An Honorable Day’s Work

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He is one of the most faithful people that I know. I depend on him to arrive each weekend and never once has he let me down. He has come to my home over and over again for twelve years, leaving his mark of excellence as visible proof of his efforts and making me feel quite happy. He is my yard man, Jose, an individual with a work ethic as strong and unwavering as any that I have ever known. I find him to be quite noble and I am awed in observing that his labors begin at the crack of dawn and do not end until the last light of day. When I see him hard at work I think of my two grandfathers who brought a consistent level of pride to their work in spite of the fact that it was often back breaking and punishing. Like them, Jose does not complain nor does he require praise or extra perks to leave his mark on the work that he does even though he is quite deserving of more than just the weekly pay that I leave for him on my door. I find his services to be extraordinary and I see him as an exemplar of what our expectations for a job well done should be. His is an honorable day’s work in every sense of that idea.

As an educator I always encouraged my students to become as well educated as possible and to aim for their dreams rather than settling for less than they might achieve. Nonetheless I wanted them to understand the importance of the sacrifices that their parents made for them. I recall a time when one of my students was embarrassed upon seeing his mother coming to a meeting at the school wearing her McDonald’s uniform. He literally avoided her notice by dashing in the opposite direction. When I confronted him regarding his behavior he expressed anger that she had not disguised her profession by changing clothes before coming. He also noted that whenever teachers ridiculed a student for a lack of ambition they always seemed to note that without some effort people end up working for a fast food restaurant. He did not want to be associated with his mother’s job because it embarrassed him.

It hurt my soul to hear this young man denying the importance of his mom’s hard work, but it also worried me that we teachers sometimes unwittingly expressed our hopes for our students in ways that demeaned their parents. In this particular situation I felt compelled to insist to my student that he and all of us should honor the fact that his mother worked so hard to provide him with a secure home. I reminded him of how difficult it must have been for her to balance all of the demands in her life, and yet she was so concerned about his welfare that she came straight from a long day of work to take an interest in his education. I remarked that her uniform was not something of which he should be ashamed, but rather that it was a true badge of honor that he should embrace. He listened intently to my arguments, but I was never certain that he had actually heard the full import of what I was saying. It was many years later that I learned that he had indeed understood what I was attempting to convey.

I had all but forgotten about this particular incident when my former student returned to the school where he and I had spent so many days together. He was all grown up, a very fine looking young man who was well on his way to earning a college degree. He told me that he had come back to thank me for setting him straight on the value of his mother’s efforts in his behalf. He had learned over the years just how remarkable she was, and he had eventually been able to understand how much he had benefited from her labors. He said that he had eventually seen her as a paragon of wisdom and generosity. Mostly though he was quite proud of her hard work and the care that she had always put into being the best possible employee. She had taught him the importance of showing up on time, ready to work. He had followed in her footsteps and with her guidance had accomplished more than either of them had ever thought possible.

As a society we don’t always give the proper respect to all forms of work. We somehow mentally rank occupations based on level of education rather than on efforts expended, and yet it is truth that we need every skill, trade and degree in order to function well. The young man who keeps the Panera Bread restaurant spotless creates a pleasing environment that provides us with a greater level of comfort as we eat. Ken who smiles and greets us each time we visit Cracker Barrel makes our dining experience more personal and pleasurable. Big John who provides us with an honest deal when we have a plumbing problem instills confidence that we are getting the best possible service. Miguel who climbs on my steep roof to fix a minor leak brings me a sense of security that I will be fine when storms rage overhead, as indeed was recently the case. Mr. Nguyen who makes my home cool with an exceptional new air conditioning system gains my respect and my thanks.

We certainly know that college degrees might sometimes bring a higher level of economic success, but merely having a job that requires one does not guarantee that the quality of work will be even close to someone like Jose who puts so much effort into being the best he might possibly be. We need to remember such things whenever we speak to our young about the expectations that we have for them as they move toward their own futures. What we really want from them is mastery and pride in doing a job well. That is the true secret to living meaningfully.

Jose began manicuring our lawn when we first moved into our home. Since that time he has secured contracts with five other residents on our street because they have observed that he has never let us or anyone else down. We also sent him to do my father-in-law’s yard several years back and that has led to more jobs in the Heights. I know that he keeps busy each evening after he completes his day job and all weekend long. He is a paragon of the work ethic that we should be encouraging all of our young to emulate and honor.

We need to be mindful in our enthusiasm for helping our young men and women to achieve the highest possible educations that we do not inadvertently give them the impression that the hard work of laborers and skilled craftsmen is somehow less than that of professionals. We cannot get along without those who do jobs that we either can’t or don’t want to do. it is up to us to praise any form of hard work because it is the true key to greatness.

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