In my parents' day, high school graduates got jobs. While Ta was in college, he taught math and science in his yeshiva. Ma, like the rest of her classmates, got a secretarial job in Manhattan. (Zeidy thought such an opportunity for a young girl to easily earn money to be near miraculous.) That's not really the current default today, which is a shame.
A job—any job—is an education. The first time I babysat for the neighbor across the street—I was eight, with my parents in yodeling distance—I was crushingly aware of responsibility. For that hour while the mother had to quickly run out, I stood ramrod straight clutching the cordless phone while the little(r) girls played peacefully at my feet and the baby gurgled at me from the crib.
Working is an invaluable experience that many of our youth miss out on. Children can have an over-inflated sense of self—which is mostly due to underexposure—which is crushed the first time they screw up on the job. Bosses aren't going to humor them, or give them a pass. They expect results.
It is a bleak moment when one realizes that the more one knows, the more one doesn't know.
At the same time, employees can discover their own capabilities, realizing what is truly worthy of admiration, and feel that soft, fuzzy glow of a paycheck well-earned.
Those memories of my first jobs came back to me as I read Leslie Jamison's response to the question, "What early job later informed your work as a writer?"
Jamison dabbled in many different fields, but she greatly enjoyed her time in a bakery, even though she didn't have quite the knack.
. . . Messing up in a kitchen taught me more about “constructive criticism” than any workshop ever had. . .
I was humbled by that job, over and over again: humbled by how much I needed to learn, how much I needed to keep learning; how I needed to keep practicing what I kept getting wrong. Just because I had published a book, just because maybe 500 people had bought it, didn’t mean I wouldn’t show up (at 7 a.m.) and suit up (in my apron); and it didn’t mean I wasn’t held accountable to my production list, stuck to the walk-in cooler beside the more ambitious lists of my colleagues.
This is one truth that hasn’t gone away: Whatever happens in my writing, I still have to show up for the rest of my life, whatever that entails — 100 gingerbread cookies or a boyfriend with the flu; a student’s last-minute rec letter or my daughter’s musical.
But it was another truth — the humility of that kitchen, confronting what I didn’t know — that has felt most resonant across my writing life. As my work has evolved, it has demanded uncomfortable, new kinds of capacity: learning how to pursue a difficult subject; how to seduce her in an interview; how to get corrected by fact-checkers; how to live in archives.
Writing hasn’t felt like getting progressively better at a single task; it’s felt more like stumbling toward the bewildering call of each new project, learning how to be a person who knows nothing; how to arrive on time, put on a batter-smeared apron and show up for whatever happens next.
In work, there will be times when one messes up. There will be medicine: criticism, humiliation, but learning. And the next day, with all the residue of the previous day's snafus still twinging, one still has to show up. There is no sick leave for goofs. One clocks in, and keeps on truckin'.
"Eighty percent of life is showing up," Woody Allen might have said. Yup.
Jews kinda know that it's not necessarily the end of the world if they trip up in an aspect of observance. Jews are supposed to keep on truckin', knowing they can do better and going doggedly after it. There isn't much glamor, mostly batter-smeared aprons. But there is a great satisfaction nonetheless.