Growing up on an Iowa farm in the 1970s meant not having to look far for a first job. In my case, it meant not being able to escape it either. My dad was a farmer, and fields surrounded me, so from the time I was 7 years old, I was "walking beans." That means walking through soybean fields cutting out weeds with a hoe.
I dreaded it. School got out in late May, and my four siblings and I basked in sweet freedom until that morning in mid- or late June when the beans — and the weeds — were deemed tall enough. My dad would wake us up with the words, "Why don't we go out and hoe a few beans?"
First jobs teach kids skills, instill responsibility and deliver the thrill of a paycheck — all over a giant safety net. A less-than-stellar performance won't land on a permanent work record.
I learned to identify cockleburs, smartweed, nightshade and button weeds. I worked in the heat, got blisters, took swigs from a communal water jug and rolled up my shorts to get a better tan.
I used to joke that I got into the news business to get out of the field, but I knew, even as a kid, beanwalking wasn't so bad. At church on Sundays, my friend Theresa McGuire's dad would look at my hands and admire my calluses. I was doing honest work, and no job since has offered such an immediate sense of accomplishment. Leaving the field for the day, you could look back over the rows and see exactly how far you had come.
When I graduated from high school, my dad gave me a hoe.
Kids VT spoke to Vermonters about what they took away from their earliest work experiences. Harry Bliss learned to stand up for himself. Betsy Martin found that if she worked hard, she could go places. And Jovan Ellis learned to respect the most menial jobs and the people doing them. Read on.
First job: making pizza
Harry Bliss, 50, South Burlington
cartoonist, illustrator for the New Yorker and several children's books including Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Spider, Diary of a Fly, and, coming this spring, Anna & Solomon
Kids: son alex, 20, and stepdaughter delia, 14
As best he can recall, Bliss spent his earliest paychecks at Empire Comics in Rochester, N.Y., which was six miles from his house. He made the journey on a banana-seat bike.
My first job was in a pizza joint: Cilino's Pizza in Henrietta, N.Y. My older sister, Rachel, was working there, and she asked the owner, Vince, if I might work there, too, making pies. I wasn't sure it would happen because I was 15 — pretty young — but Vince trusted my sister and gave me a shot. I believe I made about $3 an hour. I honestly don't recall; it was 1979!
Before long, my sister left, and I suggested to Vince that he hire my best friend, Darren Eggleston, and he did. Vince would leave each night around 7 to go to a disco club called 747. (The inside was like an airplane, I'd heard.) Me and Darren made pies, took phone orders and pretty much ran the whole operation.
One night we got into a fight — a pretty serious fistfight — and ended up throwing handfuls of pepperoni at each other. Fortunately, we'd cleaned up before Vince returned to count up the register. I learned to take pride in the fact that I was this kid running a business along with my buddy.
I eventually was fired from Cilino's. Vince accused me of stealing money from the jukebox, which I never did, and the whole experience left me feeling angry. I wasn't mature enough to argue my defense. A week or so later, I got a job at a Carvel ice cream place a few doors down from Cilino's. I got fired from that job, too. The owner, a nice man, told me I "just wasn't working out." It's not easy serving soft ice cream — very tricky, in fact.
First job: model
Traci Griffith, 46, Williston
chair and associate professor of media studies, journalism and digital arts at St. Michael's College
Kids: son Jaden, 7
While in college, Griffith learned a valuable lesson: what she didn't want to do for work.
I was 19 and in college in Chicago. There was a cattle call for models for a beauty show, and my hairdresser suggested I go. That was the beginning. I was picked up by an agency in Chicago when a representative of the agency saw the show.
Over the next two years, I did numerous shows — mostly hair and makeup shows rather than clothing and fashion — but I also did ad work for Marshall Field's department store.
My parents were actually upset that I had a job. My dad always told me that my job was to get good grades, and that I would have to work for the rest of my life so I should enjoy my youth.
As I became more educated and furthered my college career, I became a feminist and hated the whole notion of being judged solely on my looks. I learned that there are many sad people in the industry who need the validation of others and are willing to sell themselves to get it.
I saw drug use and bulimia. I saw body mutilation and ethnocentric issues. Models, to their detriment, were trying to become the ideal. I was a college kid who was doing this temporarily and wasn't particularly invested. It's a horrible industry that preys on women's vulnerabilities. I wouldn't want anyone I love to make a living doing this.
First job: babysitting
Betsy Martin, 56, Richmond
Kids: daughter Mariah, 27, and son Jonathan, 24
The summer after eighth grade, Betsy Martin moved with her family from California to southern Florida. She hated the culture and missed her friends. So she babysat her way back.
