- Ages 6-8 or so: Seller of lemonade and salamanders. The lemonade we mixed up in the kitchen, just like all the other kids with lemonade stands. The salamanders we caught in the woods out back and placed in homemade stapled envelopes padded out with moistened moss. Only ever got one taker on the salamanders – 25 cents from my sister.
- Age 9: Picker of peas at local farm. A farm in Concord, NH, hired young kids to fill massive baskets of peas under the baking July sun for 50 cents a bushel. Do you know how long it takes to pick a bushel of peas? Especially when you’re eating roughly 1/4 of your take? I don’t know either, but it’s a lot less time than it takes to get a really bad sunburn on your neck and ears. I lasted maybe 5 days.
- Age 10: Waiter for hire. A few years ago I was rummaging through my parents’ attic and came across one of the many hand-printed 3X5 cards I’d made and distributed around the neighborhood advertising my services as a waiter at dinner parties. I even had a much-too-large blue blazer handed down from an older brother to make me look butlerish. Never got much work.
- Age 12: Seller of home-grown gladiolis. My dad planted several rows of gladiolis in the garden with the understanding that I would sell them in the summer when they bloomed. Not much return on investment, but a lot of fun anyway.
- Age 13: Snow-blower of driveways. This was my first real success. At US $10/driveway I’d get up at crack of dawn when snow had fallen and and clear 4 driveways before school started. $40 – in 1983 – for a boy my age meant that I was flush with cash that I kept in a roll like a drug dealer and have no recollection of what I spent it on.
- Age 14, summer: Clerk in a pet store. I’d bike to the store in the morning, work all day selling fish, birds, lizards and snakes to people who would probably ultimately kill then through ignorance, then go fishing in the evening. Not the best summer job, but not too bad.
- Ages 15-17, summers: Tout and galley slave on a whale-watching boat. At 15 my parents let me rent a room from an Emergency Room doctor who worked the graveyard shift, and for the first time I was essentially on my own. At 15. I appreciated the independence, but in hindsight I have no idea what my parents were thinking. Most days I sat at a picnic table signing people up for whale watches, but 2 days a week I worked the galley, serving food. In my slack time – and lounging about a picnic table taking reservations in a tourist town you have a lot of slack time – I wooed the summer girls. A few I even took back to my bachelor pad.
- Age 16, winter: Clerk at a local clothing store after school. School started at 7:15 and ended at 2:15, ridiculous hours for teenagers who tend to need to sleep late, but that’s the way our American school system works. I learned how to fold clothes neatly, work a cash register, and not much else.
- Age 17, winter: Dishwasher and pot scourer at local hospital. Yes, it was a pretty crappy job, but it paid $5.85/hour, which at the time was a generous wage. I worked evenings and weekends, racking up nearly 40 hours/week in addition to full-time school. Don’t know how I did it, really.
After that I held the usual bus-boy, wait-staff jobs until I landed a position, at age 19, at a fine-dining restaurant and started my seven-year stint in kitchens, rocketing up from salad boy to sous chef to executive chef by age 23, when I wasn’t really ready for the responsibility and where they threw ungodly amounts of money my way.
I could go on about my varied and spotted career, but point is, I started doing paid work at 9 years old. (Many kids when I was growing up had paper routes – rather Rockwellian and all that but the fact is very young kids were working hard slinging papers in all weather at a very early hour. I suppose it saved newspapers from having to provide health benefits and pensions.) I have somewhat mixed emotions about this. I loved my jobs. I made a bit of money, there was an entrepreneurial spirit about the whole thing, and it taught me the value of hard work.
In Japan many of my students were “salarymen” who had never held a job outside of their current positions. In many ways I felt sorry for them. They had missed out on a whole world of experience that comes from the odd and varied jobs that many American kids have growing up.
On the other hand, when I was in high school I worked a nearly full-time job in addition to my studies, and was frequently absolutely exhausted when I got to school in the morning. I often slept through Mr. McCormick’s first period history lessons, but he didn’t seem to care. (Not the sign of a great teacher – and since I’ve been a teacher as well as a seller of salamanders, I know a little bit about this.)
Last week I received a comment from the mother of a Texas girl who was raising money, partly by selling lemonade, to help a young man who’d been randomly shot in a drive-by shooting. That kind of altruism is obviously commendable and touching and all too rare.
I guess in the last analysis I see it this way: If a kid wants to work to make money, then he or she absolutely should, and if it’s an original and innovative business concept all the better. My only concern is that it might play into the current obsession with being a billionaire by the age of 20. And it must be remembered that in wealthy countries kids (for the most part) have the luxury of work being optional; in large swathes of the world it’s a tragic necessity or worse, a system of institutionalized forced labor.
But working voluntarily in order to buy or achieve what you want is a hell of a lot better than feeling that you deserve, that you’re somehow entitled to the latest tidbit of technology simply because you exist. So tomorrow at breakfast I’m telling my kids that it’s time they started working for their toast and eggs.
Did you have an interesting childhood job? A tremendous (or terrible) summer position? Please share your experience with all of us!