Adults love telling how their first jobs, like ice-cream scooping or dishwashing, instilled in them the value of a dollar. How better to shame us slothful youths off our behinds? Such lectures led me to believe that many occupations exist exclusively for the gangly and brace-faced.
So why did I find myself waiting six hours for a job interview this June, surrounded by 30-year-olds? I just wanted to bag groceries. Instead I stood, cruelly queued between aromatic coffee dispensers and a deli, battling to ignore the distress signals of an empty stomach and full bladder. And all for naught.
In a pool of seasoned employees, my adorable little résumé featuring “debate-club” and “JV basketball captain” never stood a chance. Many more turndowns followed, cumulating in a deluge of rejection rarely seen outside prom season. I was the least-qualified applicant for every job I wanted.
But later in the summer, I realized I have capabilities I hadn’t considered. I, a veteran student, can prove trigonometric identities and name every nation on a map of Africa. I’ve been drilled in Greco-Roman history so many times that if you opened up my brain, an Ionic column might fall out. Is my education worth anything? In the world of grocery-bagging and table-busing, apparently not.
What good is school, then? We learn new things every day, but learning is only marketable once there’s a diploma or degree to show for it. Study and work are distant concepts, loosely bound by the thread of a promise that a certificate will pay dividends down the line. And many can’t wait that long.
Consider Juan Perez, my friend and former classmate at C.K. McClatchy High School, who dropped out in our freshman year to work full time as a barber. He misses CKM for reasons both academic and social. He’s currently in independent studies, which limits his interactions with teachers and students to once or twice a week. But his income is invaluable to his single mother. “When we need food, I’m there; when we need gas, I’m there,” he told me.
Juan’s situation is not isolated. In 2015, one in 10 California students dropped out of high school. Of this fraction, a third worked to support their families, according to a study by the Urban Institute.
These statistics don’t even take into account kids like Juan, who are technically enrolled in classes but prioritize work. What can be done so that education and breadwinning aren’t mutually exclusive? And what can be done so that students like me who want part-time work can find jobs?
To start, public schools in our area could facilitate student employment. Of the 50 public high schools in Sacramento County, Laguna Creek was the only one to host a career fair last year. And while I can’t speak for other schools, the college and career center at my own offers little more than military brochures in the way of employment resources. Something as simple as listings of high-school friendly jobs would vastly help kids seeking part-time work.
And for those with urgent monetary needs, programs modeled after the Met charter school in midtown could make an education more feasible. Met students study fewer topics, allowing time to intern. Why not excuse qualified kids from non-academic requirements, like art and P.E., at traditional high schools? Finishing classes by lunch would allow a student like Juan to work a full shift and study. When I asked if he’d enroll in such a program, his response was emphatic: “Absolutely!”
My situation and Juan’s are quite different, yet the disconnect between education and employment limits both of us. With greater job promotion and scheduling flexibility, however, schools could truly help families, and perhaps limit rejection to prom season.
Kainoa Lowman is a junior at C.K. McClatchy High School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.