a sidewalk lecture of “Shouldn’t you be in school? Go to school and do something with your life and win a Noble Prize!” Needless to say I was still in school and this was something that I was doing in the afternoon and on the weekend but it did make me think about the relationship between school and work something that as a young adolescent had never even crossed my mind seeing the two entities as completely independent from one another; like concentric planets with virtually no chance of collision.
After a few weeks the cell phone guy’s place folded as did many storefront start ups (eventually) – once seen as America’s visual façade of middle class entry and entrepreneurship, now barren rooms with huge signs saying ‘For Rent’ and 718 numbers that are probably no longer in service. Less than a year later, I received my very first ‘paycheck’ job working at a Baskin & Robbins. My time there was really enjoyable and I learned a great deal about the work place. I got along well with my managers who were stunned to see my work ethic at fourteen, far exceeding the 17, 18, and 19 year olds that were in their weekly employ. Unfortunately, the mall in which this ice cream shop was located would soon undergo a major renovation and subsequently lead to the closure of yet another one of my oh so fragile part time jobs. Work place lesson #1 a job can become your world until it ceases to exist.
At this point even with my work experience I experienced great difficulty finding new employment as many places were reluctant to hire someone less than 16 – with many places not even daring to touch someone less than 18 (this has become even worse in recent years as many of my students can attest to; as little do most employers realize an ambitious 15 year old will typically be a lot more grateful for a job and work a lot harder than a 22 year old who bemoans going to a job that still requires a nametag).
I spent a considerable amount of time looking for my next job which eventually happened at a local Wendy’s. While I did not learn much at this place I did learn one solid lesson….the importance of having an education. I would spend the next two years working long hours, 10-14 hour shifts being par for the course, in heat of sometimes well over a 100 degrees and with the combined heat of a fry cooker and stove can often create a living inferno on just the right summer day. Unlike my previous work endeavors my consistency and strong work ethic never went noticed, despite the establishment having a roughly two week turnover rate for most new employees and people calling out as if their very life depended on it. I sought desperately to find a new job but anytime I would apply – I would be turned down by a feigned sympathetic manager who would simply say “apply again when you turn 18.”
For the first time at the age of 16 I felt “trapped” – something that I swore I would never allow to happen to me again…through the keys of education. Upon graduating High School and turning 18, I found a job work opportunity working the front desk and tending to toddlers at a place called Gymboree. The work experience was a welcomed change and a great place to work while in college. I worked a series of jobs in college but the one that brought me the most satisfaction was tutoring students. Something about imparting wisdom and skill felt right and really for the first time tapped into my personality like no other paid gig had before.
After graduating college I spent a year working as a paralegal. While not subject to the same hellacious conditions as some of my other jobs – I once again felt that same sense of entrapment and detachment that I had felt before, something that I thought would be corrected post-college, now that I had acquired a more specialized skill set. At this time I was still tutoring on the side, while at a career fair, I happened to stumble across the New York City Teaching Fellows which offered me an alternative pathway towards becoming a teacher and from there the rest is history.
I still have trouble even to this day separating the necessity of working from passion. While teaching is the closest approximation thus far that I have found of my talents and interests – there are days that it can feel more of a job than a pure expression of interests and talents – which “hey what job isn’t?” The role of work in our society especially as of recent times has become a very muddled ground. On one hand my parent’s generation and the generation that came before would answer “work is the place that you go, so you can receive a paycheck and put a roof over your head.” With the emergence of a more complicated and technologically advanced workplace and the alluring promise from colleges of “making dreams come true” to just about any school age youngster that can wrap their hands around a pencil. We remain torn about work as on one hand we see it as logical necessity as an institution that allows society to function as a place where letter carriers can deliver mail, butchers can chop meat, and mechanics can fix cars.
On the other hand as more and more young Americans increasingly take upon large sums of debt to the enter a career which they believe is a pure expression of their God given talent and abilities – a huge wake of disappointment is created when they realize that with or without college a job is simply a job – some better tuned to the specific individual but none that encompasses one’s essence in its entirety. Compounding this issue even further is the ever increasing number of recent college graduates promised a golden ticket to the career of their dreams (regardless of their real world marketability) who find themselves working jobs that they could have applied for directly after high school, now carrying the ever heavier ball and chain of $60,000 in student debt. This price tag thus in turn, precludes them from making their first home purchase or driving the sports car they always envisioned they deserved – archiving the “American Dream” to the same anthology book as Greek Mythology.
Some huge existential questions have now emerged as to one’s relationship and the expectations a person should hold when they enter the workplace. In many respects my parent’s generation of work provides a much needed solace for those days when I really feel the full weight of having a job. Perhaps that and a little sprinkle of passion when appropriate – remains the right combination of making sense of an entire institution which seems to being going through some painful adolescent growing pains.