My first real job in high school was at Taco Bell. There, I said it.
For some reason, that first job in 1979 has become a source of embarrassment for me over the years. That I would have worked in fast food for a $2.90/hour minimum wage is humorous to my friends, who picture a younger me behind the counter, dressed in that scratchy polyester shit-brown uniform and weirdly peaked hat. It was a hilarious Rite of Passage that I survived to tell.
Except it was awesome. That first job at Taco Bell, as unglamorous and nasty as it was, taught me more about work life than I had ever learned from books or school or my parents or even the sitcoms of 70s TV (especially not that!)
In essence, I learned how to work. In fact, I believe that every high school student should work.
Fashioned in pseudo-Mission style architecture, the Taco Bell in Lafayette, California had a rounded roof hung with a real bell, arched patio windows and a long-dormant fire pit filled with ugly volcanic rocks. It was home to about seven total menu items (now there look to be about 64), not-so-lovingly nor carefully prepared by a batch of high schoolers from the neighboring communities. So new was Mexican food to some people, the menu board actually spelled each item out phonetically so even idiots could pronounce them: TAH-COE or BUH-REE-TOE or my fav, the EN-CHI-REE-TOE. It’s laughable/insulting now to think back, picturing some oily executive behind a corporate desk thinking guests needed Taco Bell of all places to school them in Spanglish.
However, it was the best business school I ever attended. I learned eight important lessons that set the tone for the rest of my life:
- Responsibility – Doing a job right because it is the right thing to do.
- Timeliness – Being late was cause for being “written up”, and three times meant termination.
- Civility – How to treat customers with a service mentality and a smile on your face, however forced it might feel.
- Respect – For customers, for co-workers, for managers and for people of many walks of life other than my own.
- Financial Management – Making change at a register before computers told you how much to hand the customer, and managing my own tiny paycheck to purchase the things I wanted.
- Perseverance – Sometimes life is disappointing, and you don’t get what you want regardless of deserving it. Getting passed over for a prime work shift, or a promotion, or a raise – that’s just life sometimes.
- Teamwork – Working alongside amazing people, sharing, giving and taking, and making lifelong friendships with people I would never have met otherwise. Some of these people are my dearest and closest friends to this day.
- Cleanliness – Dad is not going to be there to pick up after you or clean up your mess. Learning to manage your workspace and clean things well is a gift that keeps on giving.
This is why my children will work. Not because they need the money, because we are fortunate that they have what they need. Not because they need something to fill their time, because extra time for them is hard to come by between school, sports and activities.
They will work because work teaches important lessons YOU MUST LEARN FOR YOURSELF. Parents and school can only go so far, and kids stop listening to us at some point anyway.
So make fun all you like. Greasy fast food pit or not, Taco Bell helped form my work ethic and I am very grateful for that – it’s taken me far. I hope my kids can appreciate the same experience, wherever their first jobs land them.
Hail to the Bell!