Summer jobs with deep roots

Jobs like these open up an aspect of identity not stressed in school.- John Foley, professor, University of Missouri in Columbia

Preston Broxson has heard plenty about his American heritage in high school history class, but not until school lets out does he feel truly connected to his past.

During the summer, Mr. Broxson gets up at dawn to check the five hand-made wooden and wire traps he sets to lure wild hogs out of the swampy woods of western Louisiana. Trapping hogs, along with mink, bobcat, and other wild creatures in 90 traps that cover 2,000 acres in winter, is for him more than a part-time job. It's how he learns about his roots.

"My granddaddy bought my nursery bed - my crib - with trapping money," says Broxson, who graduated from high school in May. "By [trapping], you learn how everything depends on one another in the swamp, the woods. [You learn] what Louisiana is all about."

As summer rolls around, thousands of students are taking up the seasonal ritual of earning money near home, wherever they can find a job in this year's soft economy.

Once again this year, the hunt for extra cash is leading teenagers not only to internships and retail shifts, but also to work in traditional industries that have fed their parents, grandparents, and neighbors - in farming, fishing, and factories, to name a few.

Such traditional jobs are becoming increasingly rare as recession and the information age have forced "old economy" managers to keep payrolls lean. Yet for those who find work in the classic livelihoods of their regions, summer jobs deliver a hands-on physical education in what it means to be from a particular part of America.

"Students following a national curriculum don't get much of a sense of place," says John Foley, professor of classical studies at the University of Missouri in Columbia and an expert in handing down traditions. "Jobs like these open up another aspect of identity - not a kind that gets stressed in a school system, where differences are homogenized."

From region to region, it seems, the values learned from a few months in traditional livelihoods seem to vary as widely as cuisine, jokes, and dialects.

Broxson has learned that living on his side of Beauregard County, where the nearest loaf of bread is 18 miles away, means understanding and caring for the fragile ecosystems that dictate where and when animals search for food. It means learning the efficiency of eating what you catch and sharing the bounty with your poorest neighbors. "Whatever we trap is that much more meat that we don't have to buy," he says.

Compare that with what it means to be from another remote spot - Easton, Maine - where potato farming so dominates the local lifestyle that schools close for three weeks in September and October to get the crop in.

Aroostook County leads the nation in potato production, in part because students on break from school get few breaks once they hit the fields. Work begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends as late as 10:30 p.m. in planting and harvesting seasons. Rookies walk crop rows, bending over and tossing rocks onto a cart. Later, some learn cultivation, others learn marketing, but all who survive the grueling days absorb the region's trademark virtues.

"You have to be quite patient because things can go wrong and often do," says Jeffrey Blackstone, a college student who has worked summers in potato fields since he was 10. "Things break down, or someone doesn't do something right. You have to have faith in God."

Traditional jobs might be a parent's dream for passing values down to their children, but not all sections of the country have been able to sustain them.

In the northern panhandle of West Virginia, for instance, the two steel mills that employed three generations have gone bankrupt, leaving no seasonal opportunities for students.

Likewise, in the remote western Alaska village of Bethel, declining salmon stocks and global market competition mean that Eskimo teenagers no longer spend their entire summers on commercial ventures down the Kuskokwim River.

"We don't have that thriving activity in fishing and processing that we used to have," says Janet Kaiser, a Yupik Eskimo with a family fishing business that employs her teenage son in August.

In eastern North Carolina, agriculture continues to thrive even as former farming towns become bedroom communities for the Raleigh-Durham area. But students, even from farming families, hardly ever deal with crops or livestock in the summer.

The reason, according to Agricultural Extension Agent Bob Pleasants in Wayne County, is that migrant workers of Central American heritage do the hard, hot, dirty work of picking tobacco or harvesting cucumbers that others prefer not to do.

"I think it's a real tragedy that people have lost connection to the land and animals," Mr. Pleasants says. "Many people now don't have a clue ... where food comes from or how it's produced. That can translate into foreign and agricultural policy that can be very harmful in the long run."

Yet even in Wayne County, where heat and humidity often drive students to work in air-conditioned stores and restaurants, opportunities exist to learn the region's values with outstretched - and quickly callused - hands.

At 7 a.m., about 20 students are typically on hand at Sanderson Farms to lift organic watermelons off the ground or pick blackberries or hang up tobacco leaves to be cured. Vickey and Kenneth Sanderson prefer to hire their own children and their children's friends, Mrs. Sanderson says, in order to pass on the North Carolinian virtue of making sure work isn't only work.

"They can talk and play. They just make a lot of good memories doing that," she says. "It's always more fun if they have someone to talk to. They know they have to buckle down and do it, and sometimes they can lighten up."

Workers learn their community connections, Mr. Foley says, as they find themselves doing manual labor side by side with an unlikely friend, maybe someone from a different background. Something about tackling a task together, especially one with a regional stamp on it, forges bonds through the adhesives of common work habits and local pride.

In Becker, Minn., summers bring the task of shaping unwieldy pine and spruce trees into tidy cones that will fit in the living room six months later to announce the arrival of Christmas. Anne Armstrong started shearing as a ninth-grader, enticed by fringe benefits of great muscle tone and a tan. Now as she begins her sixth season of ladders, trimmers, and lots of chitchat, she recognizes a sort of adventurous pride that has evolved in her and her teammates over the years.

"There's something about being able to work with your hands and see your progress," Anne says. "You all feel the camaraderie. You're all being bit by the same bugs. Then you're in another state in December and you say, 'Hey, that tree might have come from Minnesota. Might have been one of ours.' "

In Presque Isle, Maine, bonds forged 10 and 15 years ago in the field continue to pay dividends for Emily Smith, who parlayed work on her family's broccoli farm into a career as a farm manager and sees the payoff when she meets with field workers. "They remember me from when I was out there" in the fields, Smith says from a cellular phone as she checks up on a farm. "People, I believe, have more respect for me knowing that I was out there with them."

On-the-job education doesn't always stop when the work stops, since traditional jobs come with breaktime customs of their own. At the Sandersons,' for example, students who live too far away to go home for lunch will eat with the family and then do puzzles until lunch is done. One student was so grateful for the warm hospitality, Sanderson says, that he uses his graphic design training to market "Papa Joe's Best Blackberries" at no charge.

For all the endearing customs and teaching moments, traditional summer jobs belong to the those who can find openings in their area and then endure the physical demands. But those who hang in there, and those who employ them, say the rewards are well worth it.

"One day, tobacco is probably going to be gone," Sanderson says. "But I really think they'll be prepared to handle anything that comes along after doing this."

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