Thursday, May 17, 2018

The hardest job...

HALLIE EPHRON: We all like to complain about how hard writing is. And don't get me wrong. It IS! 

Howevah... it's not the hardest job I've ever had.

Lately I've been watching in admiration as teachers in West Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, Utah, and Ohio stand up for themselves and demand not only a reasonable wage, but books and supplies and decent classrooms and buildings in which to work. Their struggle brings back my own memories of when I taught elementary school in the early 70's. 

I'm here to tell you teaching was the most challenging, most exhausting, and ultimately the most satisfying job I've ever had. And to all those people who think all we have to do is test our way to educational excellence, I say: spend a semester in the classroom and then tell me it's that easy.

Here’s me in 1974 teaching elementary school at PS 189 in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. By this time, four years into the job, I was starting to feel as if I knew what I was doing.




I remember arriving at PS 189, fresh out of graduate school, two days before school started. I'd just been hired. The old brick building was north of Harlem where I’d done my student teaching--so far north that it overlooked the East River from a West side address.



Its double front doors opened onto a lobby with a center staircase. Its brass doorknobs, embossed with NYC PUBLIC SCHOOLS, were worn smooth. The main office door had a knobless-socket where there should have been one of those knobs. Someone had pilfered it over the summer.



My classroom was three flights up. I remember looking around Room 405 in dismay. On that hot September day, half of the windows wouldn’t open. Thirty desks, lined up in rows of six, were nailed to the floor. There was no chalk in the chalk rail. The sliding doors of a long narrow coat closet on the side of the room were stuck half closed. A supply closet was locked and, when I eventually managed to get it open, turned out to be empty. The only contents in the massive oak desk at the front of the room were love notes from kids to a teacher named Miss Silverman.



I was probably making a list of tools to bring in from home to break into the supply closet and unbolt the desks when a woman came into the room. A pretty brunette in her thirties was my guess. She introduced herself as Susan Silverman. Ah, the previous tenant. She told me that the custodian would be up shortly to unscrew the pencil sharpener and move it to her new room, a floor down.



Pencil sharpener! I hadn’t noticed that there actually was that single useful item in the room. And I cursed myself for not having noticed it and removed it for safekeeping. 

I was already learning to think like a teacher.



All I can say it, thank goodness for the kids. That year I had a sixth-grade class of non-English speaking students, a mix of Dominican, Cuban, Greek, and a lone Albanian, most of them "fresh off the boat." Though I eventually discovered that there was a supply closet in the basement with chalk and construction paper and other basic supplies, there was no curriculum for sixth grade (or if there was, it was a well-kept secret). There were no textbooks in the building appropriate for nearly-adolescents learning English. I flew by the seat of my pants and the kids flew with me.

In my mind's eye, I can still see very one of those kids from my first class: Arturo, Roxanne, Evaristo, Eduardo, Maria, Janet, Ana, Angela, Roberto, Ephigenia, Xiomara, Frankie...



What's the hardest job you've ever had?

59 comments:

  1. Teaching, as you have so eloquently described. Elementary school. First grade.
    I’m definitely on the side of those teachers demanding decent pay, books, supplies, and a decent classroom. It never fails to amaze me when someone shrugs off the teachers’ concerns and makes some derogatory comment about how easy they have it since “it’s only a few hours a day in the classroom and the whole summer off.”
    But the long hours, the low pay, the constant marching off to buy this or that for the classroom somehow seemed worthwhile when you considered the wonderful children entrusted to you every day . . . .

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  2. None of the jobs I've had over the years would likely be considered "hard". However, not killing the head manager of the McDonald's I worked at when I was 15 might be the hardest thing I've ever accomplished. He was such an example of a complete and utter jackass that pretty much everyone hated him. And I do mean HATE!

    I suppose because I didn't actually get paid that coaching youth basketball for 25 years doesn't really count as a job, but dealing with the internal politics of running a league, the outsized expectations of parents and the few headaches that were provided by some of the players certainly never made things easy.

