Learning on the job

The warmer months always remind me of my summers as a teenager — entering into the rite of passage of finding and holding a summer job. My real work history began at age 12 with a steady stream of neighborhood babysitting gigs, but it was my summer jobs in high school that gave me my first exposure to the working world. None of these jobs were exactly what I thought they would be, but each experience taught me an invaluable lesson about how to survive in the workplace.

Don’t be afraid to ask

When I was 14, there was a girl in my class who I always looked up to. One day, she told me that she volunteered as a candy striper at the local hospital. When I asked her why she was volunteering, I was expecting an altruistic response. Instead, she told me that the experience would help her get a better job in the future.

Since that sounded like a good enough reason as any, I signed up to work as a candy striper at the hospital. I envisioned that my responsibilities would include walking around and fluffing up patients’ pillows and pouring them water.

In reality, I ended up working as a waitress in the hospital’s coffee shop. Since I was very shy and often nervous and klutzy around people, I feared every day when I went to work that I would drop a plate on the floor, and the entire restaurant would become silent and stare at me.

During my summer as a candy striper, I overcame my shyness and never dropped a plate, glass, or utensil on the floor. My self-confidence soared. The last week on the job, however, a customer ordered an iced coffee. Since this was the 1980s — before any semblance of a Starbucks had appeared in our neighborhood — I had never heard of an iced coffee before.

Instead of asking a fellow worker how to make the drink, I pulled out a wax-coated paper cup, poured some hot coffee into it, and then gave it to the customer with some milk and sugar on the side. As I walked away from his table, I noticed there was wax on my hand. Slowly turning around, I saw the customer bring the drink to his lips as the cup fell apart and the coffee dripped down his white shirt.

The man jumped out of his seat and yelled that the scalding hot coffee had burnt his chest and legs. I rushed to give him more napkins and apologized for my cluelessness. Needless to say, he didn’t want to hear my excuses, and walked out of the coffee shop and probably to the nearest doctor who could treat him for his burns. Thus, I learned lesson number one: if you don’t know how to do something, ask someone.

Never do something you’ll later regret

When I turned 15, I got the opportunity to earn my first real paycheck. I played a lot of tennis growing up and was offered a job teaching tennis at a summer day camp. The head of the camp was a tennis pro, and he hired four teachers who were all enrolled in schools nearby. My friend and I, both students at an all-girls school, were the two female teachers, and two boys from the public high school were the male instructors.

At the beginning of the camp session, I had a great time playing tennis, working with the kids, and finally getting a chance to flirt with boys. I had absolutely no clue how to act around boys, since I was leading a monastic life attending an all-girls school. Of course, the summer heat was contributing to the delusion in my head that one of the male instructors had a crush on me. I knew he was shy, so one evening, when we were about to leave work, I kissed him.

Big mistake. He looked at me with a dumbfounded expression, since he had not anticipated the kiss at all. Not only did I learn the next day that he was not interested in me, but for the rest of the camp session, every time I walked by him and the other male teacher, they would snicker at me. I kept imagining all the horrible, humiliating things they were saying about me, which leads to lesson number two: never do anything in the workplace that you may regret the next day.

Despite the social gaffes and embarrassing experiences, I continued to work at the camp. When the camp session ended, I spent a month taking classes to obtain my lifeguard certification. Once I became certified, I got a job as a lifeguard at local pools during the summer, and worked an evening shift at the neighborhood YMCA in the winter.

If there’s a problem, tell your boss

During my evening shift at the Y, there was a swimmer who would never leave the pool at closing time. I would end up waiting 15 minutes for him to finish his laps, which I felt was unfair since I could not put the extra time on the time sheet. Whenever I asked him to leave, he would hold up a finger (which I assumed was a silent attempt to tell me to wait one more minute) and then continue to swim.

One evening I had decided that enough was enough, and I was going to show this swimmer that his time was up. When the pool was supposed to close, I detached the lane line, passed it over his head, turned off the lights and left the swimmer alone in the pool.

The following week when I came in for my evening shift, my boss was sitting on the bleachers next to the pool. That was not a good sign, since the only time I had ever seen my boss was when he interviewed me for my job.

My boss told me that I had jeopardized the man’s safety and created a potential lawsuit for the Y if anything had happened to the swimmer. I apologized and recounted my previous attempts to get the swimmer out of the pool at closing hours. My boss then proceeded to tell me about lesson number three: if you don’t know how to handle a situation, tell your boss.

Always double-check your facts

Thanks to all my experience as a lifeguard, I eventually landed a summer job after graduating from high school — working as a pool manager at an apartment complex. I was really excited about this opportunity, because I got to hire two lifeguards and the hours of the pool were from noon to 8 pm.

Two months before graduating from high school, I asked two friends, Rebecca and Mia, if they wanted to work as lifeguards at the pool. I told them the hours, the good salary, the 40-hour work week, and the classes they had to take to get certified. My friends thought the situation sounded ideal and agreed to take me up on my offer.

Two weeks before the pool opened, I realized that I had made a mistake — one of the lifeguards could only work 20 hours a week. When I told Mia, who had less work experience, that I had to cut her hours, she became infuriated with me, and rightly so. I was essentially saved when she found another part-time job, but not without enduring a couple of weeks of the silent treatment, which helped me understand lesson number four: always double-check your facts.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

After the rocky start, my friends and I had a good summer managing the pool. Since my friends and I were punctual and conscientious, none of the tenants who used the pool ever complained.

Halfway through the summer, Rebecca became quiet and withdrawn. When Mia and I asked her what was wrong, she said her parents were separating and that her life at home had become emotionally unbearable. Despite Rebecca’s attempts to arrive at work each day looking happy and cheerful, Mia and I could tell she was in a lot of pain.

One of the stipulations in our employment contracts was that if we worked until the end of the summer, we would receive bonuses. We were all looking forward to heading off to college with our bonuses, but the week before the pool was to close for the summer, Rebecca decided she couldn’t stand living at home another day and left for college early, thus, losing her chance to get her bonus.

In hindsight, I wished I had been more sympathetic toward Rebecca’s situation — perhaps offering her a place to stay at my family’s home or hanging out with her in the evenings when we finished work.

But I didn’t do that. Instead, I hugged her, told her I was sorry about what was going on with her family, and watched her leave. I still feel some remorse about what had happened that summer, which taught me the most significant lesson of all: always put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand her feelings.

My daughter is only 6 years old, but I know that one day I will recount these anecdotes to her in the hopes that she will make better decisions than the ones that I made. Nevertheless, no matter how much we as parents try to prepare our children for the real world, kids will only learn life’s most important lessons from their own mistakes.

Allison Plitt is a contributing writer for New York Parenting Media and a mother living in Queens with a 6-year-old daughter. Share your ideas about topics for articles or resources for families at [email protected].