After college, when I wasn’t yet ready to start doing something serious with my BA in English (that is, teach, the only option I knew of besides being a secretary), I did a few miscellaneous short-term jobs to get some experience of the working life. Two of them stand out in my memory, both of them terrible but in different ways.
For a while I worked for Manpower, which sent me to various places, all of which I’ve forgotten except for Nelson Tire, located off the freeway in Oakland. The office was at the front of the building, and at the back was a huge shop full of car tires and truck tires and tire tools and smudged and grimy guys working on tires and making a lot of noise. My job was filing. On my desk in the morning would be a stack of papers, all of them gritty with rubber dust. I was to put each one in its proper file drawer. That was it. Pick up papers, put them in drawers. It seems in my memory that I did that job for months, but it was probably only a couple of weeks. I survived it by driving over to the Oakland Airport at lunchtime and eating my cucumber and cheese sandwiches there while watching the travelers hurrying off to interesting destinations. Nelson Tire revealed to me a level of deadly boringness I had not experienced before, not even at my previous summer job in the Stanford Athletic Department, proofreading every single football ticket for the eighty-thousand-seat stadium.
The other post-college job I recall vividly was at an Oakland child care center in the Fruitvale neighborhood. I worked with the four- and five-year-olds who came before and after their brief hours of kindergarten. It was a poor neighborhood; most of the children were black. I’d had, previously, no experience with child care, no experience with children this age, and no experience with poverty. (Why did they hire me?) Everything about the job was overwhelming–the noise, the chaos, the smells, the children’s neediness, and my own deep ineptitude. I remember some adorable children (a tiny girl named April who smelled like sewage and said in a hoarse little voice with a big enchanting grin, “Tie my shoe, honey!”), some frightening children (Aaron, who jumped up on my back in the playground and toppled me to the ground), and some heartbreaking children (Angelique, in whom I sensed both a sharp intelligence and a fierce rebelliousness, a combo that probably boded ill for her future). It was an intensely interesting job (the opposite of Nelson Tire), but I could not do it. I had no idea how to manage and instruct this swirling, shrieking herd of children, how to keep them safe from each other and from the perils that threatened them, how to keep myself safe from them. One day, during the time the children weren’t there, I was sweeping the floor, and another of the teachers, a no-nonsense black woman who had been there for years, took the broom from me impatiently. “You don’t even know how to sweep a floor,” she said.
That was toward the end of my period of short-term jobs. I went back to school for my teaching credential, and ended up teaching high school English. That was hard, too, but it was not boring and it was not impossible.
Jeanne DuPrau is a writer of fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. She is best known for The City of Ember, a New York Times Children’s Bestseller, and its three companion books, The People of Sparks, The Diamond of Darkhold, and The Prophet of Yonwood. The Ember series is read by children from the age of ten on up and often by adults as well. It was made into a movie starring Bill Murray in 2008. Jeanne is also the author of a young adult novel called Car Trouble, a memoir called The Earth House, several non-fiction books, and various essays, book reviews, and stories.
A poignant Labor Day tribute to the mind-numbing and impossible jobs people do every day. Your child care experience is Exhibit A for why teachers and child care workers deserve to be paid much more, if we truly value our children.
You remind us just how many rote and repetitive jobs there used to be, and how quaint they seem today. I used to take part in a fundraiser for my college that involved stuffing envelopes for an insurance company. We were paid something like a penny per, but at least it was a bonding experience!