November 5, 2004

First Person

Reflections on the World of Work

By Heriberto Escamilla

Sometime between the ages of seven and eight my eyes began opening to the world of work. I remember seeing Maique’s old Chevy rolling around the corner and stopping under the shade of the oak tree that greeted visitors to our house on Avenue O. My father, much younger then, often grimaced as he crawled out of the back seat. His body no doubt sore from sitting so long, but also fatigued from fighting Houston’s hot summer sun. My dad, I came to understand was a “roofer”, a man that nailed wooden shingles on the tops of homes. He contributed to the construction boom that built Houston’s suburbs in the 60’s and 70’s. So I understood what he did, but at that time, I was not connecting what he did during the day with the house we lived in, nor the tortillas and frijoles we ate at every meal. Every once in a while, I found a dime in my pocket, walked down to the corner tiendita and bought a ten ounce bottle of Coca Cola. It never occurred to me to thank my father. My head was full of other thoughts and images, going to school, playing little league baseball, “watching Have Gun Will Travel” or “The Rebel” on TV and the mighty “Hercules Unchained” at the Navaway Theater.

But I was fortunate. One day, it must have been a Friday when my dad would drive us to the Dairy Dream and for a dollar buy hamburgers for the family of five, asked if I wanted to work with him. Y como dice el dicho, hasta la pregunta era necia; of course I went. At that time a square of shingles, four bundles, paid around $3.25. On steeper more dangerous roofs, we made more, five, six or even seven dollars a square. Over a weekend, I could make 20 to 30 dollars. During the summer, I could make $150 to $200 a week. My dad let me keep it all, very atypical for a man from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon (it’s an inside joke). This was more than enough for a 12 year old boy. After that, I bought most of my own clothes, school supplies and had enough to buy a set of Joe Weider Weights (so that I could look like Hercules), and stuff like a Tasco telescope and microscope, which I have to this day. But, I never quite made the Hercules look.

Psychologists tell us that we can understand our life as a series of reasonably distinct stages. Most agree that sometime around the fourth grade, marked by resolution of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, and during Erikson’s stage industry versus inferiority, people slowly start making broader social connections. Science confirms that these changes are made possible by physiological developments; our bodies change. Nature and society interact to make us more conscious of the consequences of our actions. And most of us want to impact the world in a way that is pleasing not just to our parents anymore, but also to the larger social circle in which we live. We want to be productive members of our world.

Erickson, in his book Childhood and Society, notes that this is the time when children from minority groups begin to fall behind. Because of the different social expectations of their native culture and those of the dominant one, discrimination, fewer resources and a number of other factors we have trouble learning the technology, the “what and the how” of doing things. This learning is what provides us with a sense of satisfaction, something that connects us solidly to the world of adults. Deprived of this, we begin to feel inferior to others. I believe the problems at school, the emergence of other self-destructive behaviors that we see begin to see at this age and among our children support these observations. Too many of our children today are not making the connection between the quarters they pump into video games, the pain on their parent’s faces and the well-being of the people in the circle in which they live.

In a society that places such as high value on producing, we are failing to give our children the necessary tools to join the circle.

All work has its hazards and introductions need follow up. There are always reasons for quitting. Despite the obvious monetary benefits, I eventually came to hate the work. It was dangerous. People fell off the roofs; a friend of ours was electrocuted by a power saw, you can imagine. I remember hating my dad’s alarm clock. We didn’t wake to soothing music and there was no snooze button, just the abrupt clanging that still makes my skin crawl. On more than one morning, I threw the blankets over my head and prayed my dad would take pity and spare me from Houston’s inhospitable sun. But I kept these thoughts to myself, sucked it up you might say and never refused to work.

Later, when my friend Tony bought a car, work became enjoyable again. Driving to and from Spring, Texas with Tony, my cousin Valde and his brother Cesar, and listening to the radio all day made it easier to put up with the heat and hazards of the job. We competed to see who could nail the most, the straightest and the longest. Sounds almost sexual. What I find most interesting as I reflect back on those particular days is that by that time, I considered myself to be a “good worker.” No longer under the critical eyes of our parents, we continued to take pride in what we were producing.

I roofed houses until high school graduation. I eventually decided on and followed a different career path that I have found personally satisfying. Like everything, it’s been a matter of balance and not without its drawbacks. But I’d like to believe that the satisfaction that I found in the world of work began with a successful introduction, one that not only taught me about the technology, but also to appreciate my actions and their impact on the other people in my circle.

Some people argue that society has advanced much faster than our physiology. Over the past hundred years, our technology has become so complex that it now takes years of preparation before we can join the productive world of adults. But the age of physical maturity hasn’t changed. By around 7, children need to be meaningfully connected to the adult world. By the age of 14, most adolescents are fully capable of creating life and need to find some way of meaningfully expressing this natural drive; they must produce something! Given these advances, how do we close the increasingly growing gap between physical reality and social expectations? How can people like myself with a rich history to share, reach out to those seven year-olds stepping into a much different world of work?

Escamilla is a psychologist and senior program evaluator for an organization that evaluates social service programs.

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