For two years during college and one year after, I worked as a waitress. During school it was a chain restaurant in Springfield, and after graduation it was a local cafe in Town & Country, St. Louis.
Admittedly, I initially saw my year at the cafe as a failure on my part. I naively expected to land a “professional” job a couple months out, despite my lack of internships or skills, simply because I was a hard-working and intelligent student. Ha! As my fellow millennials can attest, this sort of thing hasn’t happened since the 90’s.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the only one who thought it was a failure.
During my time at the cafe, I often ran into former teachers, parents of high school acquaintances, and some Westminster kids themselves (my private Christian high school). It was always a sort of humiliating experience to be asked, “Is this what you’re doing now?” from a face that half pitied me and half enjoyed the experience of seeing me less “successful” than themselves or their children. “Oh, my daughter is in law school.”
In addition to those blows to my ego, I served a clientele that consisted of several older ladies from the nearby wealthy neighborhoods. While many of these ladies were very kind, some would’ve given Emily Gilmore a run for her money. At my lowest point, a group of ladies literally stood over me, barking orders as I knelt down, cleaning their mess from the floor and listening to them tell me how horribly I was doing.
I hid in the bathroom to cry bitter tears of self pity.
So far, it probably sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself, reflecting on how hard it was to be in the real world and work as a graduate in the service industry for a whopping 10 months. Keep reading because that is not what this post is about.
I actually want to make the case that these “sorts of jobs” can be extremely valuable experiences for anyone looking to see outside their own privileged bubble. I say this as someone who grew up in a comfortable (but not excessive) home and who enjoys many privileges that others don’t. Working in a place that didn’t care what my GPA was or what area of St. Louis I grew up in was eye-opening. I learned a great deal about myself, made friends with some of the most humble and kind people I’ve ever met, and changed my outlook on the importance of status.
Americans are seriously obsessed with status. Anytime our country is not at the top of the list in something, we have a collective panic attack about our impending downfall (ie. education, gasp!). Racism, sexism, and [insert your favorite “ism” here] persist because we’re fighting subconscious battles to keep at least someone below us on the food chain. (And probably for several more complicated reasons as well). We’re told to do whatever makes us happy but simultaneously assume people in “certain jobs” are either unambitious, unintelligent, or have “made some bad choices” (and therefore don’t deserve a living wage?).
The people I met don’t fit those narrow, outside interpretations of their lifestyles. Like all humans, they each had their own unique stories ranging from the adventurous to the miraculous. Some had masters degrees, and some were supporting kids and/or spouses. I especially loved getting to know the cooks, many of whom traveled an hour by bus from the city everyday (which was only a 20 minute drive away), and who showed me what a passion for good food looks like. Away from the elitism of academia and the cut-throat competition of the business world, the people of the service industry master their skills, put in a hard day’s work, and have fun together.
Which part of that is something you should look down on?
I didn’t grow up thinking that status mattered. I am lucky enough to have a kind, intelligent, and loving mother who always cared more for our spiritual and personal growth than our interest (or lack thereof) in esteemed careers. Because of this, and because I had never really experienced financial insecurity beforehand, I chose a college major that I loved. I studied history (and no, not to teach) simply because I loved learning about people. Studying history opens intellectual doors to worlds of different cultures, circumstances, and philosophies and pushes you to empathize with people on the other side of the world who died a thousand years before you were born.
Unfortunately, my empathy skills aren’t very marketable.
And financial insecurity forces us to focus less on personal growth and more on becoming profitable. I think it’s definitely possible to find a career that does both (which is why I’m pursuing work in youth development), but when the bills need to be paid, all that can really matter is getting money into the bank. I wonder how many people would be in jobs or lifestyles that they loved (including stay-at-home parenting) if our capitalism-obsessed world didn’t force them to pursue something more profitable and respected. What might I have majored in if I didn’t have my support network and comfortable upbringing, taking classes with the impending reality in mind that I would soon be completely on my own?
While the less enjoyable aspects of my job motivated me to pursue other opportunities to amp up my resume, my time there prepared my heart for the work I really want to do. At one point during my first few months on the job, I was reminded of the story of Moses. After leaving his family behind, he worked for years as a shepherd, which unknowingly prepared him to shepherd the Israelites out of Egypt. I feel as though my time working as a server helped prepare me to have a “servant’s heart” in my future career. If I want to help “at-risk” youth in the ways I imagine, I want to have the humility and selfless motives of a servant.
Instead of pursuing the esteem of a highly paid career or the fancy job title, I want to set my focus on the humans I’m trying to help. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, but I want people to rethink their own career motives. I don’t think a status-obsessed world can create real change for people or give you a fulfilling lifestyle.
More than that, I just want people to rethink how they judge others’ jobs and experiences and how they measure success. Had I not worked as a waitress, I would not be able to adjust my communication method accordingly for each new person I encounter. I wouldn’t have the thick skin of someone who’s been yelled at, demeaned, and sexually harassed on a regular basis. And I wouldn’t have the humility to see each person as the smart, unique, and worthy person that they are, despite the “respectability” of their career. I hope that I can remember these lessons as I enter my professional career and keep some of the friends I’ve made along the way.
In conclusion, tip your server. More than 10 percent.