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  3. Wow, Hallie. Good for you, and in your pearls, too. Being a mother, especially home with little ones, is hard, but it's offset by all the joys.

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    1. Mothering IS a hard job! Half the time you're flying by the seat of your pants.

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    2. You have to dig inside for resevoirs of patience you never knew you had especially at three in the morning when you're dead tired. And the kid is throwing up again
      ..

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    3. Hands down, the hardest job I ever had was stay-at-home mom with two kids 16 months apart. The Sailor asks me what his infancy was like and I have to admit I don't remember -it was all a fog of fatigue.

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  4. Wow that's quite a description Hallie! Weren't they lucky to have you...For several years, I taught some sessions of how to write a mystery to 10 classrooms of 5th graders. They paired suburban schools with inner-city schools, and the contrast in the abilities of the students was shocking. Don't ever try to tell me that the quality of the school and the teacher can't make a difference in kids' futures. Every dollar we spend on education is worth it!

    I came home from 4 hours/day absolutely wrung out. So I vote teaching too! (although cleaning motel rooms and short order cook were up there in the running...)

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    1. Most terrifying for me are when I get asked to give a talk to high schoolers. Talk about a tough audience.
      You cleaned motel rooms and short order cooked?

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  5. Great story, Hallie. I don't think any of the jobs I've ever had qualify as "hard."

    Well, Edith's right. Motherhood. But everything else might be tedious or irritating, but not hard.

    Mary/Liz

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  6. At lleast There was nothing irritating or tedious about teaching

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  7. Wow! I lucky those kids were to have you, Hallie! My first teaching job middle school (home economics in a brand new just opened school 1968) wasn't at all like yours. It wasn't hard although I'm not at all sure I really knew what I was doing so there was that kind of stress. Maybe I never had a real hard job. At least I've never had anything hard like some people describe.

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    1. Not being sure what you're supposed to be doing is one of the worst kinds stress.

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  8. Hallie, that story made my heart swell. How lucky those children were to have you, and how brave of you to wing it like that. Kudos.

    My only real jobs were in nursing, and I loved every one of them. My bosses are another story, ranging from terrific to terrible, I've had a few!

    I don't know how nursing compares to teaching in stress and exhaustion, but I suspect it's a close game. For me the best parts were the beginnings and the endings. I was privileged to usher so many little ones into the world, and so many souls into the next, and I wouldn't trade my profession for any other.

    Worst job? More like worst boss. Within two weeks of hiring me as hospice director, the administrator went on a three week vacation with a lay off coming up. She left me a list of people to fire. What a consummate cowardly, uh, creature. I didn't even KNOW these people, and I had to call them in and tell them they were laid off. It didn't do a lot for my popularity with those who were left.

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    1. Oh my goodness, Ann. What a horrible thing for a boss to do to a subordinate.

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    2. Oh, Ann - how awful. I had to lay off people and at least I knew them. Creepy boss.

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  9. Hallie, please don't get me started on BDV so early in the morning. Teaching is one of the most gut-wringing, demanding jobs in the world--and then add in the boneheaded decisions by politicians and administrators who've never spent a minute in a classroom on the other side of the desk--lack of supplies, kids so hungry they can't concentrate on learning, buildings so decrepit you wouldn't allow prisoners to stay there--books out of date, lab equipment a joke...the list is endless. I am in awe of what so many teachers have managed to accomplish.

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  10. Hallie, the children in your classes were lucky to have you. No curriculum? Ye gods!

    Waitressing in a busy diner in my senior year in high school was exhausting. So many demanding customers, and being on my feet for hours at a time. But I was just parttime; most of the adult waitresses fed their families and supported themselves with their jobs, and they worked 10-hour shifts a day, hustling armloads of hot plates to diners. I learned to have enormous respect for those women.

