The $8/hour job

“I can’t believe he’s paying her only $8/hour. She’s a college student!”

I wasn’t entirely sure what the speaker meant by this, so I swallowed down my pride at his comment because I’ve taken several $8/hour jobs. Not only was I highly (overly) qualified for the work, but I also had two college degrees.

Yet I’m not ashamed of those $8/hour jobs. In fact, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

Nearly eight years ago we had just moved to a new and unfamiliar town for my husband’s job, but the company that hired him was bought out, and the new owners fired everyone. Abruptly we found ourselves with eight children and zero income. Immediately both of us started searching. My husband quickly got a job answering phones for $8/hour, and since it was a month and a half before Christmas, I applied at a clothing store as seasonal help.

Within two hours of starting that job, I remembered why I hated retail. I don’t like clothes, and I don’t like spending money. I kept watching the job ads and noticed one: “Student editor wanted to review graduate papers. Must be English major, at least a junior. $8/hour.”

I ignored it, thinking I was overqualified. At my retail job, no one knew I was “educated” or had been a college instructor for a dozen years.

But two weeks later that ad ran again, and while I wondered why no students jumped at the chance to fill their resumes, I sent mine in.

The next day I got a call; the day after I got an interview.

The professor in charge of the department sighed apologetically when he saw me. “You should be paid twice-and-a-half this rate, but $8/hour is all the university will grant me. My graduate students are mostly international and need help with their English to get published. Want to give it a shot? I think you might be the only applicant with enough experience to make sense of their writing.”

No other professional opportunities had come up, I could do some of the work at home where my 5-month-old nursing baby was, and I really, really hated trying to peddle clothes. I took the job, even though I initially thought it beneath me.

But I learned, oh–so much!

I had to discover what Bayesian networks were, and ArcGIS, and a bunch of other terms and acronyms used in geosciences that I’ve never again encountered. I met men from Turkey and India and Malaysia. A middle-eastern colleague of my boss also sent his papers asking if “the girl” would edit his submissions to a conference.

But mostly I learned how to edit and write.
From a geosciences department, of all places.
I learned more there, I’m embarrassed to say, than I ever did studying and teaching English. Because when these men were trying to get their research ready for publication, they went over their writing again and again and again—dozens of times–just to get it right.

I’d always written against an artificial deadline of, “This is due in two weeks, so I can assign another meaningless essay.” Never before had I worked on several projects all due in “maybe by next year.” It was a fascinating collaborative experience, and I felt much more like an apprentice being graced with $8/hour than a so-called professional editor.

Sometimes I think the only reason we lived in Idaho Falls—and it was only for nine months—was so that I could finally learn how to edit and write, and edit and write.

I got much more than $8/hour.

A couple of years later, and in another city, I took a temporary job helping a lawyer promote a BYU alumni event. He needed someone to take it over for the four weeks leading up to it, and our family needed a few extra bucks. When he interviewed me, he looked at my resume, sighed, and said, “You deserve a lot more than $8/hour, but that’s all I can budget for now. Will it be enough?”

Sure, why not? I might learn a few things, who knows.

Oh I learned–so much!

I learned to plan, to budget, to make arrangements for performers, to feed a crew of 125, and to get people in the seats.  The event was successful, and the lawyer decided he wanted to keep me on for the next one in six months. In between events he had me doing public relations work, which really wasn’t a good fit for me, but I tried. He also handed me his daughter’s manuscript which she’d written during college but was afraid to continue.

“She doesn’t know I printed this out, but I want you to edit it and convince her to keep working on it. I think it’s terrific, but I’m only her dad.” So for $8/hour I edited her book, fascinated that a “regular” young woman had written such a full fantasy novel. I did try to convince her to keep going, and gave her a list of websites full of advice and strategies, a copy of which I also took home with me.

When the law firm’s business slowed some months later, I volunteered to quit (I’d been there much longer than I’d expected anyway) and left to start writing my own novels.

Sometimes I think I worked there just to realize that I was capable of writing a book, too.

Now this past summer financial constraints required that I find steady work again. In the interim since the law firm, I’d acquired another teaching job (only one class a semester, and only if the need arose), had edited for an online company (until they ran out of work), and edited a couple of locally-written novels here, and a few doctoral dissertations there. But it wasn’t enough to keep our family afloat while my husband tried again to find better work.

So, once again, I started looking for a job and, finding nothing in my professional field, looked yet again “beneath” me. I was offered a manufacturing job where the boss hoped my professionalism might bring the other women in line. Realizing he was actually hiring me as a babysitter for gangster chicks, I kept looking and eventually was offered a job . . .

. . . doing laundry.

For $9/hour. (Hey, the economy’s improving, right?)

The supervisor who interviewed me looked at my resume, sighed, and said, “English instructor to laundry lady? Are you sure about this?”

The fact that my utility bill wouldn’t be paid the next month if I didn’t get a job that day made me very sure about it.

Besides, I might learn something.

And I’ve learned–so, so much!

I’ve learned that one person’s definition of clean isn’t the same as another’s. I’ve learned to prioritize, to be detail-oriented, and to deal with some occasionally unpleasant surprises. More interestingly, however, I’ve learned a lot about people, and what makes them tick.

And I’ve learned that a younger coworker, also a college graduate and also earning only $9/hour, is trying to write her first trilogy. We work together on Saturday afternoons and I’ve discovered that nearly every writing bump and roadblock she’s encountering, I’ve already dealt with. I’ve been able to give her advice, ideas, and strategies for drafting her books, and later this month she’ll give me her first manuscript to review.

Sometimes I think the main reason I’m working as a laundry lady (that’s seriously the job title) for $9/hour is so that I can help someone else have a shot at her dream of becoming an author.

I’m not going to charge her, either (unlike the older man whose book I edited for $20/hour for a dozen hours, the payment of which will cover my car insurance and cell phone bills this month). I’m giving my coworker my time for free because so many friends and family are giving me their time for free as well, reading my drafts and returning book 4 this month with their comments and questions. The only payment I can offer them is the mention of their names at the end of my books. Without their help, I could never do this.

As for the person who bemoaned that his college student daughter was making “only $8/hour,” I submit this:
No, it’s not great money. It’s hard-earned, sweaty money, and still not enough to support a person, not to mention a family.
But in no other work have I ever learned as much as I did in jobs I worked for $8 or $9/hour.

And sometimes—no, quite often—that’s far more important than the cash.

 

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