Learned on the Job

David Johnson

IT’S A COMMON BELIEF that a young person’s first job is important because it teaches life lessons about work and the value of money. There’s a reason this belief is so common: It’s largely true.

Still, letting a young person loose in the world to learn lessons isn’t as straightforward as you might think. I learned the following seven lessons from my first job—some useful, some decidedly less so.

Lesson No. 1: Avoid Celery

My first job was picking strawberries. I thought this was a real job because it lasted for the whole season—several weeks—on a real farm. I was 10 years old.

Early each morning, an old school bus owned by the farm drove through town stopping at certain locations to pick up whichever kids wanted to work. The bus would take us to the fields. We’d get paid at the end of the day, and the bus would drive us back to where we were picked up.

I’d get up a little before 6 a.m. and make myself lunch: a sandwich, an apple, a piece of cheese, orange Tang in a thermos—just like the astronauts—and, because my mother said I had to, some sort of vegetable, such as a carrot or celery stick. Then I’d walk the eight blocks to the country store where my bus stop was.

Work lesson No. 1: I really didn’t like eating celery. The kids often traded food at lunch, but nobody liked celery. It was a worthless bartering item. After I stopped picking strawberries, it was another 40 years before I ate any more celery. When I did, it tasted pretty good. The celery lesson was a bum steer.

Lesson No. 2: Who Makes the Rules

By the second half of my first day, I did learn something about work. We picked strawberries into wooden containers called flats. When you filled the flat, you took it to the scales at the edge of the field. If your flat weighed enough, your pay card got punched. If it didn’t, you had to go back to your row and pick more berries to fill it.

I noticed right away that if your flat was heavier than the minimum, they didn’t let you take some berries out and put them in your next flat. Variations in the weight of your flat didn’t count unless they counted against you.

Work lesson No. 2: The guy writing the checks makes the rules.

Lesson No. 3: Class Struggle

It took two years before I started pondering the fact that not all of my grade-school classmates picked strawberries. The people in my town seemed uniformly similar to me until then. But in truth, there were economic class differences. Yet even after I realized that some kids spent the summers swimming at the country club and others worked picking strawberries, I didn’t think much about it. I liked some country club kids and didn’t like others, and the same for the kids who picked strawberries. Not only that, some of the kids picking strawberries were from families with country club memberships.

Work lesson No. 3: I saw no consistent correlation between a person’s character and how much money their family had. That was a useful life lesson.

Lesson No. 4: Managing Managers

Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure that the farm was picking up kids to work mostly as a public service, giving every kid in town who wanted it the chance to work. The farm was building character through the economic miracle of child labor. If you had asked me if I thought my character was being improved as I inched my way down a row of strawberries on my hands and knees, picking clean as the beating sun turned the dirt to dust, I probably would have just laughed at you.

One day, I noticed the foreman looking over my row. The foreman tended to check anyone further along in their row than other kids to make sure the fast kid was picking cleanly. When he reached me, I was sitting in the dirt, eating my sandwich, even though it was only 10:30 a.m.

“What are you doing?” he said. A good sign: If he found spots I hadn’t picked well, he would have said that first.

“I got hungry, so I’m eating,” I said. I held out my punch card. “I’ve already picked more than the day’s quota. I’ll pick some more, soon as I’m done eating.”

He tilted his head, pondering this. “Okay.” He walked off to check someone else’s row.

Work lesson No. 4: Do your work faster and better than other people, and eventually management leaves you alone.

Lessons Nos. 5 and 6: Seeing and Believing

A couple of years into strawberry picking, I noticed that Susan Dooley also picked strawberries each summer. She was in my grade. Seeing her pick strawberries, while also sometimes surreptitiously eating one, caused me to suspect for the first time that “girl germs,” a widely believed-in and much-feared phenomenon amongst my male peers, was not real.

I was shocked by this thought, because everyone knew about girl germs. But then Susan Dooley would eat another strawberry and the whole idea of girl germs suddenly seemed stupid.

Work lessons Nos. 5 and 6: You don’t have to believe in an idea just because someone else does, and you don’t have to keep believing what you believe if sufficient evidence tells you you’re wrong.

Lesson No. 7: The Road to Riches

At the end of the day, the farm’s family matriarch set up a card table at the edge of the field with a cash box on it. We’d file by and give her our punch cards, and she’d pay us in cash.

When I was dropped off at the country store after work, I’d go in and spend some of my earnings. Many kids spent much of their money, but I had a system. I’d spend whatever change was left above the last half dollar. If I made $9.70, I’d spend 20 cents, saving the $9.50. If my spare change one day wasn’t enough to get what I wanted, I’d add it to the next day’s spare change and spend it then.

The good comic books—Spiderman, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Silver Surfer—cost 15 or 25 cents, depending on the issue size. Big Hunk candy bars cost five cents. At the end of each season, I put all of the money I’d saved in a savings account. I was saving for college.

When I went off to college, I decided to sell the comic books. To my surprise, by then they were worth about twice as much as all the money I’d saved from three seasons of picking strawberries plus the interest earned on those savings.

Work lesson No. 7—the most rigorously data-based lesson from my first job—was: Saving money doesn’t pay. Comic books are the true road to riches. This was likely not the lesson my parents were hoping I’d learn from my first job. But fortunately, unlike the “avoid celery” lesson, I didn’t wait 40 years to unlearn the “saving money doesn’t pay” lesson.

David Johnson retired in 2021 from editing hunting and fishing magazines. He spends his time reading, cooking, gardening, fishing, freelancing and hanging out with his family in Oregon. Check out David’s earlier articles.

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