    And then I started my own sewing school. It was at once my favorite job, and the hardest. Even at the peak I never taught more than 25-30 hours a week, and it was mostly in my own home. Different types of fatigue were associated with different students: adults demanded brainpower, forcing me to explain things I'd done for decades without thinking.

    Kids, however, drained me physically. In addition to all the other challenges associated with teaching children, there are a lot of sharp, pointy, and hot things in a sewing room, and they are fascinating to children. They've been told not to touch them all their lives, and suddenly they're allowed to use them. I only had one child who nearly sewed her finger. She ended up with a timeout and a "speeding ticket", sitting on the sidelines until class was over. Her mom and I are still very good friends, and I just spent a lovely evening in the former student's home last week, so she apparently holds no grudge, 25 years later!

    I can't even imagine teaching forty hours a week for decades, plus having to grade, etc. Teachers deserve our respect, part of which should include paying them a better wage than they now get.

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    1. SEWING SCHOOL!?! That's another topic - I used to sew. Made maternity tops. Rompers for my baby. I wonder if sewing will make come back.

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    2. I doubt it, and it's largely the fault of the sewing machine manufacturers, and of the pattern companies.

      It used to be that every home had a sewing machine, every mall or shopping center had a store where you could buy machines, fabric, notions, patterns, and take classes. Then the machine companies got greedy. Instead of focusing on the younger generation, and building their own future best customers, they went for the "granny", those with more disposable income, who could afford to buy virtually useless embroidery machines for as much as $10,000. And they pretty much ignored the idea of good, serviceable and affordable machines for actual sewing. You would think they'd want to capitalize on the huge popularity of Project Runway, but they completely missed the boat.

      At the same time, pattern companies stopped making patterns that actually fit human beings. With an aging population trying to fit into clothing meant to fit a dressform, a lot of frustration built up around clothing construction. Which is one of the biggest reasons quilting gained so much popularity: it satisfied the creative urge, without the frustration factor of fit.

      Now there are so few fabric stores, too, it's really hard to find quality fabric. Even here in Cincinnati we no longer have a good place to buy wool or silk, and we have a premier fashion design program at University of Cincinnati. It's a crying shame.

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    3. Karen, I hear you! My sister gave up her machine to me, as she no longer did much sewing. Then she missed it so much, I gave it back to her and found one just like it on ebay--had it serviced, and we share the manual because it was such a great, easy to use machine. But neither of us sews clothing any longer--patterns are outrageously expensive and the sizes, even when given in inch measurements (bust, hips, etc.) do not fit anyone even proportionately human! Materials? Poor quality, uninspired.

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    4. It's so sad, Flora.

      For several years I was an educator for a software company, Wild Ginger, that developed programs for custom patterndrafting, using your own measurements. That akes a huge difference in fit, but ts not easy to find fabric these days, and so many people dress casually, anyway.

      I still have hundreds of patterns, going back to the mid-sixties, and recently reminisced about all the wonderful clothes is made, for myself my mom, three daughters, and two husbands. We still have some things, packed away for my kids to discover some long future day.

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    5. Ah but there seems to be a resurgence in quilting, and plenty of quality machines (my wife has a Bernina) to use and fabric stores to buy quilt quality fabric. My wife is in a quilt grip that meets every 2 weeks, and there are quilt shows and quilt shops throughout the country. It's not all just about sewing clothes.

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  11. Currently: College teaching. It's wonderful, rewarding, exhausting. And I wouldn't trade a minute of it. Only one student needs to say 'thank you' and my day/week/month/year is made - for having made a tiny difference.

    Formerly: Being my own boss as contract writer/editor. The doing the work was the easy part; the hustling to find the work was the tough part.

    In the dim past: Being a chambermaid in a summer resort. Some people are pigs. Which is an insult to pigs, most likely. Apologies.

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  12. Great post, Hallie! All hail teachers!

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  13. Motel chambermaid, my first job out of high school. I cleaned two rooms an hour...bedding, bathroom, dust and vacuum.

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    1. I salute you, Margaret. That work is hard work in every way!

