Hire Education

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.

Yes, 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.

Unengaged office worker

Unengaged office worker

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).

Happy secretary. I never looked like this.

Happy secretary. I never looked like this.

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.

Henry James, who probably never worked as a secretary.

Henry James, who probably never worked as a secretary.

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)


  1. Brette Sember · May 18, 2016

    There certainly is lots to learn as we move through different jobs. I wouldn’t want to do any of it again, but it was certainly all a learning experience!

  2. Holly Rigby · May 18, 2016

    My dad used to say summer jobs reinforce the desire to go back to college in the fall. I too worked as an office clerk, waitress at Howard Johnson’s, lingerie clerk at a Jordan Marsh, Zayre’s ladies dept. and cashier…nanny, diner counter clerk at 5AM. I hope my 3 year old granddaughter and her new baby sister arriving in September know the wisdom of your words…I forward all of your letters to their mother…I hope you put this in a book! You are so dear and so wise, and so, so funny!!

  3. Sheryl · May 18, 2016

    I think, Ruth, the job you have now as Ellie’s grandmother, is the one that trumps all. ( um, sorry for that:).

    • Kerri @ Living Large · May 18, 2016

      LOL. I hope Ellie has to look up that reference in history books rather than on the list of past presidents. 🙂

  4. Kerri @ Living Large · May 18, 2016

    What great insight. I wouldn’t trade any of the jobs I had beginning when I was 14. You’re right. They all teach us so much about what’s to come in life. My only regret was not listening to my mother and just enjoying my youth while I still could instead of working. I would have had at least 3 more years of free time!

  5. jeanine barone · May 18, 2016

    All my jobs, summer, temp or otherwise, provided valuable skills, whether how to answer the phone in a professional manner or meeting deadlines or getting along with co-workers you disagree with.

  6. Mary Pillot · May 18, 2016

    Your creative, inspiring and original writing is truly a gift!
    Thanks you Ruth Pennebaker.
    I’m writing my Granddaughter too❣