My parents are both hard workers; the importance of a strong work ethic was instilled in us as small children. I couldn’t wait to get my first real paycheck…so much so, that I got my first job working after school at my church rectory when I was in the sixth grade. I attended a K-8 Catholic School in San Francisco’s East Bay. Adjacent to our bright little fortress of religious solitude lingered a largely intimidating public high school, full of scary older kids who loved to torment us younger ones, easily identified by our plaid. The campuses were separated by a simple chain link fence. While our faculty did their best to protect us from interactions, it wasn’t uncommon to see teenagers approach our students during recess to offer them “candy” or say something mean to try to make them cry.
My new job required me to get a work permit, which was available at the High School. I soon learned that the things you want most in life often require courage. I mustered mine up, tuned out my surroundings and diligently marched next door. No high school students were going to get in the way of my newfound adulthood, my entry into the great community of taxpayers and my contribution to the family enterprise.
The job consisted of answering phones, assisting with dinner service to the priests and directing the homeless to shelters as the evenings grew colder. If the high schoolers were scary, then the homeless were terrifying. Only responsible girls with thick skin were offered the opportunity to work there. One would wonder why a church would hire such young girls to work in that part of town into the evenings. Three reasons: 1. Our parish was rather poor and couldn’t afford more skilled workers. 2. The rectory manager had a child with down syndrome, whom she had to care for after school hours. And, 3. Rumors of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Oakland were beginning to spread, so boys were not offered positions that could allow them to be alone with priests. Capable female child labor just made the most sense. And I was grateful.
Since I “held political office” and had sports practice after school, I worked the late shift. It worked out well because my dad’s office was rather close and he could pick me up on his way home. Our little administrative team got to know each other very well over the years, transitioning projects and hanging out until the early shift’s ride would arrive. It had been almost 30 years since I last spoke with any of those girls, but I never forgot them. We were the tough ones.
Facebook has allowed us all to easily connect with people from our past. Last year, I was contacted by one of my fellow “secretaries.” She was moving to Florida because she got a great new opportunity with her employer of the last eight years. Being from California originally, I was the only human being she would know in the Sunshine State. She got settled in, set up the new office and, suddenly, their industry took a turn for the worse. Regardless of the hours she was putting in, her paychecks never came. She continued to work, keeping the faith that they would make good on their commitments, but it was becoming more and more difficult to keep food on the table for her kids. She reached out to me for advice and insights into the support network within our state. Our economy over the last decade has provided us with many examples of how bad things happen to good people. It can even get the strong girls.
The night I got the call, my heart was heavy. I got into bed and opened up the April issue of The Oprah Magazine, and began reading “20 Questions Every Woman Should Ask Herself Now!” Question 5 – What do I really want to do all day? – “Hmmm…maybe I’ll skip that one since I already know the answer is ‘Take a miracle pill that allows me to eat every flavor of Ben & Jerry’s without gaining weight.’” Needless to say, I continued to read. In the article, Maureen Taylor, career coach and CEO of SNP Communications (Smart Nice People), states that to choose the right career, one should “think back to when you were in second grade. Some psychologists believe it’s around that age – the first period of time many of us can remember – when we become individuals, when we fully grasp the meaning of right and wrong. It’s also when we tended to gravitate toward what makes us happy.” She goes on to remind us that we are still the same people.
I began to reflect on some of my amazing elementary school peers, people who expressed a spirit to serve and valued jenerosity at a very young age. These are kids I admired…kids who pushed me to be better. I realized that the same things I liked about them then, I still liked about them now. The article was a reminder that, like me, they are still the same people. I reached out to two of the boys who also knew my old friend from the rectory and asked for their help. They both jenerously jumped at the chance to provide assistance and together we sent her $500 for groceries and gas. I got a call last week. She got a new job and things are looking up! No doubt…she is still one of the strong ones. That hasn’t changed.
Time goes by and even though we don’t always keep in touch, close childhood friends stick together. Dolly Parton, who released her 42nd album today entitled Blue Smoke, reminds us of the same through her duet with Kenny Rogers entitled “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” True. Very true.