Reflections on our first jobs and the meaning of work.
Editor’s note: We all have fond (or not so fond) memories of our first jobs. Flipping burgers at the fast food chain. Lifeguarding in 100-degree heat. Mowing lawns. Babysitting the kids down the street. All of these jobs taught us something about the nature of work and what God intended for it—even in a fallen world full of thistles and weeds. Our contributors share their lasting lessons from the defining work moments of their youth in hopes that all of us can be encouraged to seek God’s glory in every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8).
My first job was bussing tables at a historic restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs. I wanted an “exotic” first job and one where I would not run into any of my classmates. This meant that I had to work for an owner who would frequently yell at her staff in front of customers. My co-workers were mainly comprised of male teens and 20-somethings from the halfway house down the block. Not awesome. And the wait staff would steal my tips. Also, my choice in working there was selfish, as my mom had to drive me most days.
The next summer I took a job at Wendy’s. I loved it. Why? Because I loved my co-workers and my bosses. Even though it was fast-food, even though I saw people from my high school often, I loved it. People make the place. A nice restaurant does not automatically equal stellar working conditions. A fast-food chain may be a place of encouragement. My co-workers were why I stayed even beyond that summer, but if my choice between the two was based solely on how I was treated by customers, the story would be different. Hands down, I’ve never been treated worse than when I worked at Wendy’s. As if people thought they didn’t need to be kind or patient or a decent human being because the job sat low on the job market totem pole. I saw workers continually dehumanized by customers. People deserve courtesy and kindness for the work they do and the service they provide, no matter how “exotic.”
I have two recollections of “first jobs” as a high schooler. The first was cleaning school buses for our local school bus company. On the first day of the job, my boss asked me to back out a bus (I don’t recall having my license yet) and pull it around front so we could power wash it. He handed me the keys and said, “You can drive a stick, right?” I said “Yes” and then proceeded to attempt to back the bus out of the garage. It sat between two other busses with about nine inches of clearance on either side. I learned that good work includes an honest expression of your limits. It is okay to let people know what you can’t do and it is far better than trying to do something you cannot.
My second recollection comes from my time as a construction laborer. I worked for a fire damage repair company. In a way, my job was to help the carpenters and other contractors work with as few obstructions as possible. It was a lot of sweeping, cleaning, removing trash, rearranging hoses and saws and supplying materials. I loved it. There is nothing quite like watching someone do what they do well with the “thorns and thistles” removed from the work. I learned there is great satisfaction to be found in making others successful at their work.
Growing up in the Midwest, my first paying job was de-tasseling corn in the hot, humid, mucky fields of rural Iowa. This miserable rite-of-passage taught many youth such as myself to do whatever it took to avoid having to return to those steamy, exhausting, claustrophobic rows of despair the following year…or ever again!
And so at the tender age of 14, I gleefully landed my dream job at Barr Bicycle Shop in the more civilized suburbia of West Des Moines. Three of my best friends were also hired there, and so gears and grease became our new passion. We learned valuable skills that I still use to this day, and the camaraderie around the bike culture led us to participating in an annual bike ride across Iowa (RAGBRAI) and to competitive racing.
Working in the bike shop was a definite step up from de-tasseling, though far less lucrative. After school, we built bikes from the box on a piece-rate system, which worked out to around $4 an hour. But the prestige of being a skilled gearhead seemed to make up for the meager pay. Eventually, we were entrusted with the honor of doing actual repairs. Soon, replacing hubs and crankshafts were added to our repertoire of truing rims and greasing cables.
The shop, which was a mechanical training ground, soon became a moral training ground. One of the mechanics, around ten years our senior, began touting the awesomeness of smoking weed to our crew of impressionable, high school freshmen. To my knowledge, all succumbed to the temptation, save one. The only reason being was he had heard that anyone wanting to be a future fighter pilot would be summarily black-balled from eligibility if he had ever smoked pot, and he wanted to keep his options open! (I never did apply for the Air Force, but I’m still glad that it provided an incentive for rejecting peer pressure—a defining moment in a long line of such temptations.)
I’m still fond of bikes. How can one not
be, in a town like Fort Collins? And the shop is still there, 42 years later. I remember the sights, sounds and smells like they were yesterday. I still have the high-end touring bike that I saved up for while working there and built with all the best components. It’s a sentimental relic from my past that still transports me—in more ways than one.
I am who I am today because God made me a paperboy when I was 11-years-old.
My brothers and I shared three routes for the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan
, the Monday through Saturday paper in Yankton, South Dakota. The routes were stacked on top of each other, about a half mile long and a quarter mile wide, with 15th Street to the north, 8th Street to the south, Summit to west, Green to the east and our house in the middle. We gave up our routes when we moved to Colorado in the summer of 2000. I was 15 when our tenure ended, but being a paperboy was the
formative experience of my early adolescence.
We talk loosely of “formative years,” as if formative meant “important.” There is indeed importance in these years that bookend late childhood and adolescence. But the importance comes from the forming. Our formative years are precisely that because there were certain practices, habits and rituals that formed
the shape of our identity and desires in the world.
The paper route formed in me the importance of time. The papers had to be delivered by 6:30 a.m., so our bodies developed the habit of waking up at 5 a.m., even if the first thing we heard from the radio alarm was Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights.”
