Ellie — Since you recently turned nine months and are motoring your way into toddlerhood, I think it’s time to talk about something serious: jobs.
I’m not talking about a career or profession, which is a serious business you don’t have to think about till years down the line. I’m talking about the odd jobs I hope you’ll have when you’re in high school or college, during the summer or after classes.
Looking back on my own life, I’m convinced the small, temporary jobs I took over the years were as educational as any class I’ve ever taken. I’m talking about the waitressing job I took when I was 18 — my first job! — and the temporary secretarial work I did during college summers. I’ve been a bookstore clerk, a Kelly Girl, a legal secretary, a freelance typist for anybody who’d pay me.
“Answer the phone in a loud, strong voice,” the stockbroker in St. Petersburg, Florida, told me. “I want you to impress our callers.”
A loud, strong voice? I spent the morning screaming every time I answered the phone. Then, when I went to lunch, I accidentally locked the stockbroker out of the office and he said lots of things in a loud, strong voice when he had to kick the door in.
Then, there was the law firm that objected to my finishing my work quickly and breaking out a Russian novel when I didn’t have anything else to do (I was halfway through Brothers Karamazov). “We want you to look busy,” one of the junior partners told me in a sit-down, you’re-the-problem-not-us meeting in his cramped little office. I’d thought reading Dostoyevsky made me look busy. I was wrong.
I greeted people, I typed, I filed, I looked busy. I quit one job, got another one. It was a time in my life when leaving was easy and starting over was a snap. But life doesn’t stay like that.
The point I’m trying to make is that these jobs taught me what I could have never learned in school. They taught me how people treat you when you’re not important (and made me re-think how I wanted to treat other people).
They taught me how protected I’d been in life, going to school and studying. There was a whole world out there, beyond the classroom, where people worked hard and didn’t get paid much and weren’t treated that well. And those were lessons I learned from white-collar work: It might have been boring and tedious, but it was also climate-controlled, with no heavy lifting required.
There’s a famous writer named Henry James who urges us to be persons so observant that nothing ever gets lost on us. I don’t like Henry James as much as I should (he also said two of the most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon,” which makes me think he never spent August in Texas). Still, he makes a good point: Get everything you can out of your experiences, learn as much as you can from them.
What kind of grandmother am I? I’m hoping you have at least a few jobs that aren’t wonderful and fulfilling, because you’ll learn so much from them. And I hope you’ll live as deeply as you can, with your eyes wide open.
I love you, my sweet girl. Love, Coco
(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)