Do Who You Are

David Gartland

THE ONLY DREAM I HAD for my son was that he’d get a job. To most parents, this probably seems like small thinking. Why wasn’t I dreaming of him walking across the stage after earning his medical degree, or walking down the aisle with his new bride, or the joy of him holding his first child? Because that would not be his reality.

It took me a while to accept this. Based on my life, I always felt folks could overcome most obstacles if only they tried harder. I thought my son was no exception. All his mother and I had to do was guide him through his public education and it would all work out.

Well, that was not meant to be.

My wife and I are totally different people. To those readers whose spouse is always on the same page, God bless ya. My wife and I disagree more than we agree. Our saving grace is that we can make each other laugh. This is a blessing, especially when you’re raising a special needs child.

Every time I’d talk about his future career success in a 40-hour-a-week job, my wife would say, “You’re nuts.” She would tell me she sees him working maybe one or two days a week, with the balance of his time in adult daycare centers or volunteering in our town.

This was unacceptable to me. I wanted him to carry his weight in society. I wanted him to contribute to our community. To Republican readers out there, I’m sure this is how you’d like all citizens to live. I can’t disagree. But matters didn’t turn out as I wished for my son.

When he was in our public school system, he was exposed to many facets of education, as all students are. To the students who are destined to go on to college, academics are the focus. To those students who love to work with their hands, trade schools or technical high schools are available.

My son was shown different jobs that they thought he might be able to do. The list was not extensive. It merely consisted of those businesses that the school had connections with. This was referred to as “job sampling.” I thought this was the key to his success and future career. Surely, when employers saw my son in action, they’d jump at the chance to offer him a full-time job after he graduates from high school? That never happened.

There’s a book titled Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. The premise is, we’re all given gifts and talents by God. If we apply training to these gifts, they will become our strengths. If we seek employment that utilizes these strengths, we will have successful careers.

To identify our gifts and talents, we simply need to notice what things come naturally to us. For those who like numbers, maybe a career as an accountant would work. For those who enjoy engaging with and convincing others, maybe a career in sales is the way to go.

In my son’s case, he obsesses over chairs that aren’t pushed into the table after you leave. I thought, “Who does this for a living?” I decided he should become a school janitor. With this new awareness, I asked the school to have my son work with the janitors as part of his job sampling. Made sense to me.

Unfortunately, my son’s skills as a janitor started and stopped with pushing chairs back into place. When you tell my son to wipe down a table, he does it. But for those who expect a thorough wiping, he doesn’t do it. Regardless of how many times you attempt to instruct him on the proper technique for wiping tables, it just doesn’t stick. A career as a janitor was off the table.

In speaking with his school’s job coaches, the one job that he did without prompting or continual instruction was when he worked at a local supermarket collecting shopping carts. His gift was he recognized when a shopping cart was not in its proper place—the shopping cart corral—just like when he saw when a chair wasn’t pushed in.

Eureka. I’d found the perfect job for him. It took us a while to get him that job, but we finally did with the help of Easterseals. Up to this point, he worked in an Easterseals workshop. The workshop paid him by the piece, which is less than minimum wage. These workshops are allowed to pay less than minimum wage because they get an exception from the Labor Department because they’re “employing” people who couldn’t work elsewhere.

The grocery store is considered “competitive employment,” since he would be competing against “typical” workers, not just “special needs” workers. Therefore, he’d be paid minimum wage, which would be far greater than his piecework pay. All looked good—until he started work.

He was good at collecting shopping carts. The problem occurred with the human resource rules—in particular, taking breaks and stopping for lunch. My son can read time, but he can’t measure time. He can read that it’s 3 p.m. But if you tell him we’re leaving in 15 minutes, it doesn’t mean anything to him. Moreover, the store changed his hours every day, so his break times weren’t always the same.

He had an older smart phone that his mother passed down to him. I set up the timer feature on the phone so an alarm would go off at the break times for that day. I gave him a three-by-five-inch index card for that day showing him when his break times and lunch time were. When the alarm went off, he could read the time and match it up to the card to know whether it was a break or lunch. That worked well, except he didn’t have to clock out for his breaks or to go to the bathroom, but he had to clock out for lunch. The problem: He’d forget to clock back in after lunch, thus losing his pay for that day, because it would appear he’d clocked out and left work.

My career dreams for my son came to an abrupt end when COVID-19 hit. His mother didn’t want him to work under these conditions. As much as I hated to see his job end, she was right. As the world quickly learned, people were dying from the virus.

He would never get his job back.

My son is hardly the first person to find it difficult to identify the right job. To those who struggle at work, does the position utilize your strengths? Just because you have the knowledge to do the job, are your gifts being used? Are you a doctor who should have been an artist or a fashion designer who should have been a librarian?

Working a job that isn’t right for you leads to a difficult life. My advice: Don’t swim upstream. Do who you are.

David Gartland was born and raised on Long Island, New York, and has lived in central New Jersey since 1987. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math from the State University of New York at Cortland and holds various professional insurance designations. Dave’s property and casualty insurance career with different companies lasted 42 years. He’s been married 36 years, and has a son with special needs. Dave has identified three areas of interest that he focuses on to enjoy retirement: exploring, learning and accomplishing. Pursuing any one of these leads to contentment. Check out Dave’s earlier articles.

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