When I was fourteen, my father invested in a video store, and my first job was born. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I worked at Video Village, selling memberships, filing VHS and Betamax tapes in their proper places, and working the cash register. One afternoon, a middle-aged male customer returned Beverly Hills Cops. I loved this movie, I told him, enthusiastically. Didn’t you think it was so good? The nineteen year-old guy who worked with me almost fell off of his stool, he was laughing so hard. What? I wanted to know. What’s so funny? When the customer left, my co-worker instructed me to check the box again, and I think I blushed a color not found in nature when I realized that the move was actually a porno called Beverly Hills Cocks. When my dad heard about it, my days as a video store clerk abruptly came to an end, but I learned a great lesson from that experience: when you’re talking to a customer, make sure you have your facts straight.
My next job came the following year, when I turned sixteen. My best friend and I worked together, nights and weekends at Baskin Robbins. During the week, when it was slow, we would sit on the counter and do our homework, and on the weekends, we did whippets in the back freezer and gave free ice cream to our friends. What did I learn from that job? I learned that you shouldn’t let teenagers work without an adult there to supervise, and that you should always keep an inventory so you’ll know if your employees are stealing from you.
After that, in my senior year, came a stint at a local gift shop. The owner was, shall we say, a few Fruit Loops short of a bowl, and she was a bit of a slave driver, too. She put me in charge of everything – the cash register, stocking cards, placing orders, gift wrapping, blowing up balloons – and it was there that I learned to be super efficient, and also how to multi-task. Then, just before graduation, I got in a car accident. It was raining, and my parents told me not to drive in the rain, but of course, I did it anyway, and I hydroplaned and hit a telephone pole. I was fine, but my car was wrecked, and my parents said that if I wanted it fixed, I would have to pay for it myself. So that summer, after graduation, I worked nights and weekends at the card shop, and then took another job during the day as a camp counselor, to make more money. I found a guy who said he would fix my car for a thousand dollars, and I will never forget walking into the body shop with a giant wad of cash in my hand that I had earned myself, at seventeen, after three months of fourteen-hour work days. That summer I learned – you guessed it – the value of a dollar. I also learned that working two jobs sucks, and that balancing work with a social life is really hard to do. All that, and I hadn’t even started college yet.
I often think about whether I will make my children work when they’re in high school, and I find myself struggling for the right answer. My parents’ financial situation was such that I didn’t have to work, yet they felt that I should pay for my own things, especially when it came to things like designer jeans, Benetton sweaters and limos for prom. But in high school, I was no slacker. I was an honor student, I took AP classes, I was class President and captain of the cheerleading squad, and a member of student council. Juggling all of those responsibilities at seventeen was hard, and stressful, and I often resented my parents for it.
Yet, I saw the other side of the coin when I was a college counselor. At a private school where most of the kids had lots of money, none of my students had jobs. They had too much work, too many AP classes, too many after school activities. As it was, many of them stayed up until two in the morning every night to finish their homework. But I often wondered, was that because they were procrastinating, talking on the phone, IM’ing their friends, checking their My Space pages? If they’d had jobs, would they have been better able to manage their time, as I had when I was their age? Or is it really just a different world for kids today? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that, while I adored many of those kids, the value of a dollar was lost on them. Money was something that was simply handed over whenever they needed it, for whatever they wanted. They were entitled, they were spoiled, and worst of all, they had no concept of what it takes to earn the money they so casually spent.
I don’t want my children to be overwhelmed, as I often was, but I don’t want them to be like my students were, either. I learned great lessons from working in high school, and I’m sure that those experiences shaped who I am today. Would I place the same value on working that I do now if, over the course of the last twenty years, I hadn’t always held a job? Would I feel differently about work if it hadn’t always been such a big part of my life? But then again, was it worth all of the extra stress? Wouldn’t I have learned those same lessons if I’d started working later on? I can’t say for sure. It’s another one of those tricky, parenting dilemmas; I want my kids to have the same values that I do, but I don’t want them to have to suffer, like I did, to get them. So how do you know what the right answer is? Unfortunately, I never had a job that taught me how to figure that one out.