Learning to Work

Learning to Work
The summer job was for me the extra credit course of the college years. The expectation of work for wages and savings in the months after the last final exam traces a particular American history shared between farm and campus. Each place tried to simulate the oldest garden of all, a lost paradise, served soberly by the ancient admonition: “You will eat of the produce of the field, and only by the sweat of your brow will you win your bread until you return to the earth.” Hard work in the summertime also granted the privilege of hard study in September.

Nearby farms fed the first generation of St. Lawrence students; when classes were in session, the young scholars tended the wood stoves in winter and drew their own water from the college wells. The accommodations for study improved over time, but students still returned in the summer to work on the farms and in the factories. While the idea of the rural, residential liberal arts college is originally and distinctively American, so, too, is the tradition of the summer job.

The summer job, in my case, included the shovel and blade of the maintenance worker in a 5,000-acre regional park formed by Maryland farmland and the headwaters of Rock Creek. Three blistering summers, entirely in the sociology of open air, gave me wages to cover most of my fall expenses at St. Lawrence. Another two summers in a government printing plant condensed my working life to a personal history that covered both agrarian and industrial economies.

To this day, I can still hear in my solitude the backbeat of the giant presses pierced by the dull, shrill thump slicing through foot-thick paper on the cutter I operated. The shifts were long, the work sometimes dangerous, and the pleasure of a dinner break was, on reflection, much greater than all the black-tie banquets I have enjoyed in subsequent decades.

My St. Lawrence friends and I came back to college with stories that kept us mutually enthralled for a while, at least until the first round of quizzes. They painted houses, worked in foundries, cooked in restaurants, counseled in summer camps, joined construction crews, covered as vacation replacements in banks and department stores. Laurentian adventures -- riding on an interstate moving van, or repairing the high bridge between Ogdensburg and Prescott – remained vivid. Classmates were turnpike toll-takers, sanitation workers in the city, or wranglers on a dude ranch. Some actually returned to the farm to cut hay and milk the herd.

Nothing else, save a liberal arts education, can expand and move social capital upward with such force and speed. But the role of the summer job has also had an important, salvific purpose. Old aristocracies, the kind with soft hands and formal attitudes, generally evolved by three distinctive phases: duty, privilege and vanity. In American social advancement, the interlude of the summer job gave many of us a deeper a sense of duty and obligation. We understood better the accidents of privilege, and, most certainly, manual labor prevented or mitigated vanity.

Among the lessons I still register from seasonal employment, at least two continue to serve me in vivid perspective. There is the first lesson of “being invisible.” It is a harsh yet critical occasion when you are in the middle of a task, dressed in “work” clothes or uniform, and anyone passing by hardly notices that you are present. You are to them—the public—faceless, nameless or anonymous. A St. Lawrence education, among its many measures of excellence, continues to include an intellectual and social self-confidence that releases one from the narrower boundaries of cautious imagination. Until one has felt the awkward indignity of being ignored, I don’t believe the self-assurance gained on campus could ever be as valid.

The other lesson I carry with me is from inside the actual lives of people who taught me how to work with discipline and precision. My first impression of my first boss, Mack Bower, who departed school and Appalachia at an early age, was his willingness to get out of the truck and work beside us. No one could outwork or outwit him; everyone worked all-out to earn his admiration. But it was also coming to grips with the immediacy of human worry and the limitations of opportunity in the lives of other workers that I can never forget. Their names resound as if from Wordsworth: Mutt Springer, Chubby Bixby, Dallas Royal, Dix Bell. To know them and gain their trust still matters, for they were like a faculty without texts; their lives and hardships, their kindness and hands were powerfully instructive. Like the material of wisdom itself, they taught me that it’s always easier to throw the load off the wagon than it is to shovel it on.