We had a lot of doctors in the area, and I started babysitting [for their kids]. Doctors pay really well, especially if you're reliable! I worked every Friday night for one doctor and every Saturday night for another, so it was really consistent. And I just saved my money.
At the end of the school year, I bought a plane ticket to California and visited my friends for five weeks. Next school year, I did the same thing. I flew alone; it was a different time.
Between my sophomore and junior years, I started teaching gymnastics and getting paid pretty darn well. I decided, well, I really kind of need to stay at my job over the summer, and so I didn't go back [to California]. By then, I had lots of friends [in Florida]. I think I was making $15 an hour or something because they'd pay you by the class. So you'd teach three classes and you'd get a good chunk of money.
I was very independent. I knew I had that money. I could go do what I wanted and, yeah, I was psyched.
First job: restaurant worker
Jovan Ellis, 23, Burlington
admissions counselor, Champlain College
Growing up in South Philadelphia, the neighborhood mentality was: You'll never amount to anything, so why try? But Ellis wanted to work. And his family needed the money.
I had my first job when I was 12. I helped out at my stepfather's restaurant and bar by opening up shop in the morning, helping prepare meals in the kitchen, getting ice and change for the bartenders, things like that. I didn't make much at all, but I liked the feeling of being self-sufficient.
My first bit of money often went toward trying to buy Nike sneakers or Dickies-brand pants. In middle school, your social status is often determined by your ability to keep up with the latest fashion trends, and bargain-bin attire can be disastrous!
By 16, I worked at a local pizza shop. The conditions were miserable, especially during an air condition-less summer. I have such respect for people doing jobs they don't like, working in difficult conditions to make ends meet. It makes you want something. It makes you aspire to greater things. It was also around this time when I began putting most of my money toward helping my mom.
Our household certainly needed the help, but my mom didn't let me help her out with the most expensive bills. Instead, she asked that I pay the entirety of one of the smaller expenses, like the water bill. I'm not sure why, but somehow paying off all of something made it feel like I was doing measurable good.
First job: mowing lawns
Tom Sullivan, Burlington
president, University of Vermont
No kids; 17 nieces and nephews
Sullivan's work life started in Amboy, Ill., when his father brought home the family's first power lawn mower. He hasn't been unemployed since.
As soon as I was able to learn all the safety mechanisms, I started mowing lawns at age 10. I had at least five or six different lawns I did every week — ours, plus all the neighbors'. And that was my first paying job. My father never touched the lawn mower again after that.
I've had a job ever since — no break. I continued to do the lawn at our house until the time I went to college. But at age 13, I also started working in a caddy shop at a golf course. From age 16 to 21, I worked every summer on a highway construction crew — air hammer, blacktop, concrete, tearing up roads, putting in new ones.
These days, when lanes are stopped and there are flag people out there, I always wave to them and thank them. [My wife] asked me, "Why do you do that?" And I said, "Because I had to do that occasionally. I know what it's like standing out in that hot sun and working on a highway crew and sometimes being the flag person."
From age 12 to 16, I also worked part-time on a farm in the summer — mostly baling hay.
[Having a job] is about managing — and being disciplined about managing — one's schedule, whether you're 10 or 62 years old. If the neighbors all want that lawn mowed by noon on Saturday, well, I've got to figure out how to get five or six of these in, particularly if it's raining. I think people would tell you I'm a fairly focused, organized, disciplined, kind of strict manager of a calendar. I think it all started early on because I had to figure out how to get those jobs done and do the stuff I wanted to do as a kid, too. K
When to Work?
The right age for a first job is somewhere between 11 and 15, according to Penny Bishop, UVM professor of middle level education and the director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education.
Bishop says kids that age crave a sense of responsibility, a feeling that they are trusted and that people count on them. They need to develop competence and want to feel independent.
"They are really at the time of life when they are beginning to define themselves as more than a family member ... They are seeing themselves as an individual," Bishop says. "So having a job is an opportunity to respond to that need."
Before your child pounds the pavement for that babysitting or lawn-mowing gig, Bishop says, consider these three things:
Is the job safe? For example, do you know the employer? Is the job physically safe?
Is the work appropriate? You don't want to set up a child to fail. "It's really important that an early job provide that feeling of confidence," says Bishop, mother of two sons, ages 13 and 15. To prepare your kid for a specific job, look for community courses, such as babysitting classes or programs offered by Navicate, a Vermont organization that connects students and schools to businesses to create real-world learning opportunities.
Is it realistic? Will the job fit into the family schedule? Say your son plans to walk a dog every day after school, Bishop says. "What happens on Tuesday when he goes to violin lessons or soccer or the dentist?" The last thing you want to do is add a family stressor.