Action on Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture

Childhood experiences of work: Reflection 11 (US)

I was one of eight children in a middle-class suburban family in post-war America. Work and working were very important parts of my father’s identity.

Domestic work

My earliest engagement with work was in the domestic sphere. The division of domestic work amongst my siblings was highly gendered. The girls did the dishes, and the boys helped outside. I had a specific responsibility to ‘empty the trash’, but I was also expected to help with cutting the lawn, raking leaves, and shovelling snow. I also seemed to spend a lot of time, particularly on Saturdays, helping my father, which mostly took the form of running to get (another) required tool or holding things in place while he measured, cut or fastened. One job that seem to come around often was moving the firewood pile to different locations in the garden, and even at the time this struck me as a particularly useless ‘make work’ project.

Both of my older brothers delivered newspapers in the morning before school, and in the winter, they earned extra money shovelling snow for some of the same people who took their papers. I don’t remember why, but I never delivered papers. It may have been because I was terrified of dogs, and they pretty much came with the territory. In any case, it meant that I had no easy access to opportunities to shovel snow. My father did not understand why or how this was relevant and expected me to go door-to-door offering to shovel. I could never bring myself to do this, and it was the cause of hard feelings over several years.

One thing leads to another

The first paid work that I remember was cutting lawns. One summer, probably when I first entered high school, I had a handful of customers whose lawns I cut on a regular schedule. I have a very distinct memory of keeping a detailed record of my earnings, carefully plotted on a sheet of graph paper: at the end of each week, they went straight into the bank. I think the rising line on the chart, which was displayed prominently near my bed, meant more to me than the balance in the savings book. It was never an issue, but I suppose the petrol-powered lawnmowers represented a source of potential physical harm.

Lawn mowing led to an offer to clean dishes in the kitchen of a company that catered weddings and other events (they specialised in ‘Swedish smorgasbord’!). By the time I reported to work on a Saturday morning, some of the dirty plates and serving dishes had been sitting around for nearly a week. They were not very pretty.

There was an elderly couple who lived across from the family that ran the catering business, and they asked me to cut their lawn. They had a grown son who lived at home, and he directed the boys’ choir at a cathedral in Boston. In the summer, the whole choir moved to a camp in the mountains in New Hampshire and toured around giving evening concerts at what were formerly grand hotels. The son asked if I would like to work in the camp kitchen during the coming summer and then suggested that I accompany him on a spring weekend to open the camp buildings that had been shuttered for the winter. It was in the middle of nowhere, and with remnants of snow on the ground it was cold and desolate. He prepared a cabin for us to sleep in. I remember feeling very uncomfortable with the whole arrangement – sensing something was not right, but not knowing what it was. This stands out as probably the closest I felt to (potential? imagined?) harm as a working child. I did spend the summer very happily washing dishes at the camp: there were so many other people around, including his parents, that the sense of discomfort never returned.

You did what over the weekend?

Before turning 18 I had summer jobs driving a delivery van and working in a plastics factory near my home. Toward the end of one week in August 1969, a couple of the young men at the factory said they were going to spend the weekend at a music festival. I did not think much of it. As the weekend wore on, reports on the radio made it clear that while I was spending the weekend at the end of a noise plastic extrusion machine, they were among the 400,000 at Woodstock, the music festival of a generation.

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