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    2. That's a tough job, Margaret. My mom worked her way through college (back when you could do that)as a chambermaid in Lake George. I always leave a tip - I'm up to $5 or $6 per night - for the women who do that backbreaking, thankless work.

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    3. I always leave a tip, too, with a thank you note. My introduction to the real world: every morning at 8am down in housekeeping, as we loaded our carts with fresh sheets and towels, the motel manager would drop by and select certain women to clean the lobby and his office.

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  14. Wow! Reading all this, I realized I've never had a really hard job. Both of my parents were teachers, as was my sister, so I steered well clear of that. My first real job required all kinds of long hours, was hot, sweaty, and sometimes stinky, but it involved working the costume and light crews for an outdoor summer theatre, so it was the kind of fun I sometimes go back to reunions for.

    Being a radio copywriter and announcer required concentration, wit, and some fast thinking to cover the technical problems, but it wasn't really hard. Newspaper reporting was just a new adventure every day, so that was a lark. Grant writing for a major symphony? Oh, darn, I had to sit through performances of Brahms and Tchaikovsky!

    I guess maybe the job I have now is one of the most challenging I've had, with it's mix of long hours, odd problem solving (Where does one rent a harpsichord? At the harpsichord shop?) personnel management, and the occasional white-knuckle light cue. My boss has recently added grant writing back into the mix, which is roughly equivalent to writing a new short story on demand every week, but I'll get back into that groove eventually.

    Hard jobs? Nope. Not me. I salute you all!!!!

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    1. I'm the Director of Concert Operations for the Dallas Winds. www.dallaswinds.org

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  15. Hallie, you are wonderful! This is so perfect, thank you for letting us in on this, you are such a treasure.
    ( and I can’t resist saying… You and I looked exactly alike. I’m not kidding… It is downright scary!. The hair, the expression, the sweater that shirt the pearls. Exactly exactly exactly. So funny. )
    My hardest job? I was a sales person at a dime store, remember those? Dealing with individual people, let’s say demanding people, every minute of every day, was incredibly daunting. Although not physically hard, it was mentally and emotionally draining. Also, being an investigative reporter… Has its moments. :-)

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    1. I worked for a summer in a department store -- STANDING for hours on end was surprisingly difficult.

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  16. For me, every job is hard when I am new. Once I learn the ropes, I am fine.

    Did you have to buy school supplies for your students? Since they were non English speaking, I wonder if they started school earlier than other students. I asked because when I lost my hearing, there was a rule where children (if they were Born Deaf) would start school at 18 months old! Most kids did not start school until they were maybe 6 years old. I knew two sisters who started school when they were 4 years old, though that was very unusual, since they were not deaf. I remember starting school before my 3rd birthday.

    These kids were so lucky to have you as their teacher. I wonder if any of the children you mentioned went on to become teachers themselves or did some of them become authors? I stay in touch with my first teacher Pat who convinced my parents that I was old enough for a Halloween costume (I was 2 or 3 years old). I also stay in touch with my 6th grade teacher Leslie. It was my 6th grade teacher who introduced me to mystery novels. And my grandfather sent me a year's subscription to the Nancy Drew Book Club ( two books in one book every month) for my birthday.

    Apologies if I went slightly off topic.

    Diana

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  17. I’d love to know what happened to them

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  18. Can Hallie Ephron evoke a scene? WOW! I'm so glad her path led her into writing novels!

    Well, there was the summer in Maine -- a cold rainy summer -- when I slept in a (wet) tent and tutored six hours a day, six days a week and did waterfront (Lifeguard and swim instructor) for $500 for the summer! Or the year I had an "Older Twos" class -- the clock literally moved backward.

    But the winner is my first "real" teaching job when, in addition to a class of Sophomore boys, I had four huge classes of Freshmen. I saw the students twice a day, but not in identical groups. There were materials for the Freshman English class, but nothing planned for the "Reading" course. NOTHING!! I lived at the ditto machine. At my Oakland,CA apt. house a weekly African American newspaper was delivered -- I picked up the whole stack. I just needed SOMETHING for them to read (and use for vocabulary, spelling, etc.) YIKES. True story.