Being a paperboy formed the core of my work ethic. Because when it’s 5 a.m. in the middle of winter with white-out conditions, you learn how to make work enjoyable regardless of the conditions.
It formed a desire to work for a newspaper and imprinted in me the value of delivering the right content at the right time. I don’t think I would have pursued a vocational in writing/communications without these years as a paperboy.
It formed a love for God’s creation. We counted falling stars and kept watch of the constellations. We drank in countless sunrises. We left footprints in the frost on cold fall mornings. We beheld the beauty and power of prairie blizzards.
Being a paperboy formed my bank account and helped pay for the first few semesters of college.
It helped form a unique bond between my brothers and I. We raced to see who could finish their route the fastest. We would laugh at the daily installment of Calvin and Hobbes
before heading out into the darkness. We were co-workers in something bigger than ourselves, and if the Saturday inserts were unbearably bulky, Mom and Dad would help us finish the route before the 6:30 a.m. deadline. In some ways, delivering papers was our family business.
Most significantly, though, being a paperboy formed in me a deep sense of place. Our house was in the very center of the routes. We knew the neighborhood well from years of biking to and from friends’ houses, but being out in the neighborhood six mornings each week for four years magnified our understanding of it. Not only did we know addresses but we knew names. We knew when people moved and when they went on vacation. We knew if their dogs were likely to chase us down the street or not. We knew
where we were in the world. And no matter how dark the morning or how long it took, home was always there for us, in the center of our map, holding our world together and awaiting our return.
Farming is a biblical occupation but one that most people in modern times are unfamiliar with. When I was growing up, my summers were spent doing farm work, thus it was my first job (and pretty much an unpaid one, at that). Farming and being close to the land may sound glorious, but it involves a lot of…well…manure. Sure, you get some great stories out of it—like the time I survived stacking hay on a 1940s farm truck in the middle of a field during a lightning storm. But make no mistake. Farm work is hard, humbling work.
My grandma was a Depression-era farmer, and I grew up with her, my mom (her daughter), my dad (who came from a dairy farm in Pennsylvania) and my brother. The lessons I learned from them included “Don’t complain” and “Just figure out a way to get the job done.” I once forded an irrigation canal to chase an ornery heifer back home. I got caught out in a lightning storm riding horses with my grandma, and we got drenched (see a theme here?). From a young age, I gathered firewood, cleaned water tanks, fed livestock (sometimes being chased by them), pulled weeds, lifted hay bales and, yes, picked up lots of manure. All of this has contributed to who I am—a woman who is not afraid of hard, dirty work and a woman who is feisty and fiery with a passion for helping others. That last one is because farmers help each other out—always. When the neighbor needs help getting a crop in, catching a loose animal or fixing a tractor, you drop everything and go help. It’s what you do.
I have always admired the simple, raw faith that many farmers have. I don’t think you can grow anything without learning to pray for God’s providence—rain when you need it, no rain for harvest, for the hail to pass over your farm and for the freeze to wait until next week (not to mention my prayers to not get struck by lightning). Farming cultivates a humble, honest reliance on the Lord to provide for your needs, and that is something I need to relearn every day. Fortunately, that opportunity has carried over into my adult life.
For anyone who knows me or my love of books, my first job will be no surprise. I started working at the Crook County Library in the small town of Prineville, Oregon the week I turned 14. I had an evening shift each week and worked every other Saturday. After my freshman year, I worked full time every summer and any holidays my family wasn’t traveling somewhere. When I went to college I worked—you guessed it—at the library at Western Baptist College. I started as an evening clerk and had progressed to the position of head librarian’s assistant by the time I graduated.
While I love books, the library wasn’t exactly my dream job. It was a nice atmosphere, and I worked with some really great people. But, to be honest, it was more than a little boring. There is not a lot of “scope for the imagination” in checking in, shelving or putting dust jackets on books.
One summer my specially assigned job was to go through every book in the library and put a barcode in it, and then put a matching barcode on its card in the card catalog. (Yes, I had my first job back in the dark ages before computer systems were everywhere. And yes, my job was to do this for every...single…book in the library.) No 15-year-old anywhere is going to find this an exciting way to spend a summer.
But that was my assignment and that is what I faithfully did. That job taught me the value of perseverance. One section at a time, one row at a time, one book at a time. It was slow going, but I could see how far I’d come (and how far I still had to go). When I finished there was a sense of satisfaction at what I had accomplished. While what I did was something anyone could have done, what it led to was a big deal. It was the first step in a series of steps that led to getting our library online, which made all of our jobs a whole lot easier and made the library more accessible to all of its patrons. And that made my long and boring job worth doing well.
In one of his speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. said this:
If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.”
We don’t always get to choose what we do. But we can always choose how we do it. That summer, my 15-year-old self sometimes struggled with her attitude but, in the end, I think she learned that even a boring job can bring satisfaction when we persevere and finish it well. And that is a lesson that has stood the test of time in all the ups and downs of jobs I’ve had over the years, both in those I loved and those that simply brought home a paycheck.
And, as an additional bonus, when my kids are teenagers and tell me they have the most boring job in the world and can’t take another day, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to challenge them on that score.