I Was a 14-Year-Old Farm Laborer, But I'm Not Sure If I'll Make My Son Get a Job

During the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I piled into the back of a truck with some other kids at 5:00 a.m., paper bag lunch in hand, and rode to a wet, humid cornfield to earn some money.

Oct 10, 2012 at 11:30am | Leave a comment

I’m only 35, but lately I find myself beginning all my personal stories with “In my day,” like I should be shaking my tennis-ball befooted walker at some young whippersnapper. Latest example: there is a crazy gas shortage here in California that has resulted in gas stations shutting down, and others charging as much as $5.00 per gallon. Five dollars!

I was reminiscing with one of the other moms at Oliver’s school about the days when it cost a mere $10.00 to fill up my tank. In my day, gas was cheap. But we still walked uphill to school both ways in the snow, of course.

In my day, if I wanted to put $10.00 of unleaded into my ‘86 Oldsmobile, I had to have a job. It’s just what you did -- at least, in my middle class Midwestern community, it’s what you did if you wanted to fill up your rusty old first car, or pay that one older dude who would totally buy a case of beer for you in exchange for a couple of cans of it.

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I'm supposed to wear these things when I read, because my eyes are aging.

Coming from the Midwest, the value of hard work is ingrained in children from birth. Actually, maybe even in the womb, I don't know. When I moved to California 14 years ago, my mom insisted that I should be able to find a job immediately, solely based on the fact that I grew up in Iowa and have that “Midwest work ethic.” Which, no. No one here cares about that, and honestly, I don’t even know if I have it anyway because when given the choice between work and watching "Downton Abbey" with a pint of ice cream in one hand and a spoon in the other, I will usually choose the latter. Unless I’ve run out of money and need to buy more ice cream. Then it’s like BOOM, Midwest work ethic in full effect!

In fact, Iowans value the Midwest work ethic so much that they put kids to work in the corn fields as young as 14. My first job, like many kids who grew up in the state where corn is king, was detasseling corn. Detasseling is hot, sweaty, icky, bug-infested work that involves walking through endless rows of seed corn and pulling out the tassel, the pollen-producing part of the plant. 

During the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I piled into the back of a truck with some other kids at 5:00 a.m., paper bag lunch in hand, and rode to a wet, humid cornfield to earn some money. Because the field was so dewy and muddy in the mornings, I covered my clothes with a garbage bag, my head sticking through a hole I had cut in it.

By the late morning, it was so hot and humid that I would shed a layer. On my arms I wore a pair of tube socks with holes cut out for my fingers. This was to prevent corn rash. CORN RASH. It’s a thing. Every night I would fall asleep exhausted and achy, and every time I closed my eyes, all I saw was corn. Rows upon rows of corn. In fact, to this day I have never done one of those corn maze things that are supposed to be so fun because I do not want to be around that much corn ever again.

I only did that one summer. My other teenage jobs (a clothing store, a steakhouse, and a video store) were downright luxury jobs compared to my first. The expectation in my house was that I would work during high school, as soon as I was legally able. In my home state, at the time, the legal working age was 16, but you could get a work permit at 14. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember having too much trouble juggling work and school. I guess I just made it work somehow, no matter how much homework I had been assigned in a given week.

And I’ve always said that no matter what my finances are like when Oliver is old enough to drive, if he wants a car, he must have a job, because I am not putting gas in that thing. But now maybe I’m reconsidering, because do you know how much homework he has now, even in second grade? He has about 20 to 30 minutes of homework to do each night, Monday through Thursday. In second grade. I don’t remember having homework at all in second grade, let alone 20 to 30 minutes a night. I can’t imagine what his course load will be like by the time he’s 16.

So while I’d like to pass that Midwest work ethic on to my son by asking him to get a part-time job as soon as he is legally able, I don’t know if that’s going to be possible without interfering with school. It seems to me that we put so much pressure on kids now to perform academically, that some of those practical, “real-world” skills, like how to get and keep a job, might get lost along the way. I’m not sure yet how I’ll handle it.

For now, I only have to worry about him learning how to earn money around the house. When the time comes to tackle the job question, I’ll wing it like I do everything else. The only thing I know for sure is the world Oliver is growing up in is very different from the world I grew up in. You know, in my day.

So, tell me about your first job. Did you work when you were a teenager? Walk uphill to school both ways in the snow? And do you think high school students should have jobs, or is schoolwork just too bananas these days?

Somer exhibits a lack of any sort of work ethic by wasting time on Twitter @somersherwood