Before I started school at age six and a half, I had little knowledge of what people did for jobs. I knew about the elevator operator in Cherry and Webb’s. He had a big brass lever that turned around an arc with numbers on it. He would push it all the way forward if we were going up, or pull it all the way toward himself if we were going down, before settling on the number that matched our destination, an in charge kind of man. What a cool job, operating equipment all day!
I somehow never got the idea that the clerks at Cherry and Webb’s were working, probably because they looked like my mom with dresses or suits, earrings, high heels, and hose with lines down the back. I’d had no experience with teachers, the doctor made house calls. I don’t even recall having been to the dentist. I knew my other grandmother worked as a nurse in people’s homes, and that she used to be a school teacher, but I never saw her at any job except cooking Thanksgiving dinner, or any of the other meals we ate at her house.
I’d seen my grandfather at work, as well. He and my grandmother tended the desk at the public library. I knew he was called a janitor, but I’d only ever seen him operate a date stamp, which he would use first in the books we were checking out, then on the back of my hand. My mom would purse her lips, and I knew she didn’t like it. This was power – to thwart Mom and live! I knew that my grandfather also talked on the phone, wrote with stubby little, exceedingly cute, pencils in a flip-over notebook. When he talked on the phone, he read from the book, which otherwise was kept in a desk, along with a collection of pencils of various sizes, which he used a knife to sharpen. If this was being a janitor, wow! It was fully as good as being an elevator operator. I was ignorant of the brooms, mops (dry and wet), buckets, and rags that he used when he was performing custodial duties at the town hall where the library was housed. Although my appreciation would not have changed if I had known. I would have totally loved the wide mop gliding along perfectly waxed, empty floors, or the waxer, like a mini-Zamboni, making everything glossy and new.
The whole story of my future – You will go to school for six years , go to high school for six years, get a diploma, go to college for four years, and then get a job – was a litany I learned by rote. None of the words, which I understood individually, meant anything when they were put together. School I understood from Romper Room, or from Sunrise Semester on TV. Teachers had interesting stuff to say, but beyond those dealing with chemistry who created explosions, or those instructing us in the nature of physics where I could see spectacular crashes and more explosions, their jobs did not seem to be very interesting. I could have cheerfully become Mr. Wizard, whose experiments I replicated in the bath, but I saw him as a scientist, not a teacher.
There were other jobs I knew about from TV and books, but nobody seemed to be doing them in my neighborhood. I kind of liked the idea of chariot driver. Swamp Fox was another job, and the Macomber boys and I played at being him whenever we could. A circus performer like Toby Tyler, or wild man like Tarzan were out, since I could not think how to acquire a chimpanzee as a side-kick. I dreamed of being a flying detective like Sky King, or owning a jalopy or roadster like the Hardy Boys and their pals. I’d been down to the wharf to get quahogs and lobsters from some guys my dad knew, but I’d been told “Absolutely no women on boats. It’s bad luck. Bad for the catch and bad for the women.” (From what I now know of that period of our society, I suspect the ban of “women on boats” had more to do with what would have happened if Dad had brought me home slimey and wet that the genuine legal ban it was made out to be.) I had heard that, when he was young, he had worked with his father. (It turned out that while in high school they had mowed the lawns of the Friends Meeting House cemetery, done some painting, and practiced what would now be called subsistence fishing.) So, when the bus driver asked, on that fine, spring, step-up-day, my first day entering the Westport Point School, just to try it out, “What’s your dad do?” I proudly said, “He’s a janitor!”
I have no recollection of how long it took for the word to get back to my folks. That he was a Guidance Counselor meant nothing. Those words joined other that I had heard, could read, but meant nothing, words like “chaperone,” “weapons,” “delphiniums,” and “cafeteria.” I was packed off to school with my dad, where I met cafeteria ladies, which meant cookies (like Mom), and I got to see his boss, the principal, who, it turned out, was the father of my friend Bradford (not Elmer Fudd’s kid Brad as I had first imagined). I got to see Dad’s office, too, where he had a stamp, thought not as cool as the one my grandfather had; there were no numbers on it, just letters. I got to look at the gym and was introduced to some boys, but was not allowed to walk on the floor, not even if I took my shoes off, even though the boys were playing with their shoes on.
I think of how my own kids came up through those early years of their lives. They took field trips to see various workplaces in town: banks, fire and police stations, a pizza parlor, the medical center. They spent time in my office, when they had modest ailments like pink-eye, and saw me doing my job. Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers filled in gaps about the mechanics of how the world worked. Bill Nye was their Mr. Wizard addressing ecology in addition to physics and chemistry. I don’t think they had any better idea what it was like to actually be one of those people, but they certainly had a better idea about the tasks involved in the jobs.