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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Value of Work to a Kid

For San Diego's North County Times

Newt Gingrich has a cure for failing schools. “Get rid of the unionized janitors,” he declared in a recent speech, “have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools." I’m guessing he’d give the same advice to Carlsbad school officials considering layoffs as a cost savings measure to close next year’s estimated $7.8 million budget shortfall.
It’s hard to picture ten-year-olds eagerly signing up to clean toilets. But Gingrich’s put-children-to-work plan got me to thinking about what I learned from the jobs I had as a kid.
I entered the work world as an assistant paper boy, helping my big brother with his route. I continued to deliver daily newspapers until I graduated from high school.
Picking strawberries was a given for June. I looked for other summer jobs to escape the raspberry and bean fields in July and August.
Hauling hay was one of my favorite jobs. I reveled in the manliness of snatching up 40-pound bales, tossing them on to a slowly moving flatbed truck, then riding atop the bales back to the barn.
A job in a raspberry packaging plant involved the use of my index finger only, as I stood at the end of a chain line that emptied berries into 10-ounce cartons passing before me on another line.
One summer I helped put a roof on a warehouse. My task was to pound nails all day, motivated by a boss shouting at me periodically, “I wanna hear that hammer rattling, kid!”
I learned a lot from those menial jobs: a work ethic, how to get along with a boss, coping with tedium, the satisfaction of spending the money I earned through hard work, and the importance of getting an education that would save me from a lifetime of unskilled labor.
I grew up at a time when kids were expected to work during the summer to pay for their school clothes. Today those who can afford it head for summer camps or travel the world.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in July, 2011 the population of 16 to 24 year-olds working or looking for work, was less than 60 percent, the lowest on record and 18 percentage points below the 1989 peak.
A friend once told me she wouldn’t let her teenage daughter work before finishing high school, vowing to give her a carefree childhood before having to face the hard reality of earning a living.
Working may, indeed, make childhood a little less carefree. But maybe the payoff is in a more carefree adulthood made possible because of lessons learned from the experience.

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