“Responsibility is the acceptance of oneself as the cause of one’s current situation, and it is the willingness to cope with that situation.”
Mr. Fluegel, my quirky 9th grade science teacher, required his students to recite that definition of responsibility every day at the beginning of class. He had us write it on tests and quizzes for credit, and for all his personable, smiling attitude, he adamantly insisted that we live by it in his class. I can still hear the chant of the class speaking in unison ringing in my ears, all these years later.
As memorable as Mr. Fluegel’s lessons were, though, they were only a reinforcement of the sense of responsibility my parents had been teaching me for years. I see so many people now struggling with the consequences of poor financial habits and impaired work ethics, and I’m so thankful for the habits my parents built in me at an early age. I’ll speak more to the financial side of things in a later post. This is the story of how I learned to work hard.
I homeschooled for the majority of my primary and middle school years, and my parents never gave me grades for my school work. With that level of private attention, they could clearly see when I understood the material and when I didn’t get something. If I understood, we moved on to the next lesson. If I didn’t understand, we kept working until I did. I studied to learn, not to earn a grade. My parents also didn’t hover over me to make sure I was working. In junior high, my mom simply handed me a sheet with a week’s worth of assignments each Monday. I had to finish the sheet by Friday. I quickly learned that putting it all off until the end of the week was a bad idea, but I would often do things like knocking out all reading assignments for the week in one sitting. My parents operated on the basic assumption that if they gave me a task, I would complete it. They doled out consequences when I didn’t, but they never acted as though they didn’t trust me to do what they told me to do. I sincerely believe that level of expectation is what kept me in line during the few times in my life when I was tempted to be rebellious. They expected me to behave, and I really had no idea what would happen if I failed to live up to that expectation.
I think I adjusted easily enough when my parents enrolled me in a private school in 9th grade, but I never completely came to terms with the concept of grades. I remember coming to my 11th grade chemistry teacher with questions because I felt completely lost. I did not understand the material, and I knew it. She looked at me quizzically and said, “but you have a good grade!” I wanted to scream. Sure, I’d managed an A, but I didn’t understand the material! How was I supposed to move on to something more complex when I didn’t understand the basic stuff?!
I also remember having to ask another teacher to stop proudly sharing my grades with the class. It was more than the fact that I didn’t want my classmates to know I’d blown the curve. Instead, I didn’t want the numbers and percentages I earned to be lorded over my classmates. I wanted to be free to learn without the constant focus on my grade-based achievements. To my teacher’s credit, as soon as I expressed my frustration to her, she respected my concerns and honored my request.
A strong work ethic has to do with more than just academics, though. As soon as I was old enough, I worked every summer. My job of choice was life guarding. I swam competitively in my early high school days, and even after I quit, I couldn’t shake my love of swimming pools and water. Looking back, that first summer of life guarding had a profound impact on my understanding of professionalism, though I couldn’t have said that at the time.
My older sister had life guarded a few years at a small local pool, and when I turned 16 she introduced me to the manager and helped me get hired. The main staff, my sister included, had been together for several years, and by that summer each of them had at least one year of college under their belts. Only one other youngster was hired with me, and together we made up the only 16 year olds in a staff of college students.
They were good people, worthy role models worth looking up to as mentors. They were kind to me, took me under their wing, and accepted me. At 16, I hadn’t quite come into my own as a teenager, yet. I had shed a little of the awkwardness of 9th and 10th grades, but much of my identity was still wrapped up in my family name and a predetermined concept of who people expected me to be. I didn’t feel that with this staff, despite the fact that my sister had landed me the job.
My college-age coworkers demonstrated a strong work ethic on a daily basis. They understood that as a small staff, we depended on each other. I don’t remember anyone showing up late for work on a regular basis. I don’t remember anyone slacking off on the job. We all kept a close eye on the clock and made sure rotations happened exactly every fifteen minutes. In 108°F heat under a blazing Texas sun, keeping those rotations on schedule was important. No one waited an extra few minutes in the guard shack because they “lost track of time.” They understood that a few more minutes in the shack for them meant minutes without relief for a coworker.
Life guarding taught me to be an authority figure, to call out people who misbehaved and to enforce the rules with consequences if they didn’t stop. That first job also taught me what work well done meant to my coworkers. In later summers at different pools I learned that not all coworkers behave that way. Some will habitually show up late, lie to their managers, and shirk responsibility whenever they get the chance. Some will complain when they’re asked to complete a task (I never understood that – it’s called a “job” and “work”, not “getting-paid-for-nothing”). But in those situations, I learned that a good work ethic stands out to those in charge and is appreciated even more.
My work ethic served me well as I grew into an adult, too. It made sure I went to class in college, even when I didn’t like the professor or knew I could get away with skipping. My dedication to doing a job well made an impression at the schools where I subbed, and in full-time teaching it drove me to take on battles for students that surpassed my job description.
There’s something very satisfying about a job well done. I see young people saying they don’t want to grow up because they don’t want to do work, and I find that very sad. When did work become something that was bad? Without work, there is no fulfillment of dreams, no pride in achievement, no thrill of being good at what you do. Yes, work has its downsides, stresses, and frustrations, but that is only one part of it! I love what I do, and it makes me sad to think people are depriving themselves of that kind of joy just because they want to avoid work. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.