The Thinker

The transition

Some adolescents are eager to sample adult life long before they are physically and emotionally ready to do so. Others prefer to have little to do with growing up and might not grow up at all without firm parental involvement. My daughter is likely in the latter category. After she graduated in June, my wife and I set the firm expectation that she had to get a job.

Our daughter Rosie is part of an emerging trend: the gap year. A gap year is a year “off” (at least from education) between the end of high school and the start of college. My wife and I supported her decision. For a young woman for whom most life changes are a challenge, a year dealing with a regular job should help her clarify her choices. It was our hope that if nothing else this job would show her what life might be like if she did not go to college.

Rosie had managed to graduate high school without working a real job. The summary of her job experience was occasional babysitting and volunteer work. Both my wife and I held part time jobs in high school. Both of us needed the money. As one of eight children in a middle class household, I knew that if I wanted a college education, I would have to pay for most of it myself. I started working as soon as I was legally allowed. My parents chipped in a few thousand bucks toward my college education. I had saved about $7000 from working part time. Student loans and a cheap public university filled the rest of the gap.

Frankly, it irked me that Rosie had managed to get through high school without having had a real job. As I remarked in another entry an entry-level job, aside from providing a source of money was an invaluable education in life. High school has its stresses but it is surreal. Mopping floors at 10 PM or listening to surly customers bitch about their woes while maintaining a pleasant smile was real. Perhaps sensing that real life was not much fun, she seemed content to be a slacker.

There is no lack of entry-level jobs in our area of Northern Virginia. Yet many of them were simply unacceptable to our daughter. With threats of pain and suffering, we could have forced her to apply at a McDonalds or a Target. That tack seemed counterproductive. Since she would have to navigate her own way through real life, we felt it better to work with her than against her. My wife and I became her coaches. Still there was a big gap between our expectations and hers. Ours were that as soon as graduation was over she would be pounding the pavement. Hers was that a couple of times a week, and only if we nagged her and drove her around, she would apply at places where she wanted to work. After applying at a few places, she preferred to wait to see if they would call her. They did not.

To make a long story short she mostly managed to slack off all summer, sleeping in past noon and staying up nearly until dawn. She applied with lackluster enthusiasm at places like the local drug store, but really wanted to work in a bookstore. An interview with a Barnes & Noble though never resulted in a call back. She was this close to being forced to apply for a job at Target when, after a second interview the local Books-a-Million finally offered her a job. If she was relieved, it was hard to tell. My wife and I felt like popping the champagne. It had been an aggravating summer.

We are still nervous. For a young woman who spent most of her summer in a comfy chair with her laptop computer, a real job was going to be a big change. Could our daughter go from slacker to productive retail drone overnight? The answer appears to be yes. She has only finished four days on the job but we are amazed by the transition. While we wait to pick her up in the parking lot after her shift, we can watch her through the large open windows, scurrying from place to place. Her legs hurt, she says. This is not surprising, since they were little used all summer. Already she navigates around the store as if it were a second home, working with intensity and energy that astounds us. She often finds the working at the store interesting. She likes her coworkers, finds many of her chores boring but is too busy running from one task to another to care too much.

I guess underneath that slacker young woman was a woman ready to engage life, but scared by the transition. Now much of that fear is behind her. She has learned to apply for jobs and to interview. She did not like it, but she has acquired a life skill all of us but Paris Hilton must learn. Our job was to encourage first then coax and cajole when necessary. While the process took longer than we expected it is gratifying to see the fruit of her efforts at last. From navigating the buses, (they run only during rush hours) to vacuuming the store after it closes, she has moved from inertia into full engagement. She is learning to leave work at 12:15 in the morning and be back at 10 the same morning for another eight-hour shift. Moreover, she is doing so with both grace and a pragmatic attitude.

While I am still wondering if the other shoe will drop, I am beginning to relax. I know there is much more to this parenting business but I am also seeing that it does eventually end. Flush with her own money (she still must pay us $200 a month in rent, since she is not going to school) she is beginning to make her own choices in the real world. At the end of the month, she turns eighteen. Our joint account will become her own private account. Her checks have arrived. Her check card is already in use.

She still has some catching up to do with her peers. She has expressed little interest in getting her driver’s license. The State of Virginia requires anyone under 19 to go to a driving school, even though my wife and I have taught her how to drive. She will decide if she wants to accelerate the process or wait until she is 19 to take her driving test. The hassle of taking the bus to work (when it runs) or depending on her parents to drop her off and pick her up (when they are not running) may force her to rethink her lackadaisical attitude.

Over the next year, her hazy plans for becoming an English teacher may well change. She understands that public school teachers do not make much money. Working for modest wages may put this choice into context for her. I would not be surprised if her career plans take a new and unexpected path over the next year. For now, she keeps her goal modest: she wants to save up enough money to buy a Vespa. Unlike my wife and me, she will probably not have to worry about how she will afford college. We can give that one gift. She can graduate college and likely start debt free.

This coaching business is challenging for me. I certainly know what I would do if I were in her shoes. Yet I will never be in her shoes. She has treaded a different path in life than mine. My job is to express confidence, provide unconditional love, give an unvarnished picture of the road ahead and, if she asks, help her think through some tough choices. I am sure that she will have some stumbles along life’s path. Perhaps her cautious attitude is now something of an asset. Modern life is incredibly complicated, so caution is warranted, provided it does not amount to dysfunction. Yet life cannot be avoided forever. At some point, it must be engaged. It is heartening to see her engage it at last with a surprising spirit of determination and vigor.


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