Home Commentary Teachers, Tomato Farmers & First Summer Jobs

Teachers, Tomato Farmers & First Summer Jobs

Good News and Good People: A weekly column by Local Pulse Lifestyle Editor, Dana Hairston Hof.

Photo: Josephine Baran

Can we make it six days, y’all? That’s all that’s left of the 22-23 school calendar. 

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It’s Maycelebration time and all the children of Santa Rosa and Escambia counties are about to be turned out of the schoolhouse to kick off Memorial Day weekend. Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day is “Summer Is My Favorite Season Day”, which is about three weeks ahead of “National We Don’t Pay Teachers Enough Day.” 

I just made those up, but tell me it ain’t the truth?

Speaking of teachers, can we take a moment and recognize how awesome teachers are? My great-grandmother was a beloved teacher and people still stop our family to make mention of their days in the classroom with Mrs. Raye, even though that was four and five generations of people ago. 

That’s impact. 

So, teachers, I hope you’ve got a beach chair and an umbrella drink waiting on you next Friday come three o’clock. You gosh dang deserve it. 

The other thing this time of year makes me think of is summer jobs. 

Do you remember your first job? 

Year after year, I heard about how much money high school and college kids were making by working in the tomato industry near my hometown. Our area was known as the tomato capital, producing a fine yearly crop of Bradley County Pink Tomatoes. 

My Dad, his brother, and his cousins had grown up working in the tomato industry as teens and he relayed pretty emphatically that it was hard and hot work. But I was determined (read: hardheaded) and insisted. He called a tomato farmer friend of his and asked if they had a spot for me. 

I’m sure prayers were said by all. Mainly the farmer hoping his friendly favor wasn’t the beginning of the end of his tomato farming endeavors.

I think they had a secret bet on how long I’d last, but I was determined to outlast any shortsighted bet by people who clearly didn’t know what I was made of. 

The night before, I made my lunch and set my alarm. 5:00 a.m. is early timekeeping for a teenager. But I was on time and optimistic. 

I took my place on a wooden stool, under an open-air shed made of locally-sourced lumber and a rusty tin-roof. There were a couple of unsophisticated conveyor belts and piles of tomatoes. In automated form, tomatoes kept coming and I kept culling. 

There were three grades and a “don’t even feed this to goats” pile. One is perfect, two is almost perfect, and three is wonky but edible. In hindsight, it wasn’t a bad way to earn some money, but for a creative teenager with annoyance for boredom – it was agony.

I moved over to the packing ladies, who were surrounded by towers of boxes full of tomatoes they’d just packed. Packing was accomplished by taking a waxy square of branded and protective paper and wrapping it around each tomato, before placing it inside the box. Easy peasy, right? 

Wrong. 

It was ‘Schlemiel’ and ‘Schlimazel’ Laverne and Shirley style. 

You see, workers were paid by the box, so the faster you wrapped and packed, the more you were paid. When you’re working to keep your lights on, you have more incentive and gumption than an overconfident teenager in need of some pocket change and a wallop to the ego. Those ladies made me look like a clumsy seal trying to play the piano. 

I tried. Oh, how I tried to keep up. But by the end of my one and only week, my hands were covered in blisters and I’d lost several pounds from sweating for 8 or 9 hours a day under a 110-degree farm shed. 

I’d go on to work many other jobs like selling beer in Destin, waiting tables at a sports bar until 2 a.m., selling advertising for a business paper and clothing at an Orvis dealer, and this and that and a little of everything in between. 

I’ve learned something valuable from every job I’ve had, but none of ‘em taught me the things I learned in that one week: 1) Respect for people who work hard for a livin’; 2) everybody is important and their efforts are valuable and needed; 3) pay closer attention in school.

So when you head out to the beach or around town this summer and a young kid gets your order wrong or takes too long to do something, try and remember that summer jobs aren’t just a way to make money. 

A summer job is an opportunity for the village to teach the child what a parent can’t always impart, especially to a hardheaded kid who thinks she’s cut out to work in tomatoes.