Clocking In

My 16-year-old daughter will be appalled to know this, but my fondest wish for her this summer is that she lands some unforgettably horrible job.

Bad hours, lousy pay, mind-numbing labor, surly co-workers — the whole pantheon of employment angst stuffed into 10 weeks of hell.

Why would any loving mother wish such evil on her hard-working, well-behaved offspring?

These days, I've noticed, many parents are eager to acquire "professional" positions for their high schoolers, hoping they can get an early start at forming career contacts and glossing up a résumé. But I think 16 is the ideal age for a summer job that is so humbling, it puts life in a new perspective. Bending over a steaming sink full of greasy pans, shoveling smelly mulch in the hot sun, sweeping the detritus left behind by a table of laughing diners — those jobs force us to rub elbows with some inalienable truths.

At the restaurants where I had summer jobs waiting tables, most of my long-serving co-workers performed their tasks with the unfailing attention to detail you'd expect only from the owners. The salad lady stood chest high to me, but she wielded her cruets of oil and vinegar with imperious dignity. I've never tasted a more exquisite vinaigrette.

Every Saturday night I witnessed the resourcefulness of the pig farmer who cheerfully arrived at the restaurant's back door to pick up garbage bags of scraps for his hogs. At closing time I saw the thrift of a sinewy, gray-haired kitchen worker whose spine formed a perpetual arc from sink duty. If there was fresh coffee left in the pots, she took it home in a glass jar. "Coffee's expensive," she said. "I heat this up for breakfast and it tastes just fine."

Out of this daily grind emerged my understanding that every role in an enterprise matters, and that wisdom and character reside at the lower end of the pay scale at least as often as at the top.

I also realized that thanks to a multi-strand hammock of support under me, woven by my middle-class parents' determination to educate their children, I was born with the promise of options. Showing up at 6 a.m. to scrub the metal legs of every chair in the restaurant, I realized that for many people, this was as good as it got. Yet as long as I didn't blow my opportunities, my stay there was likely temporary.

I'm glad I was thrown into jobs that didn't coddle me. Thick skin develops from working for a boss who isn't a family friend and suffers no fools. Better to learn the consequences of showing up late or mouthing off before there's a mortgage to pay.

My fastidious brother unloaded returnable bottles at a Pepsi plant one summer, case after case crusted with dried food and flies. One sister made donuts before dawn. Another spent her days wrapping chocolates, like Lucille Ball. Her boyfriend hosed down the slaughterhouse floor of the Park Poultry processing plant. All are now professionals; all still respect anyone who punches a clock.

I think a humbling summer job is especially important for affluent teens, and not just so they appreciate their privileges. Someday, many of them will occupy positions of power, making decisions that affect lives. They need to have an inkling of what it means to walk in working-class shoes.

Yet just as entry into the "right" colleges (and even pre-schools) has become a parental Olympics, I've noticed a frantic jockeying among the professional class as summers approach.

Once, at a party, I heard a mother lobby a doctor to take on her daughter as a summer intern at his medical practice. The doctor listened receptively, until he learned she was a high school junior. "Oh," he said, trying to recover with grace. "Talk to me when she's a college sophomore and declared her major."

Why arrange for kids to leapfrog over the very jobs that offer some of life's most valuable lessons?

Journalist Michael Smerconish recently interviewed Thomas Stanley, co-author of the 1996 best-selling The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy. Stanley's studies revealed the typical millionaire "was a guy who sold Christmas cards door to door and flipped burgers as a kid, received a public school education and now runs a scrap yard in Missouri."

The irony is this: Their children, having enjoyed a highly privileged life and Ivy League educations, are often unmotivated and heavily subsidized by their millionaire-next-door parents.

My son's first job search was a sign of the times. When he turned 16 in late July 2008, the economy was tanking hard. Many of the low-paying jobs usually available to teens were filled with desperate, laid-off workers with families to feed. Eventually he was lucky enough to land part-time work as an aide in an after-school program. He gained the satisfaction of earning a steady paycheck, learned the rigors of managing a rainbow of personalities and realized he was good with kids.

Secretly, though, I'm hoping my daughter gets a job that requires a hairnet, an apron or steel-toed boots.

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