Recently, I found the first story I ever wrote for the parent company of the Hamilton Post. It’s a small miracle it wasn’t the last.
The story, which ran in the June 2004 edition of the Trenton Downtowner, discussed plans to keep the New Jersey State Museum open during a multiyear renovation—I think. The first paragraph simultaneously says the museum will remain open and that it closed in early May. From there, the article never clears up what is open, what is closed and why it matters.
In short, it’s a mess. I’m thankful I wasn’t my editor a decade ago. Not to mention thankful, should I still be churning out terrible stuff, everyone is very polite about it.
Still, choosing to ignore the prospect of not progressing in 10 years, I must have learned some lessons as an intern a decade ago. That’s all I could have hoped for from summer employment, although the paycheck didn’t hurt.
Scores of young people will embark on similar journeys in the coming months. Last summer, 2.1-million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 found employment, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adding in people who worked year round, 50.6 percent of 16-to-24-year olds had jobs in July 2013.
This is where trends have changed, even in the decade since I joined that demographic. More paying jobs for teens seemed to exist then, and many teens took them, through their own drive or external motivation. And through those jobs, we learned something, even if it was “I’d hate to spend the rest of my life doing this.”
My parents practically had to pull me by my shirtsleeves to find my first employment, at 15. They had a clear message: “You’re in high school now. It’s time you had a job.” They envisioned me gaining responsibility, work ethic and $5.25 by the hour.
I landed a gig at a local grocery store, thanks to a friend. My official title was “sacker,” which I fancied made me sound a bit like Michael Strahan. The reality was far less cool.
It turned out I was no better at bagging groceries than I would be at tackling NFL quarterbacks. Gallon of milk in the same bag as a loaf of white bread? Why not? Two boxes of cereal, a whole chicken and a jug of laundry detergent in a single plastic bag? Hey, plastic is pretty strong, right?
Of course, management noticed my shortcomings, and tried to train me. But you can’t train common sense.
I begged off my lack of bagging skills by saying, “geometry isn’t my strongest math.” They rewared me for that comment by placing me outside, collecting carts.
That I may be better suited in another line of work didn’t hit me until a flying can of tuna almost did. The store’s boss had a reputation of wanting everything just so, and he wasn’t happy when he discovered a Chicken of the Sea can misplaced in the produce section. I happened to be walking by at that moment. He flung the can across the store, toward me. He wanted me to restock it, I guess.
I didn’t notice this, and only as the can neared my skull did he yell, “Hey!” I don’t recall if I caught the can, but I must have done something to evade being rendered unconscious. I quit the job a few weeks later to “focus on my school work.”
When I shared these stories in the Post newsroom last month, it was as if I had struck a reservoir of memories that loomed just beneath the surface. Suddenly, a flood of first-job memories spilled forth, tales with the same mix of fondness and horror mine did.
One co-worker said his first summer job was to mow an acre lot with a tiny push mower. Facing down a gargantuan task, he convinced his employer to purchase a riding mower for $600, using some of his earnings to offset the cost of the new machinery.
“To this day, I still am not sure if I ever paid off the mower,” he said. “But it sure made mowing that lawn a heck of a lot easier.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this person now works in sales.
Another co-worker asked me to tell of her time working in merchandising for a band—“I did it for the free CDs, tickets to shows and, of course, being able to say I was with the band”—but I found another of her tales more illuminating. It involves summer camp, children in a pool and one child’s inability to control his/her bowels.
“[The counselors] ran around screaming ‘Code Brown!’ scooping children out as if their lives depended on it,” she said. “It definitely did not sway me at all from working with kids. It did, however, reinforce my belief that small children that are not potty trained should stay out of public pools.”
She still works with children to this day, in addition to her role at the Hamilton Post, which requires her to police plenty of grown children.
It’s unsurprising, I guess, that our work in earlier years often guides us to our current employment. The job pushing carts somehow leads to the newspaper internship, which proves not every job involves dodging flying fish. Thankful, you work hard, and somehow have the fortune to land a full-time job with the newspaper three years later.
As I reflect on all this, I have to admit my parents were right—that summer job was good for me. At least a whole lot better than my first newspaper story.
And that’s a good thing.