A Child Visits the Workplace

If you ever want to get a blank look, just ask a child what his mother or father does for a living. Unless the parent is a teacher, police officer, nurse, or farmer, even a fairly old kid will shrug its shoulders.

Luckily for me, not only did my parents have jobs that could be described in one word, I got to see them in action. When I was a first-grader and too little for the after-school latchkey experience, the school bus would drop me off at the junior high school where my mom was the librarian. She'd hide me in a back room with instructions to lay low. The room had a window into the library, and like a stowaway peeking out from under a tarpaulin, I would watch her putting books on carts, writing overdue notices, and helping kids find books. Because of the intervening glass, Mom seemed to glide around the library silent as a fish in a tank.

My dad was the director of a college library and had 30 people working for him. I was proud of that and liked to visit his paneled office and bask in his glory. When I was a teenager, my big brother and I got summer jobs there. We shelved books, did some heavy lifting, and laughed so hard we could barely hold our water. We were silly, but not as silly as Dad had been to hire us. Our co-workers didn't see what was so funny, and neither did the boss; he fired us halfway through July. Dad could tell the difference between sons and human resources.

More recently, I'd been reading to my 10-year-old daughter, Marie, one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books ("Little House in the Tundra," I think it was) and it struck me how connected the kids were to the family's economic realities. Whether Dad and Mom were rendering blubber into oil or stewing a sled dog, the kids were right there stoking the fire or sharpening the harpoons. I may be misremembering some of the details, but the point is that I wanted Marie to see the source of our income.

I'm a copy editor for a daily newspaper/web site. I like the work and do it pretty well. Maybe bringing her to the newsroom for a day wouldn't impress her, but it'd bring her a little closer to her dad, show her a career possibility, and maybe give her some idea of where we fit into the world.

The day started well with Marie happily opening the newsroom mail. But when that little job was done, there was nothing else for her to do. So while I was busy editing letters-to-the-editor and putting together the opinion page, Marie sat at an empty desk and drew a funny picture of a boy and a dog. The dog was writing its name, and the boy was on a leash roles reversed. Something about the leashed boy struck a chord with me, so I hung it up near my desk where I could see it without straining at my own tether.

At noon, we went out to lunch. Our waitress was a cheerful whirlwind who fascinated Marie. Bantering with customers and juggling plates of hot food, our waitress outshone the keyboard-tapping drone Marie had come in with. And when the waitress scooped up a tip from a nearby table, Marie exclaimed, "She gets FOUR DOLLARS just for bringing people their food!?" Well, the main lesson was to be about economics.

A bad afternoon ensued. Marie was too young to appreciate the wacky and wise letters to the editor that I was trimming and fitting or the humor and insight of the syndicated columns I was processing. Spreading out her jacket and backpack under my desk, Marie nestled in there and read a Meg Cabot book, calling out every 10 minutes, "Can we go home now?" And finally we did.

The exercise didn't go the way I'd hoped. Marie now thinks her dad is a drudge and that a workday is a marathon crawl across empty terrain toward quitting time. She doesn't realize that my workplace, like most others, is actually a hotbed of challenge and intrigue, where all kinds of people are thrown together to produce something of value while striving to fulfill peculiar emotional needs. It is a minefield of suspense; you never know what routine task will blow up in your face. It is a twisting labyrinth of love, hate, fear, courage, betrayal, and camaraderie that can lead to defeat, victory, or early retirement. And every couple of weeks, the boss hands me a paycheck.

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