My first summer job was a little strange, even eerie. But it taught me a few important lessons about myself and the world of work.
I lived near a cemetery and every summer there was an annual cemetery mass. For two weeks a year before the mass, it became a Mecca for the rich families of the dearly departed. And surprisingly for myself and my thirteen-year-old friends, an economic bonanza.
We would gather up all of the neighborhood gardening utensils: rakes, spades, garden shears and wheel barrows, and head off to stand sentry at one of the gates to the property. We would offer to clean up the family plots of visitors who came to check out the condition of their loved ones’ resting places. For a fee, of course.
The first thing that I learned from this job is that the early bird really does get the worm, or in our case, the work. That’s because we weren’t the only wandering band of street urchins seeking to assist the nobs with their grave keeping. At least three other gangs were actively offering their services and the one group that arrived at 9 o’clock in the morning had exclusive access over the rest of us who straggled in to work at around 11.
Soon all our happy, if sleepy, faces were firmly in place for the 9 o’clock traffic. By then, we had also agreed to a somewhat fragile truce that saw each gang stake out its territory at each of the four gates. Your location was determined by having a member of your group living closest to the gate in question.
Which helped me with the second lesson in the world of work: how to get along in the workplace. Stay out of other people’s business and territory, and learn to get along with your neighbour, whether they are in the next cubicle, or patrolling the next entrance. Somehow our informal and unspoken system worked. We all got a little work and we all made a little money.
Money – the root of all evil, my mother would often say – was our main goal. None of us had any and all of us wanted some. Not that we needed it, but we had a long list of wants: coke, chips, chocolate bars, and (don’t tell my Mom, but) cigarettes, as well. (Maybe she was right about that “evil” thing.) In any case we were young, greedy and very unwise in the ways of the world.
At first, we thought that whatever the customer would give us for our services was just great. We soon learned that the customers were shopping around amongst the four work gangs to see who would offer the cheapest price. What we were left with was one very tired and overworked group who undercut the rest of us and still ended up with less money in their pocket than before, and three groups with only a pittance from their labours.
A meeting of the oldest and biggest members from the four groups soon straightened this matter out. For our remaining days, including the two most lucrative before the cemetery mass, we had fixed prices for a small, medium, and large job that everyone agreed to, and if the customers didn’t like it, they could do the job themselves.
A very important lesson about the rights of workers and the power of getting together from a rag-tag collection of thirteen-year-olds. We had no union dues, but even then, we understood the principles of solidarity and sticking together for the benefit of all.
Finally, the most important thing that I learned about work and life was that the best part about work wasn’t the work, or even the money I got from it. What was the most fun was just hanging out with my friends, enjoying the nice summer weather, and if we never got another customer, that would be just fine with me, and them, too.
I have had lots of jobs since those early days, but few have been as much fun. Instead of working this week, maybe I’ll just go hang out with my friends. Talk about the old times and just enjoy their company. Doesn’t that sound great?
Mike Martin is a freelance writer and consultant specializing in workplace wellness and conflict resolution. He is the author of “Change the Things You Can” (Dealing with Difficult People). For more information about Mike please visit: