• August 27, 2015

Summer Jobs

Summer Jobs: When Class Ends, the True Lessons Begin 1

John Macdonald for The Chronicle Review

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close Summer Jobs: When Class Ends, the True Lessons Begin 1

John Macdonald for The Chronicle Review

For a few more languorous days, my 19-year-old, Matt, will sleep late, veg out in front of reruns of Family Guy, and otherwise imitate a slug. The easy life will come to an abrupt end next week when he starts his first of two summer jobs—working as a part-time chimney sweep. Up here, in northern Maine, chimneys can get pretty black, and Matt is likely to come home looking like a charcoal briquette on legs.

Eating soot is merely a tune-up for the real work that awaits in mid-July—raking blueberries alongside Haitian migrant workers some 70 to 80 hours a week. The pay is fixed to how many pails of berries he can fill. It's notoriously back-breaking work, but in these parts it's also a rite of passage for many young people. For their entire lives, they'll dine off tales of sweltering summers in the blueberry fields.

Much as I cherish my time in the classroom—I've been at it for three decades—I still believe summer jobs are often the defining experience of the college years. Sometimes, the grittier and more physically demanding the jobs, the more insight they yield about character—our own and others'—about the nature of work, and about how we define class. For the pampered, for the snob and the anointed, it can be a much-needed vaccine against a life otherwise spent avoiding the world around them.

It was 41 years ago this summer, following my freshman year as a classics major at Brandeis, that I put away my Tacitus for a timecard and went to work in a dress factory in Boston's legendary "Combat Zone." I did whatever needed doing—unloading the rolls of tartan wool on the loading docks, stacking them by clan, retrieving them when the dress cutters called for them, carrying the broken saws through the streets of Chinatown to be repaired, making boxes in the shipping room (in those boxes headed for my home state of Ohio I scribbled a plea to be rescued—help never came). I took hampers of cut goods to the floor below where women wearing kerchiefs and speaking in strange tongues grabbed them and frantically fed them into their sewing machines, doing piecework and arguing over who had first dibs. I also wheeled racks of finished goods through the streets, dodging traffic, cursing curbs, and delivering dresses to the service entrances of department stores.

What did I learn from all this? Well I learned how far $2.75 an hour goes. I learned the names of a couple dozen tartan plaids—Black Watch, Stewart, Buchanan, MacKenzie, MacLeod—and how to line up the bonded cloth on the long cutting tables, matching each blindingly similar pattern with the one below. I learned to say hello to the hooker who worked that stretch of Essex Street—Mississippi was her name—and where Boston Shorty could be seen shooting pool. I learned from the cutters where the best blue-plate specials were, and Bert, the senior cutter, narrated lunchtime tours of Boston, both the seedy and the proper sides. I learned to hate the scent of lavender cologne that my boss doused himself in, to tune out his boasting of indiscretions, and to walk away when he tried to bait me into a fight. I learned that the line between the kids who got to go to college and those who did not had less to do with brains than accidents of birth, and that sweat is the great equalizer.

Some of my friends that summer of 1969 had far cushier jobs in air-conditioned offices, and some had internships as rising stars. But I had no regrets. Well, maybe one. For a shot at time-and-a-half (four bucks an hour) working Saturday, I passed up a chance to go to a concert with my buddies. It was Woodstock.

The next summer, I worked in a Capitol Hill bar washing dishes, working alongside the short-order cook, Archie, who had just gotten out of prison. One of my many duties was to remove the petaled radish from the incoming plate, plop it in a glass of water for a moment, then delicately place it on an outgoing dish. (I learned not to eat radishes and to avoid garnishes altogether.)

I worked for the gas company that summer, too. I was a flagman on the road to the Pentagon, bringing generals to a complete stop. I also ran a jackhammer and a three-footed tamper, poured tar, and was lowered by rope into mud-and-water-filled trenches to shore them up. There was something liberating about working without a shirt, listening to the stories of my co-workers, Deacon Jones and Magellan Wiggins, and riding in the back of an open truck cooled by a 50-mile-an-hour stretch of road. At the end of the day, I showered away all that grime and never before, or since, have felt so clean.

