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Campfire Commencement Address

from flickr user nffcnnr

I love campfires.  The bugs, the smoke, the heat, the marshmallows, stars, smoldering wood smell, cool, dark.  It is an elevated level of consciousness at a campfire–dulled senses from booze (or whatever) notwithstanding.  I like music, talking, squabbling children, raccoons, bats, bug bites, itchy ankles. I love how it makes my clothes smell.

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of campfiring with some nearby neighbors & their children, neighbors, my child, and Fella.

Their neighbors were two cute kids around ages 7 and 10, I’d say.  I was talking about something, as I often am, and the older one, a boy, said, “Are you a teacher or something?”

“No,” I said.

“You talk like you’re smart or something.”

I laughed.  A lot.  Then I thanked him and said, “That’s the best.  I’m going to put that in my blog.”

His eyes got huge in something that I couldn’t discern, incredulity? Awe? Horror? “You have a BLOG?!” He said, like it was something so special.   I love that about kids.  I ask myself every day, “What are you doing, spewing into this blog river?  Why do you deserve to say what you want to say? What makes you think anybody cares?  Almost everybody who reads your blog knows you,” and on and on and on.  Kids don’t ask themselves such questions.  The world is fresh and new and everybody is smart and nice and deserving.

It is humbling.  And one of the many pleasures of parenthood.

At the campfire, we talked about all sorts of things, among them, the shared enjoyment from our stints as food servers.

And then the next day I was cleaning my kitchen floor with the same sort of urgencyI used to clean the floor at the end of my shift.  I was thinking about all the fun things I could do just as soon as my floor was clean.  I didn’t actually have anything fun to do, aside from not clean the floor, but that didn’t matter–I didn’t want to do the work, but I wanted the floor to be clean.

And then I started to think about how glad I am that I got into food service at such an early age (15!), and all the terrific life lessons I learned during my decade as a food server that prepared me for college, life, parenthood, self-employment.

So in this season of commencement addresses and forward-looking and 18-year-olds on the brink of everything, I will make like a teacher and offer the following in favor of the INCREDIBLY unpopular taking a year or two off school after high school.

Here’s what I prescribe.

Graduate from high school.  Get a full time job in food or retail if you don’t already have one.  Move out of your parents’ house into a cheap apartment, make sure you can afford it.  A good rule of thumb is that you have to be able to make rent with one week’s wages.  If you don’t make enough money, get a roommate.

Live like this for a year. Consider it a paid internship in life.  Consider it an invaluable part of your education.

Keep all of the bills you paid and receipts from food or anything else you bought yourself.  Add it up at the end of the year.  Then, think about that sum–whatever it is, it is almost certainly under $15,000, and remember how hard you worked for that money, and how many days you lived for that percentage of your college tuition.

What The School of Food Service Will Teach You About College.

1.  How to make yourself do stuff that’s uncomfortable, even if you don’t want to.

You will learn to muscle through odd demands from micro-managing bosses, to be nice to people who are miserable, to accept responsibility for things that aren’t even your fault, and how to recognize the world outside of yourself.  This will make you realize what a blessing a fifteen-page paper or fifty pages of reading a night is.  It will be a relief to be master of your own success, and to not have to rein in your mind or self–to be encouraged to develop those things.

2.   The value of money.

When you have no conception of, for example, $40,000–which is somewhere in the middle range for a year’s college tuition–you will think nothing of wasting your time and your parents’ money–or student loans that you’ll eventually be on the hook for.  And you’ll want to take your time.  College is comfortable.  It’s insulated.  There are other people your age, and usually lots of fun to be had.  If you understand the value of money, you will understand the value of all of that a little more, and will naturally handle both your time and your fun-having more responsibly.

3.  How to talk to strangers.

I remember having a parent switch as a teenager that I’d put on for talking to adults.  It involved a lot of smiling and nodding.  When you have to talk to strangers and grownups for your bacon, you will learn quickly that adults are people just like you are a person.  And you will be able to translate that knowledge and belief to professors, academic advisers, your significant other’s parents, etc, etc, etc.  I taught freshman comp at Pitt for a semester, and I was kind of perplexed by how the students–mostly middle- and upper-middle class 17- and 18-year-olds regarded me (I was then 26) as either a parent surrogate, or a duncy nemesis.  And only two of them talked to me in a way that indicated experience talking to adults.  Two out of twenty-three.

