My first summer job was as a counselor at a recreation center near my home in Northeast Washington, D.C.
I was 14 and I learned a lot. For instance, it was for this job that I filled out an employment application for the first time. I got my telephone number and address right, but on a whim, I wrote down "Chris" as my first name.
A few days later, someone from the recreation center called to offer "Chris" the job.
"Chris?" said my mother. "I'm sorry, there's nobody here by that name."
"Wait a minute!" I shouted in a sudden panic as she started to hang up. "That's for me."
My mother was waiting for me when I got off of the phone.
"Now how in God's green earth did you expect them to find you and offer you a job when you give them a phony name?" she demanded.
I shrugged. I mean, what could I say?
Another summer, my brother and I went downtown to work with a group called Pride, Inc. The director gave us a speech about black pride and self-esteem. Then, someone handed us shovels.
"What's this for?"
The first day was kind of exciting. We prowled through alleys. We rooted through vacant lots. We held our shovels at the ready like combat troops.
The second day, though, we ran into our first rat. He was a great big old rascal with a bulging belly that dragged along the ground.
"Git 'em!" somebody shouted.
As if on cue, the rat reared up on his hind legs, waving his paws in the air like a boxer. I dropped my shovel.
"You git 'em!" I shouted back.
The rat sneered at us, lowered his paws and sauntered away. For all I care, he lived on to a ripe old age.
Then there was the summer I worked in a junk yard.
"Hey, kid!" shouted a man named Buddy. "Go ask the boss to let you borrow his left-handed screwdriver."
Now, I was in high school by then and nobody's fool. And so, as I walked up to the owner's office, I decided that a left-handed screwdriver couldn't be much different from a regular one, illustrating the fact that some people will buy anything.
"There's a sucker born every minute," thought I with a chuckle as I stepped into the owner's office.
"You want a what?!" demanded the owner, his face growing red with rage. "Get out of here! And tell Buddy not to waste my time with practical jokes!"
So, there you have it -- just some of the summer experiences that made me what I am today. I figure that I worked every year beginning with my fourteenth summer, 1966, and I figure that the lessons I learned were invaluable. (I learned, for instance, to use your real name when applying for a job.)
But I realize today that I was lucky. The late 1960s was a period of economic growth and urban unrest, so summer jobs were readily available. Private industry had work to spare and the federal government was eager to take as many kids off of the streets as possible to help prevent further rioting.
But the economy today remains mired in a deep recession, and both private industry and the government have far fewer jobs to spare. Early this month, Congress approved funding for 700,000 summer jobs for teens -- though President Clinton had sought 1.3 million jobs as part of his economic stimulus package. The Labor Department said recently that only a fraction of the nation's 14- to 21-year-olds will be able to work this summer. Unemployment will be particularly acute in the nation's urban centers.
In Baltimore, there are jobs for 3,800 low-income teens under the federal Job Training Partnership Act, plus another 300 to 400 such jobs provided by the private sector. (Before the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, the federal government regularly provided jobs for about 6,000 city teens each summer, and the private sector added another 1,200 jobs.)
The bottom line is that the majority of our young people are being cheated of precious work experience.
Look at me: when I became a columnist several years ago, my editor tried to send me to the publisher's office for a left-handed screwdriver.
"Sorry, boss," I said with a wise and confident air, "I've heard that joke before."