Me, during my internship summer at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, with a friend who was from England and spending the summer here.

 

Griffin and Drew started their summer jobs today: Griffin is working for a landscaping company, so he can expect 40+ hours of mind-numbing physical work each week. Drew landed a software engineering internship at Liberty Mutual Insurance, so he can expect 40 hours of challenging brain work. I’m eager to hear later today how they fared. First weeks are never easy.

My own summer jobs fell into both categories: mind-numbing and challenging. And another category: just plain weird.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked second shift at Holiday Cups, a factory that made paper cups. My job was in the packing department, where for eight hours, from 3 to 11:30 p.m. five nights a week, I would count cups, place them into plastic sleeves, tuck the sleeves into boxes, tape the boxes and send them along a conveyor belt to shipping. Like I said: mind-numbing. And this was before iPods. We didn’t have to count them by hand. We used wheeled instruments, like pizza cutters with notches, that we ran along the cup rims. Once we got an accurate stack, we would make marks on the table and just measure them that way. We kept track of how many boxes we completed, and I began to challenge myself to beat my records each night. My productivity was rewarded with more responsibility: I was trained on the handle machine, which glued those little paper two-holed handles to cups used for hot beverages. The machine was in a different part of the factory, isolated from other workers. The operator’s main job was to watch to make sure the handles went on straight and the proper amount of glue was applied. It was not only boring but lonely.

The next summer I signed on with a temp agency and was put in a long-term job at a factory called Vaporized Coatings. Here they took plastic items such as curtain rings, drapery rods and planters, and sprayed them with metallic paints. My job was to clip these items to metal rods, which then went on to racks. The racks went into the spraying chambers. Once they were coated, we would remove the items, inspect them to make sure they were flawless and package them. I didn’t think it was possible to find a job worse than the cup factory, but this was it. I would come home with gold and silver specks everywhere: in my hair, mouth, shoes, underwear. And probably in my lungs, although I didn’t think of that until years later.

By the following summer, I had wised up. I resolved to get an internship and to use my brain rather than turn it off. Delevan, Wis., was my home for those three months. I worked for the Janesville Gazette’s bureau there, writing for the weekly they published with news of that area. I traveled the country roads in my little orange VW Bug and bunked with some college friends in a small flat. I have only a few odd memories from that summer: A photo assignment I had to shoot of a red-headed kid with a giant slice of watermelon for the cover of the tab, one of the first color photos I ever took for publication. My boss Jon, who kept his keys on a lanyard and would swing them all the time. Going to happy hour with my coworkers on my last day of work and trying to remain lucid while one of the older guys tried to have a serious conversation with me. But I do remember being deliriously happy to be doing journalism instead of anything else.

My Dow Jones intern class, at the end of our training in Columbia, Mo. I am second from right, in the yellow raincoat.

That internship no doubt helped me to get a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund editing internship the following summer. I was placed at the Minneapolis Star, which ceased publication between the time I was assigned there and the start of the internship. Luckily, the newly merged Minneapolis Star and Tribune still had a place for me. That was thirty years ago.

Last week, I spent an evening training one of our summer interns. He is a bright kid, excited about journalism and eager to learn. It was fun and interesting to watch him work. He is the same age as Drew.

Joseffa and I went to Wausau, Wis., this past weekend to help Drew move in to his little summer home. He seemed on edge and cranky, and I had to remind myself what it was like to move to a completely unfamiliar place not knowing anybody. It’s not easy, but that is part of the learning that comes along with the internship. You have to get out of the comfort zone, reach out to others, make friends, take advantage of all the new opportunities. Calm that part of you that longs for the familiarity of school, friends and family. It really is a sort of summer school, teaching the lessons of life.

I hope that Drew finds mentors who appreciate his youth and enthusiasm this summer and that he can someday see the bigger picture of how these summers were important milestones on his life’s journey.

As for Griffin, this is his first full-time job, so he will learn all the lessons that go along with that: How to work in the adult world, communicate with peers and bosses, AND respect others for the work they do and their life choices. I hope he understands that there is much to be learned from each person he meets.

Too soon, the summer will be over.  The boys will head back to school and pick up where they left off this spring. I hope the skills they learned during this break make things just a little easier and they go back feeling just a little more wise about life.

Exploring the city... I think this was near Minnehaha Falls.

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