4.  How to work hard and party hard.

I don’t think I’ve ever written the word and with such muscle.  In college, I observed a lot of people who played madly, and did the bare minimum to get by academically.  The food service/retail construct which awards hard work with money drives a person to work like she means it.  And then makes her feel justified in partying hard.  This skill is massively useful in college.  You’ve gotta do well, grades are the student’s capital during college and when entering that elusive job market.  And you’ve gotta know how to make yourself do the stuff for the grades before you go do that keg stand or beer bong or frat party.  You will know how to sweat at work, and that skill will translate to school work.

5.  How to show up and be present.

It’s impossible to wait tables on auto pilot.  And the best advice I can give anybody for success in any life is this: show up and be present.  It’s not enough just to show up (unless you’re a white man).  You need to show up with your mind, too, and there is no greater advantage in college than going to class switched on.  You’ll do better, your teachers will notice and appreciate it–and by extension be more likely to work with you if some life thing comes up and you have to turn in your paper a few hours or a day late.

6.  How to value a job well done.

In food service and retail, yes, you get money for doing a good job.  But you get something else, too: you get an addictive feeling of accomplishment and self-congratulation.  You learn how to make yourself proud.  In college, teachers do not–they cannot–stand over you and hold your hand and make sure your self-esteem is in order.  You have to do that for yourself.  If you’ve done some time in the school of hard knocks before heading off to your liberal arts education, you’ll be a much, much better student.  And you’ll be able to be your own cheerleader.  And you’ll probably have some ideas about yourself that would enable you to choose a major more specific than liberal arts.

7.  How to manage yourself.

When you’re a server or a bartender, you can make your own little food service enterprise.  You will get customers who love you, who remember you and your name, who request you, and who will tip you well.  You will learn the value of positive working relationships.  You will learn how not to be affected by the grumbling going on around you.  These are massively important skills because you will need to be unfettered by the morale in a class in college.  Sometimes, there is an overwhelming number of grumblers.  You need to take what you can from the course and ignore the people who are making it miserable on themselves by complaining.

Anybody else have post-high school stories that could guide the next generation of college students?  Or anecdotes that contradict this advice?  Sound off!

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7 comments on “Campfire Commencement Address

  1. I got divorced at 37 after 18 years of marriage and fairly quickly found myself working 3 jobs to make ends meet, one of them in retail. Holy smoke, what an education that was! As Isreal has a 2-year army requirement of its young people, America should have a 2-year retail requirement. Just sayin’. :)

  2. I have never had a food service or retailing job, I am chagrined to admit. Both of my sons delivered pizza. Their view of the world, and people, changed drastically. The best tippers, they agreed, were ladies who said they were former waitresses.

    • Ha! Well, good on you, Ramona. I get caught up in the “this is how I did it, so it is the right way” sort of thing. But I think it’d be a fine thing indeed to have made it through life without working retail or waiting tables.

      It’s true, waitressing makes you a congenitally good tipper. Fella delivered pizza for a number of years. I always kind of fantasized that delivering pizza would be cool.

  3. April,
    One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that many kids get to college without ever having held a paying job. In fact, my daughter tells me she knows a couple of kids who graduated without ever holding down a job. I checked groceries and sold sportswear all through high school and college, and both of my children had jobs in high school and college, both over the summer, and during the school year. There is simply no substitute for what you learn. Even if you don’t take a year off to learn it.
    And I must say that many of the lessons you speak of were things I learned behind the checkout counter at Gallahue’s Market in Wakefield, MA when I was 16 years old.

    • Sing it, Robin. I’m still, in my early 30s, reaping the benefits of getting started early as a worker bee. If I had it to do over, though, I would’ve spent more time studying in high school. :-)

  4. [...] imagine my excitement when they invited Fella, Child and I over for a campfire the other week.  I already shared one anecdote from those glorious two hours.  But here’s some additional [...]

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