The summer after my junior year of high school I got a summer job in a resort town in Maine. It wasn’t my first summer job — I’d worked previously as a day camp counselor and a babysitter — but it was my first summer job away from home. The job wasn’t glamorous: I worked four hours a day cleaning a restaurant. My brother got me the job; he was doing outside work at the same resort, and when their regular cleaner hurt her ankle he mentioned that he had a sister sitting at home with no job. A few days later I was on my way.
Four hours a day didn’t keep me very busy, but I soon picked up another job as well, scooping ice cream. I happened into that job serendipitously, too: one hot day I was riding my bike around town and stopped into a hardware store to cool off in the air conditioning. The owner came by to see what I was up to, and when I confessed that I had just come in out of the heat he said I should buy something. “I would if I could afford to,” I said. It then came out that his wife ran an ice cream shop down the street and was looking for workers — hours later, I was hired, along with my brother.
I lived in a boarding house full of kids doing much what I was — trying to make a little money and have a little fun. I went to the beach between jobs, when I could, or on my days off; I learned to crochet from one roommate, and to cook from another. At one point someone in the boarding house contracted hepatitis and the landlords took us all in for gamma globulin shots. At another point I developed tennis elbow from scooping hard-frozen ice cream; worker’s comp paid for my doctor’s visit.
At sixteen I wasn’t a skilled worker. The work was often hard, and I was sometimes lonely. I didn’t make lifelong friends, and I’ve never actually been back to that particular town. I didn’t even use the experience in my college essays — there was nothing all that unusual about it, after all. But I did like the feeling of self-sufficiency that summer gave me. I paid my own bills, took care of my own needs. (Or, mostly.) It was a great experience to have at a formative age: ever after, I was confident that, if necessary, I could support myself. That confidence helped when I was fired from my first post-college job, and again during difficult times in grad school.
It’s been 17 years since I had to look for a job, far longer since I had to look for summer work — and it seems times have indeed changed. My daughter, home from college, has had part-time and summer jobs before, but has not yet had an experience even close to my normal summer from 16 to 22. Many of her friends, she tells me, have never held a job. Part of that is privilege, I know — and, I believe, part is the anxiety of parents and kids about “enriching” experiences rather than menial work. In our case, summers filled with travel have complicated Mariah’s opportunities for summer work.
But this summer we’re home, and so is she, and this year she needs work. In this economy, however, even low-paying summer jobs for unskilled workers are hard to come by. She scans craigslist and various ads; she follows up on leads gleaned from friends and neighbors. At the moment, she’s got some babysitting work lined up and it looks like more may turn up. Like Susan O’Doherty, I am happy to have my child at home — but I also want her to get out of the house, both so she can earn some money and so I can have some quiet to focus on my own work. I wouldn’t really wish her away at a resort hotel at all — I’d miss her dreadfully — but I also remember my own summers away nostalgically, and wonder whether such experiences are gone forever. To me that’s what summer meant — what will it mean to her? What does it to you?