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    1. Denise, your memory brought back the smell of the mimeographed handouts, fresh off the machine. It's a miracle we didn't get brain rot.

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    2. First period class: test papers hot off the mimeo machine. Deeeeep sniff.

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  19. We've got teachers in my family, and I'm always amazed by the demanding work that they do. I love it when people say, "but school is out at 2:15 p.m.! They have the whole afternoon off!" Ha! As if there's no prep involved. People also complain that teachers get summers off, but many have to work a second job to make ends meet.

    I've never done back breaking labor or cleaning, but I did a fair amount of temp work right after college, and that was often challenging. I would be dropped into an office with no idea exactly how to do the job, which was often administrative work related to a particular industry. Home building, marketing pet food, management consulting. Each area had it's own language and way of doing things, which wasn't easy to learn on the fly!

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    1. This is reminding me of a summer gig I had typing invoices for a plumbing supply co. Everything was abbreviated and I'm quite sure someone ended up getting shipped a sewer pipe when what they needed was a faucet.

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  20. Hallie, what a great post. I don't think I've ever had a really hard job. My worst job just out of college was working for a small ad agency--worst not because of the work itself but because it was my first experience with sexual harassment, bullying, and men who were total jerks. I was sick before work every morning and went home in tears every night. Needless to say, I quit after a few horrible months. (But I still want to kill these guys off in a book every so often...)

    I want to know what you taught those 6th graders, with no books and no curriculum!! And HOW you taught kids who didn't speak English! They were so lucky to have you.

    Our teachers deserve respect and support and more than decent pay--nothing is more important than getting kids off to a good start and teachers should be our heroes!!!

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    1. Deborah, I would love to know what Hallie taught these 6th graders too :-)

      Diana

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  21. Hallie- It has been awesome watching the Hooligans’ teachers strike and demand that we do better for our children. The priorities in this country where a person who can throw or bounce a ball makes millions and the person we entrust with our children can’t even afford to buy a house is so messed up. I am thrilled with this new era of activism!! #RedforEd

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  22. In my fantasy, teachers would receive the same salary as Congressmen.

    I once tried working as a fish monger. The owner said I was over qualified but agreed to take a chance. The selling part was fairly easy. Preparing fish for retail is difficult. I would have to wrestle 30 pound boxes of frozen shrimp, thaw, devein, and display them. I would scale and dress the fresh fish. I would go home my hands covered in small cuts from the shrimp shells, smelling like a cat's banquet. I learned a lot more about the real world in those months than I had in all my college years.


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  23. Hallie, what a great piece! You were quite brave to not run screaming down the street when faced with your situation. The kids you taught that first year are so lucky that you stayed and all of you faced the uncertainty you'd been handed. When you got to the part about the previous teacher of your room coming in, I thought you were going to say that she offered you some help or advice, but all she wanted was "her" pencil sharpener. I'm left between laughing at the absurdity of that and fuming at the coldness.

    I have to list teacher as the hardest job I ever had, too, but, as you mentioned, also the most rewarding. I first dealt with teenagers, and I wasn't much older than they were. That was hard, as I didn't seem like as much of an authoritative figure as helps with that age group. Through my years of working with teenagers though, I came to love that age group, especially when I worked on writing portfolios with them years later. Getting to the souls of these young people who were trying to find their path was both heartwarming and heart-wrenching. With what some of them had to deal with, you had to wonder how they could function at all, let alone come to school and be expected to conform to all the rules. In working with the writing, my goal was reaching that soul and helping the students learn that they had something to say, that their story in life was important. I worked with younger students, fourth grade, on writing portfolios, too, and enjoyed getting the kids to open themselves to expressing ideas and thoughts and experiences in writing. It was their entry into the world of expressing themselves through writing, and I hoped to make it one they wanted to continue.

