A son steps into the working world

When my now-teenage son was little, caring for him was so uncomplicated. I remember once floating a stick in a stream while he ran alongside it, shouting "Yay!" to the forest canopy. I recall buying his clothing for pocket change in the local thrift shop; making small, simple meals; and spending an afternoon collecting returnables or playing catch.

In other words, it was cheap.

As the years passed, of course, things got more involved. And more expensive. Alyosha, along with his friends, heard the siren call of merchandising, and many was the time we came to loggerheads over designer sneakers versus something more affordable, if less flashy. Float a stick in a stream? Not on your life!

I refer to my son's preteen years as the era of socialism in our home: I was the centralized authority who made all the major decisions and dispensed largess based on merit. Of course, this didn't make for a lot of individual initiative on my son's part, and his room gradually came to resemble the disarray of a mid-career Picasso.

All that is about to change. Alyosha recently announced that he was applying for his first steady job, at the University of Maine, where he would work a few after-school hours a week in the dining commons.

I fairly glowed upon hearing the news. But when I related it to a friend, she sniffed and suggested that such mundane work was beneath one's dignity. I disagreed. I've always believed that all work is good, and that one ennobles it by one's commitment, integrity, and dependability.

I still recall my first sinecure. In my old Jersey City neighborhood during the 1960s, I was an avid patron of Mr. Timmermann's pet shop. Beginning at about the age of 10, I began to needle him for a job, whereupon he would peer over the bifocals perched on the tip of his nose and gutter in his German accent, "Zere iss only vork for von!"

But I was undaunted. For the next two years I persisted until, one day, Mr. Timmermann relented and told me I could help him by cutting holes with a pocketknife into the covers of the shoeboxes used to transport small animals to their new owners. I was ecstatic.

The work was not only easy - at the beginning, at least - but it put me in a pleasant environment where I could be around tropical fish, birds, and hamsters, and observe the care with which Mr. Timmermann tended his animals.

I had always wondered what he did when business was slow. Now I discovered it: He was always busy, always improving what he had, always meticulous about keeping the place clean.

After three days of work, he rewarded me with a pen bearing the pet shop's name. I had been expecting something with a president's portrait on it, but I didn't complain. It seemed, somehow, more important to be able to tell my friends that I'd had a job. Not a chore, but a real job, however short-lived.

And now my son is headed for his first gainful employment. Already he is envisioning his new future as a breadwinner, mostly in terms of buying all the stuff that I am not willing or able to buy for him.

In truth, the free-enterprise era in our house has dawned not a moment too soon, for there are new expenses aplenty dancing on the horizon: driving lessons, insurance, college.... It is good and appropriate that Alyosha, through the labor of his hands, will be able to attach concrete value to these things by contributing to their accomplishment.

My son's first stint as an able-bodied member of the American workforce is still a week away, but when he awoke this morning and came down to breakfast, there was something less of a teenager and more of a man about him. He seemed all too aware that he was about to shoulder a little more weight around the house, to shift a bit more for himself.

As we sat at the kitchen table, I ventured a comment. "You know," I said, "when I got my first steady job, I gave my first paycheck to my parents."

Alyosha's eyebrows took flight. "You're kidding."

"No," I continued. "I really did. And my father gave his first paycheck to his mother."

My son chewed this over for a few moments before reflecting, "Are you saying it's some kind of tradition, Dad?"

I scratched my chin and rolled my tongue in my cheek. "It could be," I smiled. "It certainly could be."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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