“Sweetheart, you will be working the rest of your life. Why would you want to start now?" My practical mother questioned me that June morning in 1976, the summer I was to turn 14. Clearly she did not understand the importance of having one's own money, and not being the baby anymore. She signed the paperwork, acknowledging two things: At least she wouldn't have to worry about my being left alone this summer, and there was the off chance I might actually learn some skills that might come in handy. When I look back on that moment I realize the wisdom of her words.
It has been 34 years and I've always had some type of a job. Dishwasher, babysitter, hotel clerk, waiter, receptionist, sales clerk, sales representative, manager, trainer, you name it. I worked from that summer until now, through high school, college and into a 25-year professional career.
At the time, my parents were divorced, my older sisters too busy for the baby. My mother was working a part-time job and a full-time job to cover the expenses of raising four daughters alone on a high school education.
I often spent my time at the Salvation Army with the youth group. There was a feeling of industry to the brick building that both the entrepreneurial enterprise and the savior of souls were housed in. Across the street was the Daily News. The smell of hard work was part of that neighborhood. I could watch the men hoisting the stacks of newspapers daily from the dock into the open backs of station wagons with worn tires and aged bodies. The winos from one block south at the wharf would sometimes panhandle at the Army or possibly obtain newspapers to sell for their next meal or drink.
When I wandered into a nearby office one day and began asking questions of a CETA recruiter, I ended up leaving with paperwork for my mom to sign. CETA was the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act enacted in 1973 to train workers and provide them with jobs in public service. It offered work to low-income and long-term workers, as well as summer jobs to low-income high school students.
That first day on the job was an eye-opener. People I had never met before hopped into a van to be driven to our work location. It was a high school in the next town over. I lined up to climb into the van, and that's when I met Lorna. She looked like a tomboy, dressed in farmer's overalls, hair in pigtails, bruises showing on her arms. She pushed her way in front of me. She eyed my paper lunch bag and asked me what was in it. I held it a little tighter as I noticed that she did not have a lunch bag in hand. She sat there sullen in the van as others talked more hopefully about what work might await us that day.
When we arrived at the school, we were broken into work groups. Our group of three, Lorna, I and a boy, were to clean the bathroom walls and floors as preparation for the painting that the more experienced workers were going to do after lunch. Our supervisor gave us instructions, rags, buckets and liquid cleaner and watched us for a few moments. As soon as he left, Lorna quit cleaning. The boy and I continued with our efforts. Complaining to Lorna about her lack of cooperation made no difference; she picked at a scab on her arm and paid little attention.
After lunch, our supervisor took us outside and told us that we were to pull weeds in the courtyard. Well, that was it for Lorna. She cussed and complained, stomped her feet and told him in no uncertain terms that she wasn't pulling weeds and he couldn't make her. The supervisor eyed her wearily. She was a heavyset girl, and possibly weighed as much as, if not more than, he did. He left the area, two of us working and Lorna not working.
At the end of the afternoon I was tired but felt good about what I had done. There was camaraderie and quiet laughter as the van pulled on to the road, headed to the office.
Upon arriving, Lorna was asked not to return the next day. The last glance I had of Lorna was her dad punching her arm and pulling her by the hair as he dragged her out of the office.
"Pumpkin, how did your day go? Did you learn anything useful?" my mother inquired that evening as I sat down to dinner. I smiled as I thought of all that I had learned that day.
Lisa L. Ferry works and lives in Bradenton with her husband and daughter.