My first job was when I was 15. After hanging around the computer lab a little too long, I was asked if I wanted to help with tech support for my high school.
I would spend one of my school periods wandering around the school and adding memory cards or updating software. It was billed as an advanced computer class, but I was also paid for my work.
I still have a copy of my very first paycheck, which was about $150 for a month’s work. The minimum wage was $5.15.
The first check also had taxes, and it honestly felt somewhat amazing that little ol’ me was contributing a few dollars into a system that supports others in America. It made me feel connected to that greater mystical “workforce” that I’d heard so much about as a kid.
After marveling at the check and, naturally, showing it to my parents, I went to Walmart to buy a cheap DVD player and a set of rollerblades, which I used at most four times before storing them away.
I learned a couple of valuable things from that paycheck: When it’s your money, you can buy whatever useless item you like. And that my labor had worth.
I learned other things in that job, too, such as when you can do things others can’t, there is a shift in power dynamics. It’s a shift that can make one or both sides feel uncomfortable, with one side trying to correct the order of power to alleviate their discomfort.
One of the teachers whose computer I went to upgrade refused to copy and paste his desktop files. He wanted me to do it while he watched, instead. I told him politely that I didn’t know what files had value to him and offered to teach him, which he begrudgingly allowed.
As he slowly opened and moved or deleted files, I went to other computers in adjacent rooms. His huffs that followed me out gave me the feeling that he thought the task was beneath him.
The coronavirus pandemic showed us how our society relies on people whose jobs we may not recommend to our children as a career, even if those jobs end up helping us.
Those who had stocked shelves in relative obscurity were also tasked with keeping the masses from swiping the last toilet paper rolls. Those friendly faces bringing you enchiladas were continually harassed about their face masks and wondering whether their table was going to not only give them a good tip but also expose them to COVID-19.
The national squabble about the demographics of who takes what jobs and whether those jobs should pay a livable wage seems to say a lot about the bubble we’ve built for ourselves the longer we’ve had time to grow into our own good fortune.
My first job was a luxury. The money allowed me to not pester my parents for more gas money for my 1980s gas-guzzling Chevy land yacht — back in the days of yore when gas was about a buck per gallon.
I know — and knew then, too — that my paycheck did not supplement the household income, but I knew a few friends who would slip money back into their moms’ purse or buy groceries to bring home.
So, unlike others, I can’t seem to find it in my heart to begrudge a high school student — who may be “just” making me a burger — a worthy wage. I’m happy to pay for his worth to however he wants, or needs, to use that money, because I know it doesn’t diminish my power to allow him his, especially when I can’t do what he does.
— Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma, and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate. She is also a National Society of Newspaper Columnists ambassador and can be contacted at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @TheCMcClure. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.