Yesterday, our next door neighbor, who has just finished her first year in college, texted me: she asked if she could list me as a reference for a summer job. I enthusiastically told her that she should, and asked her what kind of work she would be looking for. She texted back that she is hoping to get a job at a coffee shop, but that she'd "pretty much take anything."
This is an open letter to her, but really, to myself, and all parents who are nudging their teens into working back-breaking jobs this summer.
Dear Young People On The Cusp of Your 20s,
Welcome home from your first or second year of college! Your parents have had a taste of what it's like with you out of the house for more than a month away at summer camp, and frankly, they like it. They've had plenty more time to focus on your other siblings or--miraculously--themselves, and since they're eyeing this summer as an opportunity for you to begin building your resume and making a little bank, they're going to suggest or demand that you get a job this summer.
That's not a bad thing. Working is great: it's a means, however small, toward your independence, when one day you will realize that it is not your parents' job to financially support you any longer (even though some will, and do, and that is really really nice of them).
But I'm here to offer you some wisdom that it took a couple of decades to cultivate.
Do NOT get a job that hurts.
When I was 19, and home from my first year away at college, my parents had already found me a job working for their friends, a husband and wife, who owned a law firm. It paid a little more than minimum wage, and wasn't a far commute--just the next town over. I didn't put up much of an argument: it didn't sound thrilling, but I consented.
I thought that maybe I'd shuffle or file some papers, do errand work--which I did. And then, one week into working at this firm, the family friends/firm owners told me that I'd be helping them with a major project.
This involved moving an entire warehouse of boxes and boxes and boxes of files of paperwork to another location, from one part of the city to another. I'd be working with a woman named Mary.
Again, it didn't sound too bad, and at least I'd be getting to drive around a few times a day. So again, I consented.
Overhead lifting, throwing boxes on to a cart, carrying them (!) to my car in a parking lot, hoisting these boxes in the trunk, lifting them out of the trunk and onto a lift and then on to other shelves. . . you get the idea. Mary and I were dirty, head to toe, at the end of those days: sweaty, covered in dust and grime, and I will never forget how creepy those old warehouses were. All Mary and I had to keep us company was a transistor radio.
Once in a while, I'd remark that I'd felt a little give in my back, and Mary would yell, "C'mon! Get tough!" What I thought was tough was staying quiet, telling myself how lucky I was to be going back to college, when that was not at all in Mary's plan. Mary would say things like "You're going to have great muscles this summer," and "Just think of all the exercise we're getting." Those twinges in my back had a great way of convincing me that I was better off hauling boxes than lazing around a store, getting paid to hang over a counter. Mary had two kids. She didn't go to college. I counted my blessings and recognized my privilege and shut up about how much lugging boxes hurt.
What I didn't realize, at 19, was the toll that lifting hundreds of boxes of files (most of these weighed over thirty pounds) would have on my body later.
When late August rolled around, I went back to school. I moved into my own dorm room, and I couldn't have been happier to be back. Until one night when I went to pull on my pajama bottoms. And my back gave out.
I couldn't move without screaming. I couldn't walk. The young women on my floor had to practically carry me to my bed, where I would lay for another week.
I missed a week's worth of classes; I had to withdraw from two of them and make up that credit later.
Little did I know that I'd be suffering that kind of pain for the rest of my life.
Back pain so severe that I'd be flat in bed for at least a week--once a year. It has been almost 25 years of doctor's appointments, shots, pain meds, ice packs, heat packs, physical therapy.
Back pain so severe that I'd have to limp, barefoot, as a bridesmaid in one of my best friend's weddings--because wearing the red heels that matched the dress was too excruciating to bear.
Back pain through three pregnancies that sometimes made feeling the baby move unbearable.
Back pain through parenting, when I can't pick up my children. Can't go to work. Can't walk.
Young people, recognize that you'll need the body you have, G-d willing, for years to come. Some of us, yes, will do manual labor for a living because that's what calls to us, or that's the lot we find ourselves in. but if you can avoid it, do. As I write this, I've missed two days of work--for which I will not be paid, because they follow a three-day weekend--and am on prescription pain medication. I could not move out of bed this morning without yelping and gasping for air, like someone had smacked me with a 4x4 in the back, and I couldn't lift the toilet seat--I had to use my foot to do that.
Save your bodies. You only get one. Listen to it.