Monday, December 7, 2009

Days of Infamy

Today I become Interim Chair of my department. The school is required to post job openings (as opposed to just appointing people), so once the permanent position for Chair is advertised, I'll apply.

In an odd fit of circumstance and coincidence, today is also the anniversary of my very first day of working for corporate America. Yes, back on this day in 1982, I started my job as salad bar girl at Wendy's. It was the first time I had done work other than babysitting and yard mowing.

I was desperate to get a job in high school. I was convinced that if I didn't have a job in high school, I'd never be hired anywhere--yes, go ahead and laugh, but I really thought I'd get real world job skills with a high school job.

Then, as now, we were in a bone-crunching recession. I was lucky to get that Wendy's job. I had applied at almost every other fast food place, including where my friends worked, and even a personal connection didn't even help.

I could walk to work, which was convenient. I remember wondering about the symbolism of starting that job on Pearl Harbor Day, but I was enthusiastic.

Through the next 9 months, I would become less enthusiastic about that job. I came home reeking of grease, and my legs ached, because we weren't allowed to sit down if we were on the clock.

My supervisors would be surprised to hear of my job success, if they even remembered who I was. I tried to climb up the ladder from salad bar girl and dining room attendant--back in those days, you didn't have to bring your tray to the trash can. I didn't really like that position, but I was miserably incompetent in any other. I wasn't a fast sandwich maker, and I couldn't remember the proper order that Corporate had declared we put the condiments on the bun and the burger. I couldn't be promoted to cash register operator without being a sandwich maker--there were strict corporate rules.

Hopefully, today's promotion will not be seen as a day of infamy by my supervisors. Happily, as Assistant Chair, I have experience in all of skills that the job requires. I'm not asked to do activities which make no sense to me (and I still don't understand the sandwich order--why do we care whether the mustard goes on first or the ketchup?).

I did learn a lot in that first job. I learned that I don't want to work in fast food--indeed, it was years before I could even eat fast food again. I learned that I'm lucky in that I've had opportunities to help me avoid a life of fast food servitude. I'll never forget the people that I met at Wendy's, people who dreamed of the day they'd be made supervisor so that maybe they could get the dental care they needed. I learned that the minimum wage really won't take you far. And I know that fast food work isn't as grim an existence as ones offered by other jobs.

I like being in academia, because I still have faith in the American story: get your education and you'll have a shot at a better life. As my friend Sue says, the degree is your ticket on the bus. There's no telling how far the bus will go, but you'll go further with a bus ticket than you will without one. And I like the job I have now, because I can still do what's important to me: make every attempt to make life better for students and for faculty.

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