My older son, David, worked a summer at Panera Bread, making sandwiches, soups, and salads, and cleaning up afterward. His spendthrift ways with our money were replaced with miserly ways with his own. He also learned that actions had consequences. He could not pick up his final paycheck until he came up with 50 bucks—to pay for carving his initials into the cutting board.

I have heard parents say that the true value of such work is to be found in the negative—that it teaches children what they don't want to do with their lives. That suggests that the purpose of an education is to avoid such work. I don't buy it. Immersing yourself in work of any kind is an unalloyed good, and the last thing the privileged should promote is greater distance from the rest of society.

Amazing how the memory of a simple blister or a sore back stays with you. Cumulatively, it can change the way management and labor get on, inform the discussion of workplace safety and regulation, and create a society that is more inclusive. It can also alter the trajectory of one's ambitions and priorities, as it did mine.

As a parent and professor, I've come to believe that there are some lessons that just have to be lived to be learned. In each of my summer jobs I was but a minor character in a narrative that was not at all about me. To be no one's darling, to share the weight of something too heavy to shoulder yourself, to win respect a day at a time—those are worth more than time-and-a-half. Rarely do those jobs show up on anyone's résumés in the years after, but they often make us who we are.

As for Matt, I have forewarned him that the work in the blueberry fields will not be easy. To his credit, he says easy is not what he's after. Truth is, I envy him.

Ted Gup is chair of the journalism department at Emerson College. This fall Penguin Press will publish his book A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness—and a Trove of Letters—Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression.


1. morgnan7 - July 12, 2010 at 10:57 am

Ted Gup? I think I met a fellow named Ted Gup while we both worked in China in the mid 80s. I'm curious if this is him. Didn't really get to know him well. I only remember him because of my fondness for people with short, crisp names.

Nice piece, Ted. Zai jian.

Lanny Morgnanesi

2. dee615 - July 12, 2010 at 06:53 pm

These types of jobs also contribute to the development of physical stamina - useful when you are putting in 15+ hours at school.

3. drnels - July 14, 2010 at 03:49 pm

These sound like summer jobs I know some adjuncts are doing. And I know a tenured faculty member who works at Starbucks each summer, too, and an tenure-track prof who does landscaping. I actually thought this post was going to be about summer jobs for academics.

4. creach - July 16, 2010 at 06:49 am

Interesting article: I worked several summer jobs, but the most interesting was as a Laborer, member of the AFLCIO, running a jack-hammer most of the summer before my senior year. I still remember the stories of the people with whom I worked. Although I came from a working-class background, that summer gave me a new perspective on life. I've always consider those jobs to have been an important part of my education.

5. glord - July 16, 2010 at 12:57 pm

While I wish I might make a contribution to the discussion of summer jobs, I reflect back on my years as a student when I worked year round to pay for my education. Yup, did it for all three degrees.

I believe my experience is more consistent with what most of my students experience and I do believe it made a better person of me; but that is for others to judge.

6. agupmathews - July 16, 2010 at 03:57 pm

Great article, Bro! I am just now trying to teach my 13-year-old daughter why she must continue to work for the full 3 week assignment at her first summer job, even though she despises it. The meaning of "commitment" is a hard lesson to learn, and the importance of not letting your boss and your co-workers down is a lesson that I hope she will carry with her throughout her life.

7. hardenm - July 19, 2010 at 08:58 am

Oh Ted - ohhh noble and hardworking Ted. Lucky for me I knew what hard work meant before I was old enough to take a "real" summer job. And by the time I was old enough to take a "real" summer job, I was expected to work AT LEAST full time and contribute to our family income. By the time I was 10 I was babysitting neighborhood kids after school, helping my older sister get dinner ready, and when my father came home from the morenci mine it was my job to help him unlace and take off his boots, and unload and wash his lunch pail. If you can support your children, especially in this economy, I would advise you to find something else for them to do besides taking a much needed job away from some migrant worker. Seriously, make him volunteer at the local soup kitchen. This article is so insulting to all of the working class people who don't have any choices.

8. 22191530 - July 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

Hardenm, you of all people should be more appreciative of someone WHO DIDN'T HAVE TO trying to aproximate the hard work that that you undertook. I wonder if you would have done the same.

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