“Go ahead, drop out of high school. We need people to work in gas stations.” Did quote the junior high Algebra teacher. This comment–not one you might expect to be delivered from an adult in a role of educating our youth–happened one bleary winter morning in an 8th grade classroom of the school where I was employed at the time.
First period of the day: I was helping two students with functions and domains while they stared enviously at my coffee, the majority of the other students were sifting through folders to retrieve the day’s homework due, and one particularly owly student issued a statement regarding not needing to turn in homework, he was just going to drop out of high school anyway because “that’s how much I hate homework.”
In an attempt to avoid condemning the teacher overall, Mr. Blank (which we shall call him to protect his anonymity) was a methodic, technical teacher focused on learning practical skills and increasing knowledge in order to help teenage students survive high school, and beyond, through sharpening their logic. He was not one to get too friendly/warm/emotionally invested with the students, which is fine; he was an extremely efficient teacher with the ability to keep students focused and achieving much of the time. He was also, as you would generally perceive when he spoke about his wife and child, or his friends and colleagues, a warm and loving person. Mr. Blank as a multifaceted human being with genuine human relationships is a different story, emotionally, than Mr. Blank as a teacher in the classroom. Even if intending to be firm in passing along an idea that school will make life easier, it remained confusing to hear such a reckless comment from a teacher to a fourteen-year-old boy who was among the many other students in the school who needed a little more positive encouragement.
First, it’s never a good thing for a teacher to dismissively tell a student to drop out of school, even if the intention is reverse psychology. A more straightforward tactic would be to ask the student to stay and talk with you after class, and actually initiate discussion about how school would be helpful in achieving various career goals. Second, how is anyone, of any age, supposed take a comment such as “we need people to work in gas stations” in relation to being a high school drop out? It clearly meant that if you work in a gas station, you are less successful, less important even, in society. The message was definitely there, in the connotation of the words and, something I cannot replicate here, in the tone of voice. As we know, non-verbal language is quite often stronger than even our most passionate spoken words.
Although I have nothing ill toward Mr. Blank as a human–imperfect as myself or anyone else–I long retained a sore spot in my mind over the comment. And I was not even the recipient of it. As someone who has friends who work in gas stations, stay at home, are physicians, are mental health counselors, are nurses, are teachers, are bankers, are waiters or waitresses, are cashiers, are graphic artists and world travelers, I have never judged anyone I know by their professions. It doesn’t factor into who they are as people. As someone who has taken her time finishing her college degree, and as someone who has worked through the whole caste system of jobs, I know better than to not realize that a job is a job and something to be grateful for.
Hopefully he won’t drop out of school, I later said in regard to the student (who ended up leaving the class even more owly than when it started), but drop out or not, if he works anywhere it would be a move in the right direction. It would be taking responsibility. Why put it in his mind that he is lower in society if he works in a gas station, or any other position that doesn’t meet someone else’s subjective standards of success?
Also, what were any of those students thinking if one of their parents or relatives happened to be employed in a gas station? You never know where your negative words are going to land, and whether that landscape will be stronger than the impact or fragile enough to be cracked, scratched, or otherwise blemished by impact.
We need people to work in gas stations. This is true. We need this just as we need physicians, trash collectors, plumbers, train attendants, cable and computer technicians, Art and Chemistry teachers, podiatrists, hotel managers, and so on and on. To be honest, I appreciate having gas in my vehicle, and I am grateful there are people to operate the fuel systems and take my money when I am ready to fill the tank. Recently, I decided to take a second job. I’ve learned this is the best way to save money and/or catch up on finances quickly. (Note: something I forgot to mention in a previous post about visiting the immigration field office–love is priceless, but be that as it may, immigration fees are a surefire way to break the bank.) I first accepted a position at an Autism center, which went well with my Behavioral Science degree and my years of related work history, but the hours weren’t working. It was also a far drive from home and therefore a lot of money spent for gas. I was going to stay because of my love for and experience with the work, and it sounds decent on a resume–even impressive to some. I decided to look for something closer to home though, and something that would keep me busy yet not flow into afterhours in the form of paperwork and writing behavior programs, competing for time with family and school and job number one. Therefore, somebody has to work in gas stations and among those somebodies is me.
I accepted a job in a neighborhood gas station. I am willing to admit that I returned home after my first six hour shift with no break and cried to my husband about the exhaustion, the leg cramps, the mildly sore back this created. I admit also that I won’t stay in this job for years, as it’s not a long-term career for me. It is, however, benefitting my life right now, and I am thankful. I also get a chance to help people as I am inclined to do–offering kindness, smiles, and concern to those you interact with is always helpful, and when you are dealing with customers who expect you to politely and efficiently perform your job duties, it is imperative to recognize the worth of good interactions.
The gas station is in truth not such a bad gig: I get to chat with people, make them smile, take home the extra funding I seek, and drink free coffee. I get to investigate yet another place in life from a new angle. I will have a license to practice as a mental health therapist within a couple of years and until then, and even then, I don’t find myself above an honest job of any type. Work is work, it is taking responsibility and taking responsibility always enriches our lives. I’m sure Mr. Blank could respect this point of view, as I recall how he would often tell the students how much hard work he did growing up on a farm, how much discipline it gave his life. If he happens to stop by my cash register one day, I’ll offer him a discount on his coffee, or maybe just offer it on the house.
I know some days as I ring up cigarettes, convenience store food, liquor, and gasoline, I will feel like a Dante, but on most others I will be more of a Randall–perhaps my affection for Clerks subconsciously prompted me to drop that gas station application. I can only hope I might have a few Clerks moments–maybe a hockey game on the roof, or a fight involving hoagies with my best friend, which in my case would be my patient husband. Very patient–so far the wildest hijinx I’ve had was shaking husband’s can of Red Bull as he purchased it from me on day one. He lamented to me when I got home that his drink had tasted, “a little strange. When you shook it, the sugars settled at the bottom got all disrupted. Just put the whole taste out of balance.” Still, no war was waged, and not a single hoagie hit me upside the head. One can always hope, though.
Movie Note: Clerks is a 1994 film created by writer/director Kevin Smith. It is a comedy, it does have some vulgarity, but mostly is free-spirited fun, a little bit of whimsy, and offers discussions in the realms of philosophy and life-actualization. ALSO Kevin Smith was working in a gas station/convenient mart when he wrote Clerks, and he actually used his place of business as the primary filming location. From clerk to film writer and producer. Use wherever you are at to build on your dreams.