Between the Rows: Continuing Education

An ode to miserable, wonderful summer jobs

Published online: Sep 06, 2019 Articles Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This column appears in the September 2019 issue of Potato Grower.

The thermometer still may be hitting the high 80s in the afternoon, but the calendar says summer is very nearly at an end. Big, yellow buses are making the rounds, Walmart is all sold out of Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, and I’m willing to bet that this Friday will find you headed to the local high school to watch acne-battling teenagers strap on some ill-fitting helmets and shoulder pads and do their hometown proud.

Amazingly, we’re already at that point. Daylight is no longer in endless supply, and the kids are back in school. There’s a lot of excitement accompanying a new school year, and rightly so. New math will be learned, new books will be read, new talents will be discovered, and new friends will be made. But, of course, the beginning of the school year marks the end of summer, which is always a bit sad.

The freedom summer affords kids is invaluable. But when they use that freedom to make the decision to shackle themselves for a couple months to that, in the common lexicon, is leading nowhere, lessons are learned and memories made that eventually turn good kids into contributing members of society.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not here to tell everyone that their kids should be working their fingers to the bone all summer and not enjoying a healthy helping of youthful frivolity. I don’t presume to be able to prescribe a 60-, 40- or even eight-hour workweek for every kid on summer break. Nor am I trying to downplay the importance of traditional education, which is as valuable a thing as you can hope to get in this life.

School is—or should be—work for kids. If they take it the least bit seriously, it’s work with real and tangible rewards. It’s just that those rewards will generally come years in the future. When you’re 8 or 12 or 17, waiting three days for something is difficult. Hearing grownups talk about some vague payoff in an adulthood so distant it seems like fantasy can be tiresome. You trust them; you believe they’re telling you the truth and pointing you in the right direction; but school is just…school. Period. Summer is punctuated with an exclamation point and at least three emoji.

From a teenager’s perspective (at least the sort of teenager I was), the beauty of a summer job is that the payoff is close to immediate. Mowing lawns, flipping mediocre burgers, and moving hand lines may be mindless and miserable, but every two weeks, that minimum-wage paycheck comes in. After you express your righteous indignation at the obscene amount the government took from your backbreaking labor, you still have some cash to put toward that motorcycle your parents don’t want you to get and then go out to yet another Marvel movie with your buddies next weekend.

However, there’s long-term, educational value to be gleaned from countless summertime hours spent as an underpaid, “unskilled” laborer.

The people you remain the closest to always seem to be the ones you go through miserable things with—like roguing potatoes under triple-digit, unrelenting, unforgiving sunshine. And shoveling acrid, crusted-on silage out of the feed bunks at the dairy. And administering first aid to your buddy who dang near sliced his thumb off installing a gently used, slightly rusty door in the less gently used, moderately rusty grain bin. Sometimes, sharing complaints and misery and sunburns and aching backs has more power to unite and galvanize than any victory ever could. If a kid is lucky enough to grow up on a farm or in some other family business, he or she gets the opportunity to develop those deep relationships with parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, all while learning a good chunk of the business end of the operation. If that’s not an education, I don’t know what is.

“Summer’s over.”

“Just about.”

            —The Cowboys, 1972

One of the most poignant exchanges ever delivered in film comes toward the end of the classic The Cowboys. An ailing John Wayne weakly smiles and simply says, “Summer’s over,” to which an ever-dignified Roscoe Lee Browne simply replies, “Just about.” It’s a melancholy yet satisfying summation of the experience the two characters have shared throughout the movie, supervising a crew of teenage cowboys on a cattle drive (dream summer job!) and teaching them, ultimately, what it means to be a man.

So, kids, crack open those textbooks, and pray that those calluses and farmer’s tans you’ve spent the last three months caringly building up will hold up until, once again, you’re free to go to work.