My first step onto the bottom rung of the paid employment ladder felt more like a summit.
As a teenager, I landed a part-time job in the bakery department of the neighborhood grocery store. My duties involved handling the most prized baked goods: the doughnuts and the cookies. You may as well have put me in charge of diamonds and emeralds at Harry Winston.
When the trays of hot doughnut twists came out of the oven, I rolled them in cinnamon sugar before they went into the display cases. I still remember the warm sweetness of the crispy, fried outsides and soft, doughy insides. I iced doughnuts with chocolate, vanilla or maple frosting. Others, I dipped in multicolored sprinkles.
I've always had a demanding sweet tooth, but no real baking skills other than the boxed mixes from Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. But the doughnut prep work was enjoyable in itself.
Like most teenagers, I was not a naturally early riser. But I didn't mind waking up before sunrise because it was "time to make the doughnuts." (Cue the Dunkin' commercial for my fellow Gen Xers.)
The job got even better when the store opened to customers; people are generally in a good mood when they're buying pastries. I can't remember dealing with a single angry customer. Sometimes they asked us to write messages on cakes in icing. I had never been trained in this skill, but I gave it my best shot whenever asked. Let's just say those attempts looked far from professional, but no one complained about the wobbly penmanship. People seemed more relaxed on weekend mornings back then, not as harried as nowadays.
The family-owned store had a "free cookie" policy for kids who stopped by to ask for one. We were supposed to give them one of the small ones from the lowest shelf, but when a little kid looked especially enthralled at the prospect of a chocolate-chip freebie, I would give them a medium-sized one from the middle shelf. Their grateful parents would smile at me, and the kid would act like they'd won the lottery.
My doughnut-induced bliss was too good to last.
The grocery store was half a mile from my house, so I could walk there and back. I had a demanding school schedule, so I split my time between schoolwork and doughnuts. But this division of labor was not acceptable to my parents. As the eldest of six children, helping out at home was pretty much non-negotiable when I was growing up. After a couple of months of completely neglecting my responsibilities at home, my father showed up at the bakery department one fine weekend morning.
He was clearly not there to buy doughnuts.
I didn't even make eye contact. He spoke directly to the bakery manager, informing her that I would no longer be working there since I wasn't doing any chores at home.
The manager looked a little confused, but said "OK." I finished the rest of my shift in mortified silence. A number of my peers from school worked at the same store, and I was so embarrassed by my forced resignation that I never returned to pick up my last check.
So many parts of this story make it hard to imagine now. In 2020, about 18% of teenagers between ages 16 and 19 were paid employees while enrolled in school. In the late '90s, that number was around 30%. The demands of high school and extracurricular activities are far greater now, making it more difficult for students to also hold a job.
Many of today's parents had chores growing up, but far fewer make their own children contribute to the household in the same way. Many of us are also more sensitive to kids' social pressures than our own parents were.
Some of these changes in parenting behavior may benefit children's emotional and social development, but there's a lot to be learned from managing an entry-level job while also carrying your weight at home and keeping your grades up.
My short-lived high school employment was an early and unforgettable lesson in work-life balance.