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Teenage employment

Posted: July 17, 2012 5:35 p.m.
Updated: July 18, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Many teenagers are desperately seeking employment in these times. I joined them many years ago: in fact, I began work at age 11 and was furious when the “powers that be” decided every person under the age of sixteen had to have a doctor certify that the individual was not harming his health. I made the astronomical sum of a dollar a day at the dime store (98 cents when taxes were removed) and hated the thought of having to have the two dollar test to keep my job. My duties included everything from clerking to all types of housekeeping. I never would have remarked that a chore was not among my assigned duties, as some teens do today; I thought I was lucky to be able to help with my family’s needs -- a loaf of bread and a jug of milk are beneficial when no charity is available. This was my first job. I was to have many more, and no one ever thought I could not do something, so I thought I was invincible also. At 11, I was as tall as I am today. I did chafe at the fact that individuals who smoked were given time to engage in their habit while nonsmokers got no respite.

About this time, farmers needed cotton pickers, and students who would help them received a day off from school and a penny a pound. I had a very foolish belief I could make a fortune, be relatively free for a day, and keep my Saturday job. No wonder the term “cotton pickin” remains a type of curse word today. This was before machines and, of course, out in the boiling Georgia sun with the water in the bucket about the same temperature and having a communal dipper. The students received a croker sack to fill, their hands and backs being the only other tools. No one dared sit in the shade with an overseer watching; therefore it was up one row and down the other, being told to “pick clean.” Of course, the sack became more cumbersome as the day unfolded. My sack was huge: I was certain the effort would be worthwhile in money. When my sack was weighed, I had less than a dollar. What I did have was a back that would not straighten, a blistered body, and a lesson that assured me I would never pick cotton again if there were any other choice! Being in school would have been much better.

The summer after my 10th grade, I found a job in a bedspread factory for the wonderful salary of 50 cents an hour. Aunt Minnie told my mother I would never return to school after having my own money. She was very wrong! The factory was in a tin roofed building lacking air conditioning or fans. No water fountain existed; the only cool beverage came from a machine where the “treat” cost 25 cents, half an hour’s pay. I was an inspector, and one of the bosses told me if I continued to work hard, I could rise in the ranks to operate the machines, something I knew I did not want to do; they scared me to death. The bathroom stall doors had been removed, and workers had to clock in an out when using the facility to make sure they did not waste time. It was not geared for the comfort of the employees!

Each of the inspectors had a partner. Mine was about 5 feet tall, and when I took my place the first day, looked at her and said, “Hello,” she replied, “What are you looking at,” letting me know exactly how she would value knowing me. Later, I was to find she could curse more than any football coach and fought at the drop of a hat. I don’t know what the man did, since I certainly kept my eyes on my job, but she climbed him “like a telephone pole” and sent him bleeding with her fists.

The day when I learned my greatest lesson occurred with the machines. The operators were to wear hair nets or keep their hair short. This young girl had beautiful long hair of which she was inordinately proud. One day her hair caught in the machine, effectively pinning her head and almost scalping her. She, of course, was screaming, but not what I expected. What she screamed was, “Don’t cut it; don’t cut it!” There was no such thing as medical insurance or concern for the worker. The boss’s only remark was, “Stamp her card.” What that meant was that she was fired with no recourse nor paid doctor’s care. I learned two valuable lessons: I certainly did not want a promotion to work with the machines, and I wanted to get as much education as possible. I wonder if such practices can exist today.

I worked out my notice, preparing to enter my senior year. The same boss told me I should reconsider because jobs such as mine were hard to find. I told him I appreciated the lessons I had learned that year but intended to finish school. Little did I know that a person never finishes school. It may not be in a building or have diplomas, but it certainly has tests.

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