Every kid should have to suffer through a few bad jobs
I’m 16 years old. I scoop ice cream, burn my hand on a popcorn machine, and learn more about cleaning a squirrel nest out of a miniature golf course hole than I ever thought I would need to. These lessons won’t necessarily every apply to me again in life, but the ability to muscle down and do terrible, unpleasant work and stick through it is a skill that will lead to success later. This work ethic learned in my first real summer job carries me through life, making studying for unrewarding college courses easier to me, doing busy work less tedious, and completing tasks for work I don’t find particularly interesting or rewarding but have to get done less painful. Suffering through a bad job as a young adult is an oft unrewarding, but extremely valuable life experience and one I believe all kids should have.
When I was 16, I began my first real summer job at a local family owned movie theater. A single screen theater with sticky floors, no A/C or even fans, and showing movies that were typically second or even third run, it wasn’t the most prestigious locale. As a first job, it was exactly what I needed. To a 16-year-old with no concept of money and the value of hard work, I quickly learned to value the monetary cost of things I wanted in terms of hours worked. Those sweet Pokemon cards I wanted would cost me an entire week of work. Sure, I still bought them, but I gained an important lesson in valuing them. Yes, I valued these cards so much that I kept them for 15 years, then threw them out in the trash on a rainy day. And one day they might have been worth millions! Just like my beanie babies.
During my summer working at this movie theater, which doubled (tripled, quadrupled?) as a restaurant, ice cream parlor, and miniature golf course, I learned exactly what it was I did not want to do in life. The value of a higher education and a nice office job quickly became apparent. Starting in the movie concessions stand, I sold candy and popcorn to moviegoers. I really developed a feel for the pulse of the entertainment industry. Though my Oscars invite was presumably lost in the mail, I learned that Sour Patch Kids are far more popular than Twizzlers, and this was way back in 2001 before anyone knew about the explosion in popularity of sour candy. In fact, I don’t think we sold a single pack of Twizzlers all summer which makes me question what happens to the inventory. I guess Twizzlers really never go bad but is the risk worth it? I have never bought candy at a movie theater since. This might be subconsciously why.
While operating the popcorn machine one night, my hands wander a bit too close to the lava hot cooker and essentially fuse the back of my hand to the machine. After wrapping it up in a wet towel, I continue working the rest of the night. I carry a decent scar from it to this day and though I secretly suspect I am truly left handed and was taught to be a righty, it may also be from this that I begin to favor my left hand. It will not be the last scar I carry from my summer job.
Moving up from the concession stand, I eventually come to work the ice cream counter as well. Beyond scooping ice cream, my main responsibility tends to be making ice cream floats and shakes. If you’ve ever operated a milkshake machine before, you know they rival espresso machines in complexity for such a basic function. I never fully figure out the process and end up launching ice cream missiles across the kitchen more often than not. At one point – or should I say pint – while scooping some rum raisin out of the freezer in the back, I gash my hand on the broken glass container. It’s a miracle I never got tetanus from this job.
Is the injury accidentally-on-purpose so that I can get away from people, the part I hate most about the job? Perhaps. I briefly try waiting on tables, but simply cannot make it stick. I either forget the orders or can’t find the energy required to pretend to be nice to the frequenters of a small town single screen movie theater. This means I don’t receive tips, the largest source of income at the place, but I get to avoid the patrons for the most part.
I move back into the kitchen, taking on dishwasher duty. Here I find my true calling. Mechanical, repetitive work that allows me to enter a flow state, far before this term enters my lexicon. Scraping off bits of caked on food becomes my moment of zen and for the rest of my life whenever I smell Ajax cleaner I’ll be taken back to the summer of 2001. During this time, I build a bond with the cook and end up eating the best item on the menu, chicken parmesan pretty much every day. If not for the arm workout scrubbing dishes gives me, I probably would gain 50 pounds.
I also make my way to the miniature golf counter, perhaps my favorite part of the job. In case it isn’t obvious, a poorly maintained miniature golf course in the Poconos attached to the back of a movie theater is not highly trafficked. On most days, I serve maybe 4-10 customers during a 4-hour stretch. The rest of the time I listen to the radio, classic rock, and count the half length golf pencils in the box. Once I believe I have caught the supplier short changing us, but a recount proves otherwise. It’s the most exciting day I have working there.
Toward the end of my summer, I’m introduced to a tradition the longer-term, multiple summers, employees have of punching a fiberglass clown statue that often stands outside, I suppose creepily becoming children inside like IT. While I understand the frustration with the place and the clowns serves as a tangible marker of the establishment, I can never muster enough hatred for it to actually whack it. Or perhaps I’m afraid of it coming to life at night in the dark as I’m closing up the golf counter and taking vengeance. At this point, physical violence toward a plastic circus worker just makes me sad and happy that the summer is ending. I know I won’t be returning.
The next summer, I am still sitting on a nice fat stack from the previous summer. It probably amounts to around $50 which to a 17-year-old is a fortune. After the experience of the previous summer, I have no desire to return to a menial summer job. So, like the genius I presume I am, I decided to take a job counting and sorting screws at my friend’s family’s propane business. The job may entail something other than just counting screws, but 15 years removed, this is honestly all I, or my friend, or his family can remember us doing.
The summer of 2002 must have been the hottest on record in the Poconos. Even in the shade, I remember it being excessively hot. Hot enough to pour sweat. Hot enough to scald my hand multiple times on the metal surface of the pickup trucks and containers where the incredibly critical screws are stored. I suppose the screw counting must have been part of some kind of inventory taking, but I’m truly not sure as this was never explained to us. So for an entire summer, my friend and I sort, count, and record screws. Maybe some nails. I vaguely recall a bolt or two. It makes working at Home Depot look like rocket science and don’t even get me started on the complexity of working at Lowes.
Beyond counting screws, I recall us listening to a classic rock station that seemed to only play Billy Joel. Like non-stop. Maybe it was just a Billy Joel station. Or Billy Joel owned the station. Ok it might have been a Billy Joel tape. Anyway, we got pretty good at Billy Joel karaoke. We never realized our dreams of starting our band called “The Entertainers” and touring the Long Island circuit covering the big hits. If only we had beaten Billy himself we could have had that MSG residency.
During the course of these jobs, I learned a healthy respect for the value of a hard day’s work. Often bloodied, sweaty, and exhausted at the end of such a day, I gained an appreciation for the value of money and especially my own time. Suffering through these jobs was an important experience for my growth and development and had a direct effect on shaping who I would later become. When work or study would get tough later in life, I would have no problem buckling down and pushing through it, knowing nothing would measure up to the popcorn machine. No tough assignments in college or drafting documents or powerpoint presentations for work could ever be more trying than these experiences. Because of this, I want my children to have similar experiences. I definitely don’t want them to incur the same physical trauma, but a little suffering through tough work builds character and sets up success later in life. These experiences build a strong work ethic and stick-to-itiveness that I want to see in my own kids. So start honing up on your ice cream scooping skills boys, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.