When I was sixteen, I got a job as a cashier at the local IGA supermarket. Every fruit had a code used for weighing it, and bananas were the first one I memorized: 4011. I was proud that I knew things like this. I liked being useful.
A few years ago I read a book called “The Case Against Adolescence” by Robert Epstein, which said until about 100 years ago, adolescence didn’t exist. People were children, who then became adults. After you stopped being a child, you were an adult with responsibility, whether that was getting married and having your own child, working, apprenticing, hunting, joining the army, helping your family with a farm or business or household. You went from being a child who learned how to be a useful older child, who then became a useful young adult. Which has recently got me thinking about students who have part-time jobs and what they get from it:
- Rafael started working in his mother’s real estate business, developing a sense of pride he hadn’t experienced before, but then started to miss more and more school until he dropped out, despite our efforts to bring him back.
- Sanjeeda worked in a 7-11 in Manhattan, which she loved, and she earned an Advanced Diploma, with high scores on all of her exams.
- Alejandro arrived in this country in April as a refugee from Guatemala at the age of 17, although we suspected he might be older. He appeared to never have attended school and to have a learning difficulty. We worked hard to help Alejandro, and our students were particularly sweet with him. However, the next year when his attendance drifted off, we learned that he had a job in a pizza place where he was happy, and feeling like he was part of something.
- When Juan didn’t pass his English Regents exam senior year, he was devastated, but he enrolled in evening classes held in our building for older students in their 5th or 6th year of high school, and continued to work with our teachers. We gave him a part-time job in our school as a student aide, where he helped out with anything that needed doing. He started to mature, and slowly improved his English, but still failed the exam again in June. However, he kept going, and in August, he passed with a high score and graduated. When his mother came to thank us for giving him that job and supporting him in his 5th year of high school, she literally fell on her knees.
I’d like to give every student in my school a job like Juan’s, but it would be impossible to employ 370 students. I’m interested in how jobs help or hinder our students’ development, and whether it’s even possible to give students the same feeling of responsibility and pride in their work at school that so many of them feel in their jobs. I know that for me, memorizing the code for bananas was the start of something that helped me get more organized, learn how to interact with people more diplomatically, and ultimately, become an adult.
All of the names of students have been changed.
Photo credit: John Grimm, licensed Creative Commons.