On a recent Thursday evening I was down at the Street Market and ran into a friend of mine, an attorney. As is common these days, talk quickly moved towards federalization and its associated issues, including the issue of work ethic. My friend pointed out that many people here are deprived of the opportunity to start working at the bottom of the ladder. Many do not want to take the “entry level” job, seeing it as beneath them, mostly because of cultural expectations of which ethnicities perform which jobs. We soon got to talking about our own experiences with entry level jobs. He entered the work force as a cook. Many people in American society start out by waiting tables or pumping gas. It is here, in these entry level positions, that a work ethic is born and nurtured. There is room for trial and error. There are lessons to learn. When one skips to the front of the employment line, I think that one misses out on some important experiences that help build ones work ethic.
I started to think of my own early employment experiences. My first job was delivering newspapers. I was in elementary school, and our local newspaper employed a fleet of kids to deliver the newspapers door-to-door. Every morning the bundles of newspapers would get dropped off at our house. I would roll them, put a rubber band around them, wrap them in plastic and set off on my bicycle with the newspaper sack hung over my shoulder, “Middlesboro Daily News” emblazoned on its side. I was proud of the job and did everything possible to keep the route. This job taught me that people relied on me and my services. If I didn’t deliver the papers, they weren’t happy. I learned to be reliable. My biggest fear was getting sick and not being able to deliver the papers, so I had a friend of mine come with me on most days so that he would know the route. On the days I was sick, he would deliver the papers for me, and I’d pay him out of my small salary. Reliability, consistency, responsibility, customer service, planning, the need to show up even when I didn’t feel like it – all of these I learned from a paper route.
My next job was cutting grass. When I was in Junior High, my buddy, George Givens and I spent the spring going door to door lining up customers, and we spent the summer mowing lawns. Hot sweaty work. Physical labor. We had about a dozen customers and we worked pretty much every day.
In high school, I worked in the school cafeteria washing dishes. There was no glory in that job, but I earned enough to help pay some of my school expenses. And it was fun. We sang, we sprayed each other with water, we played the drums on the pots we scrubbed. It was my first encounter with withholding taxes.
In college, hungry for exposure to the medical profession, I yearned to somehow get a job in an operating room. With no degree and no skill, the closest I could get was working in the recovery room of a hospital. I was assigned as an “orderly.” As an orderly, you do whatever anyone orders you to do. It’s usually the work that no one else wants to do. I spent my hours taking inventory of medical supplies, stocking iv’s on shelves, and emptying basins of vomit and jugs of pee produced by patients coming out of the stupor of anesthesia. I mopped the floors when I spilled the stuff. I gagged routinely.
All of these jobs helped me to form a work ethic: a sense of responsibility and a desire to excel at whatever I do. But more importantly, it left me with a connection to all the people in these and other forms of “menial labor.” This value is being missed by those of us who, for whatever reason, won’t take such jobs. There is dignity in honest work of any kind and I’m grateful that these jobs were a part of my work history.
Do you have a story to tell about the value of your first jobs? Thoughts on work ethic? Post a comment.