    Hallie, I am so sad that teachers have to fight for basic rights, such as pay and supplies. They have never been paid in proportion to the important job they do. In Kentucky, our teachers have also been fighting for their pensions. They don't pay into social security. They pay into a state-funded pension, which has now been destroyed by our current governor. A new system has been set up against the protest of most teachers. I'll leave it to readers to guess that the new system isn't to the benefit of the teachers. Although teachers don't teach for the money, to get rich, they have rightly expected some decent retirement. Now that has been taken away, too.

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    1. Right now I’m at the Philadelphia Amtrak station talking to a woman who lives in Kentucky and told me about the pension scandal- disgraceful

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  24. Oh, Hallie,

    I bow down to teachers, especially those who work in under-resourced schools/communities. Echoing what others have said, those students who you taught at PS 189 were fortunate to have such a committed, creative teacher.

    The only jobs I've ever had that I could fairly call difficult were the ones I had when I was young and relatively unskilled. (Moral to the story: pursue higher education, even if you have to go into debt.)

    In high school I worked at a Friendly's (for those of you not from New England, a restaurant/ice cream place) where some nights I wound up scooping cones for four or five rambunctious Little League teams in a row. By the end of such a shift my entire arm - armpit to wrist - would be as sticky as a toddler's face. That said, the experience left me with an enviable right forearm muscle, which came in handy on the tennis court.

    Oh, and the work uniform was a gray button front dress with a ruffled white collar and matching apron, which we were expected to keep clean.

    Good times, indeed.

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    1. And didn’t waitresses af friendly’s have To short order cook, too?

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    2. Yes indeedy. It was great for the adolescent complexion. But I could whip you up a fish-a-ma-jig in two minutes or less.

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    3. I hear you. I worked at Howard Johnson's in my home town. Night shift. Came home with ice cream everywhere, including shoes, and first thing, threw uniform into sink to wash and hang dry for next day.Eye opener in many ways. There were other college girls there for the busy summer, but there were many employees for whom this was it,the life they had.I learned a lot.

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  25. Hardest job? Working as junior crewman on a Gas Company repair truck. When a gas line leaks, someone (me) has to dig a hole at the point of the leak, through rocky soil where I was, then bell out the hole (make it wider at the bottom than the top) (don't strike the metal pipe with the shovel!) enough for a welder to climb down there and weld it closed. Then close it back up, smooth it out as if nothing happened. Including if it was under asphalt or cement, in which case I started the hole with a jackhammer. Nine hours a day, six days a week. Hard hard, work.

    I also taught classes in Adult Education, in job training courses, fairly technical material, and it was difficult to see good people, who so wanted to succeed, and worked hard, but just didn't have the ability. Sigh.

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  26. I babysat for a long, hot summer for three kids in our neighborhood. We didn't call it nannying then, but I was with them from breakfast until bedtime while their good, loving parents worked long hours. They were immigrants; I think the house on our block was the first they'd owned. Oh, those kids could be naughty! They ran me ragged. I remember their mischievous grins, their torn blue jeans, the young daughter's pig tails, forever coming undone. Their mom was always so appreciative when she came home. I hope she knew I took good care of those kids, hope she was never worried when she was at work.

    Until last summer my aunt still lived on the street where I grew up, and she always kept me up to date on the neighbors. I was crushed a few years ago when she told me that the mother of the kids I'd sat for had died. Breast cancer. I can't say why it hit me so hard, except that for one summer I helped mother her children.

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  27. Teaching -- truly "the hardest job you'll ever love." I wanted to be a teacher from the first day of kindergarten, learned just before graduation that there would be few jobs available in 1972, but finally got there! My best-ever principal advised new teachers to be good to the custodians and secretaries, and they were such good friends. The years at Prudential taught me organizational and sales skills that were quite useful.
    Worst job? Probably the very short stint in a Hostess factory -- disgusting . . .

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