Column: How I Spent My Summer Vacations

For the Valley News
Saturday, June 09, 2018

Summer’s approaching and with it the question of what to do with our teenagers.

Some Upper Valley teens will attend camps promising enrichment or the elusive competitive edge for college admissions. Others will pass the days with video games, blockbusters and active avoidance of all things edifying. Some will embark on expensive adventure or service-learning trips abroad.

While all of these experiences have value, it’s my hope that many of our teens, and not just those for whom it’s a financial necessity, will find work in our local economy. Let their (paid) service be to this community, their adventures be to the oft-exotic shores of humility and their competitive edge be earned empowerment.

I don’t claim to have walked uphill both ways in the snow to the summer employment of my youth, but I did walk both ways pushing my father’s rusty lawnmower along Lebanon’s streets, Bank and Mechanic among them. It was the summer before I began high school and, save for babysitting, mowing lawns was my first paid employment.

One would have thought popular upperclassmen were paid to drive by me — tarred and feathered with sweat and grass clippings — as I pushed that mower. The job was certain social sabotage … except it wasn’t. Sure, no one stopped and asked me to the prom, but I earned money, a sense of pride in a job well done and, of greatest service to me as an adolescent girl, confidence in my ability to troubleshoot mechanical problems and finesse a finicky motor.

The following summer I upped my grass-cutting game and began bailing hay for farms in Plainfield, Cornish and Brownsville. Without a doubt, nearly 30 years out, it’s still the hardest job I’ve ever done. Many times in my life — during punishing college lacrosse practices, interminable staff meetings or while carrying a newborn, a toddler and groceries to the car — I’ve told myself, “You got this. You bailed hay.”

At half the size and strength of the hardworking farm kids with whom I bounced about the hay wagon, catching bails as they came at us, I wasn’t the MVP, but I held my own. When the wagons were full, there were stalls to clean, calves to feed, and horses to turn out. I was utterly, wonderfully exhausted each night.

One such summer and a teenager will no sooner lack appreciation for the source of her food than lack respect for her classmate in steel-toed boots who finished chores before she hit snooze. For me, the experience established my mooring to issues of economic and occupational injustice. And as a result, at every opportunity, I vote to tip the scales toward a livable wage and benefits for all workers. I can’t imagine a summer at soccer camp would have had the same effect.

One summer, I spent my days working as a camp counselor at a local summer camp, a fun foray into chaos management, a life skill I continue to call upon as a mother of three. I spent those evenings scraping epoxy-like refried beans off plates as a busser at Shorty’s Mexican Roadhouse in West Lebanon. Had I not, I wouldn’t appreciate the requisite thick skin of restaurant workers, the poise under fire of a good line cook or the authentic Latin American cuisine I would finally experience a couple of years later while living in Central America.

The beauty of summer employment is that it offers a temporary, no-strings-attached window into an occupation. It’s an opportunity — rarely afforded adults — for youth to explore their capabilities, interests and assumptions, while gaining exposure to a broader cross-section of the culture, workings and realities of their community.

It’s impossible to say how my life would be different had I not been required to work those summers. Certainly, a summer spent adventuring or service-learning abroad would have broadened my horizons.

I can say now, having traveled extensively and returned to the Upper Valley, so too did my summers working here. To really know and be a part of one community is to better understand all communities. And that is a tremendous gift of a summer well spent.

Rebecca Perkins Hanissian lives in Lyme.