Learning on the Job

During high school summers I began learning about characteristics of my preferred occupation by experiencing jobs lacking these features. It was like having to find the puzzle pieces before being able to put them together. At first, I thought being able to do the required tasks was the only thing that mattered. Through experience I found other pieces of the puzzle: the physical setting, the social environment, and liking or finding meaning in the work tasks. I began assembling these elements in my high school summer employment as a tobacco farm worker, legal secretary’s assistant, and camp counselor.


My first job outside of doing chores at home was summer work as a tobacco worker on a farm belonging to the father of a close friend. Earning money by doing hard labor was rewarding; I am my father’s daughter, after all. Working under the hot sun with bugs was manageable because we also had fun.

Tobacco work changed as the tobacco plants developed. We started with “topping and suckering” young plants by detaching the flowering top and removing small green shoots, also known as suckers, growing between the stalk and leaves. The work was unpleasant: thick, sticky juice from the plant covered you head to toe. After the morning and afternoon sessions we changed into bathing suits and headed for the pond on the family property with a bar of soap to scrub off the gunk. It didn’t take long to get clean, and we lingered in the pond enjoying ourselves.

The next phase started when tobacco leaves began to ripen. Leaves lower on the plant were ready first; those higher ripened later. The large, yellowish leaves were picked by hand or cropped and attached in clusters by stringing them onto long sturdy sticks. I was a stringer. Our work crew had the advantage of the latest machinery for cropping and stringing. A tractor slowly pulled an apparatus with adjustable seats for four pairs of workers through the rows of plants, enabling cropping and stringing to take place together. The cropper, who sat lower on the apparatus, removed leaves from the plant and passed them to the stringer above, who attached them to the stick as they were received. A ninth person removed and stacked sticks of tobacco and would troubleshoot problems. The process required skill and choreography among the nine workers. I don’t know how something so complicated worked in a hot field.

I was a good stringer and loved the rhythmic movement and group coordination as though we formed a single machine. The repetitive motion of stringing caused a minor but persistent overuse injury in my upper back which still flares up when I’m tired. I didn’t complain because I valued doing my part for the work crew and at the end of the week, we got paid $10 a day in cash. At the time this seemed like a small fortune.

The sticks of green tobacco were hung in heated barns to dry. When the first barn was cured, my friend and I moved to the dry tobacco process. We transferred the sticks to a shed and spread special sheets on the ground. We removed the leaves from the sticks and sorted or graded them onto different sheets based on quality, determined by the presence and amount of mold, leaf deterioration, and contaminants. The full sheets were bundled by folding and tying opposite corners into knots. Nearly all of it went to market, regardless of condition.

The hours were long, starting shortly after sunrise through late into the day. But we took a two-hour lunch break when it was hottest. I shared a midday meal with the family, and we watched the soaps after eating. This was the only time in my life I became addicted to daytime TV. Each day I looked forward to the next installment of betrayals, affairs, crises, and comas. Even though the work conditions were hard, I contributed to the team and worked among friends.

The 1960s were a different time. Public smoking was the norm, and concerns about tobacco use as a health hazard were new. My career in public health and widespread acceptance of the dangers of tobacco were a distant and unforeseen future. Perhaps this job nudged me toward public health. It certainly sealed my aversion to the use of tobacco. Most of the bugs fell off the tobacco leaves during the curing process, but some went to market, as did the leaves with mold and rot. I could never smoke knowing what went into the product.


The setting of my next summer job was an improvement over being outside in the hot sun and in contact with toxic plants and bugs. My mother was a professional legal secretary, so I had an inside track on temporary positions as a legal secretary’s assistant. I was paid minimum wage, $2.76 per hour, which I thought was good money. I answered the phone, took messages, filed, and did simple typing. I learned two essential lessons from this work: I didn’t want to work as a secretary, nor did I want to be a lawyer. 

            I once had to type separate copies of a form letter to 300 different people. They had to be originals, so no carbon paper was allowed; this was before copy machines and word processing had been invented. I dutifully banged out 300 perfect letters on a manual typewriter. I typed far more than 300 because I had to start over when I made a mistake. Then the lawyer proofread his draft and found a less-than-optimal word. I couldn’t believe I had to redo all the letters. My mother pointed out I had to be doing something, and it didn’t matter what it was, so it might just as well be typing those letters. This sage observation did not help. But it was an early lesson in coping with impatience and my desire for quick closure, something I grapple with today.


My last summer job in high school took me from a law office to a pine forest. I worked  as a counselor at Camp Millcreek for six weeks. It served physically handicapped children who were not eligible for other camps. Its sister site, Camp Burnt Gin, is still in operation. At Millcreek I loved working with the children. But interacting with people of different ranks within the organization was challenging, and the physical environment was harsh.

Our primary focus as counselors were the children; we supervised them 24/7. We kept them clean, ensured they attended meals and activities, and got them to bed at night. We also did the housekeeping. I enjoyed arts and crafts and swimming, which provided welcome respite from the stifling heat of the pine woods. Campers addressed counselors by a respectful title, “Miss” or “Mr.”, plus first name; children and adults called me “Miss Ruthie.”

I don’t remember what we got paid. We were on duty 24 hours, so the hourly wage  probably amounted to a few cents per hour. But one does not do this for the money. Many of the children were shunned by peers and adults. One little boy had an eye deformity; some counselors could not make eye contact or express affection toward him. The pain of repeated rejection permeated his being, and I resolved to accept and love him as he was.

Some campers came from impoverished backgrounds and had parents or guardians who were overwhelmed. One camper showed up on the bus for multiple camping sessions each summer because he had nowhere else to go; no adults from home noticed he was gone. I stayed in touch with some of my campers as pen pals for years. I received one letter with only the address: “mis Ruthe, Wlturbuh, SC.” Our mail carrier was familiar with the families on his rural route and knew where to deliver the letter, but I have no idea how it made it to the Walterboro post office.

One camp-out night was required in each session. One group of my young campers thought eating outside, roasting marshmallows by campfire, and singing under the stars were great fun. They were stunned with dismay and disbelief when they realized they were also going to sleep outside in tents. I felt the same way; I simply cannot sleep on the ground.

The routine accommodations were only slightly better than camping out. The counselors slept in bunk beds on screened porches attached to the rustic cabins in which the campers stayed.  It was hot and stuffy with a lot of mosquitoes. I had a toxic reaction to excessive bites and was surprised my supervisor was annoyed; he seemed to blame me for the problem.

This was my first job with people who were not relatives or friends. There were many employees in a strict hierarchy; entry level counselors like me were on the lowest rung of the organization. At the time it seemed I irritated those above me. Even the way I swept the floor was criticized, and I could not understand why. In retrospect, I did not know how to navigate the camp bureaucracy and probably failed to show the appropriate respect for authority and procedures. The work was meaningful, but the setting was stressful.


 I was fortunate to have an assortment of summer jobs in high school. I earned spending money and saved for the future. No single summer job was ideal because all puzzle pieces were needed: able to do the work, liking or finding meaning in the tasks, feeling supported socially, and working in personally compatible physical environment. As an adult I assembled the puzzle pieces during 30 years in an academic setting. I preferred working a clean and quiet indoor environment with people, ideas, and numbers, and I thrived in collegial settings. But what got me through rough spots as a working adult was knowing that I can do almost anything—for three months.