Not everyone outside of the USA knows this, but in most parts of America, schools receive a large portion of their budget from the property taxes of the districts. That means that rich neighborhoods have rich kids and rich schools; a nice way of keeping the money inside, which, I have to come to understand is the primary concern of the wealthy.
I had a unique opportunity to attend one of these schools, not because I was rich, but because my mother was a teacher and education was an extreme priority for her. She got a job at the top high school in our part of Florida and, presumably, pulled some strings to get me redistricted. I did spend a few weeks of my freshman year at a very different sort of high school, and occasionally wonder what my life would be like now had I followed that evolutionary timeline.
I rode my bike to school in the mornings, alongside classmates who fought over parking spaces in their BMW’s and Mercedes Benz’s. My wardrobe at the time consisted of a few pairs of jeans and a handful of t-shirts. There were others like me in this regard, but there was also a large proportion of highly style conscious fashionistas. Being cool meant something different to each of us.
The classes, I loved. From the beginning it was easy to tell that the quality of instruction at this school was going to be very high and I took to it beautifully. I didn’t always have the highest grade in class, and I didn’t need to, I was happy just to learn. But socially, high school was a rough start for me. I think I did very much want to have friends, but I didn’t really know how to make any. To put it simply, I didn’t feel like I really had anything much to offer, so I kept to myself, hung out with my mom and schoolmates rarely heard my voice outside of class.
This started to change in my sophomore year when I joined the debate team. United by our common activity gave us a lot to talk about and things to do outside of school. I showed early promise as a debater and reveled in the positive attention it brought me. A clique started to form around this time that would come to be my high school group; and would go on to be friends for much longer after I went my own way.
Jared was a sophomore, like myself, who had transferred in from a private Christian school. There was something about his sense of humor, the way he carried himself and spoke that allowed me to identify him as a kindred spirit almost immediately. I think both of us felt like outsiders in this environment, middle to lower-middle class kids trying to play any role but poor, likeable and ultimately forgettable in this Hollywood story.
Jared taps me on my shoulder one day “hey bro, do you need a job?”
As a matter of fact, I did need a job. I’m not sure if working was something I really wanted to be doing during high school, but money was certainly an issue at home and getting some kind of job had definitely been on my mind.
“Come with me after school. The McDonald’s by my house is hiring.”
Jared broke it all down for me as we walked. He was always breaking things down, one of my favorite qualities of his, and valuable considering I was still very new to the country. He explained that McDonald’s was going to be the best place for us because we were going to make minimum wage no matter where we went, but at least at McDonald’s we could work lots of hours if we wanted and we could get raises if we worked for a while and got free food (that last one turned out to be wrong).
The McDonald’s Jared took me to shared a roof with a gas station just off one of the main roads in our town, right before the highway onramp. It was a pretty area, actually. The manager looked to be about 19 and seemed to have little zest for life. He handed me an application form which I filled out on the dining tables along with several other teens who were also applying that day. He took my form, asked me a few questions, handed me a T-shirt and told me when to show up for my first shift.
It seemed to me that there were a few different types of people that worked at McDonald’s, or at least at my McDonald’s. There were the young kids, 15-17 like Jared and myself who were just trying to make a few bucks in our free time. From what I could tell, nobody who drove a BMW to school also worked at McDonald’s part time, so I assume that we were all pretty poor. There was the older crowd, young managers 19-24 who had skipped college for one reason or another and were usually working on something on the side. Some of these folks were decent but they had the bearing of knowing they may have already missed their first boat and there wasn’t a guarantee that the next one was coming any time soon.
And then of course there were the older managers, who could be in their 30’s to their 50’s. They ranged greatly in their personalities, but all seemed quite settled in to their working class lives.
One of the other things I noticed right away about my McDonald’s was that there seemed to be a sharp distinction between who was tasked with working the register, and who was working the kitchen. The customer facing register, in so far as I could tell, was largely the domain of the white employees, while the blacks would work in the kitchen. But even in the kitchen there was segregation. The job of constructing sandwiches and meals was mostly tasked to the American blacks and the greasier, hotter and more dangerous job of operating the fryers and the grill usually went to immigrants from Haiti and Cuba.
If you are reading this, and you know me, and you are wondering where in the kitchen I ended up; I feel I may have done my job well as a writer. I won’t drag this on, I ended up on the grill and fryer. Was it a hint of how I was perceived in the social hierarchy of my new environment, or something more personal relating to me? Actually, I didn’t really think of it at the time and while I later came to conclude that there was a racial element to this story, I now feel it was the universe’s subtle way of accommodating me in my love to start from the bottom.
I loved the simplicity of my role, actually. Orders came in and I made them. There was very little need to interact with any of the other staff and there was something zen-like about the long sessions flipping, scooping and arranging items around my fiery hot grill station. Oil would splatter and create these little burn marks on my hands until they looked like I had the measles. Jared took quickly to his job, sometimes on the register, sometimes on the other side of the kitchen, building burgers, speaking loudly to everyone, reminding us to salt the fries and stack the burger ingredients correctly.
Truthfully, I think they put me on the fryer because they felt I wouldn’t mix well with the rest of the staff. There is a racial component to that, but it is a chicken and egg problem.
One Saturday night one of the popular kids came into the adjoining gas station as I was leaving work. He and a friend were loading cases of beer and fruity alcoholic drinks into a minivan that an older woman was driving, which I assume was his mom. There were some girls in the back dressed up looking like they were ready to have a good time. We shared a glance before he went.
I sat outside for a while and looked down at my oil splattered hands and wondered what the boy who had just come in would be doing tonight. Probably to his big house to drink with his friend and the girls. If his mom was willing to buy the beer for them, I could only assume there would be few restrictions on what would be happening that night.
Was there a part of me that was jealous? Yes, there was. I wanted to be a white American boy with permissive parents. I wanted to be living in the same neighborhood I had always grown up in, maybe even the same house, with the same friends. I wanted my own car and cool clothes and girls that wanted to hang out with me because I had all of those things.
If I made $200 in a paycheck, I would usually keep $50 for myself and give the rest to my mother to help pay for bills. I thought about that as I looked at my hands and wondered if the boy I had just ran into ever had the opportunity to serve people he loved in that way; and I felt some satisfying twinge of moral superiority for a minute. But then I decided that I really didn’t know anything about him, he could be an amazing son for all I know. He was simply going to have to live his life and I was going to have to live mine.