What a Chicago Public Schools valedictorian learned from his first job

For many teens who work and go to high school, life becomes a balancing act of responsibilities.  This spring, the valedictorian at the Southwest side high school where I teach began to confront a new reality in “the real world.”  I proudly share this guest post by my student and mentee Jaime Bautista.

I remember finishing up one of my essays for English and saw my partner next to me taking a nap in the middle of class. I could not believe how lazy a person could be and how he did not appreciate school enough to give all of his attention to it. Little did I know, that this student was working forty hours a week and still attending school every day.

When I used to hear people complain about working after school and having to do homework at night, I did not understand why they were sacrificing their lives at such a young age.  I thought they did not have the motivation to succeed in life. I, as the valedictorian, believed school was more important than work because without an education, we can’t have the credentials to make it in real life. My philosophy could not have been more wrong.

Once I noticed that I needed money to help pay for college, despite financial aid and a couple of scholarships, I started to apply for jobs.  I got hired at a large grocery story chain as a bagger and cashier. My reaction to this at first was, “Oh, bagger and cashier? Piece of cake! I’ll just stand there and push buttons all day.”  Once again, I could not have been more wrong.

I remember my first day at work.  I came in with a bright smile and the motivation to work. They showed me around the store for a couple of minutes and immediately had me bagging groceries. The first two hours of my first job were the longest two hours of my life. Not only did my arms get sore, but my lower back started to hurt and my feet swelled up because I was not accustomed to standing for long periods of time.

Later, my manager had me stock up large bags of ice, meat, and other heavy grocery items. After eight excruciating hours, I finally was done with my first day of work. As I got home, I remember the weakness in my arms and soreness from my body overpowered my steps. I remembered I had a lot of homework to do. But I fell on my bed without a care in the world.

As I continued to work every day right after school until 11:00 p.m., I started to notice how my lack of sleep affected my performance in school because I would stay up to finish my homework and study for upcoming quizzes and tests. I found myself taking naps in class next to my partner, who has been working since he was fifteen years old.

Through these struggles, I discovered how I’m truly a hardworking individual and how I never give up on difficult task. For example, I was called up to carry 300 24-packs of water in less than half an hour by myself because another shipment of produce was coming to the dock. I saw all of the stacks of packs of water and I did not let it get to me. I had to move quickly.  My boss came back 30 minutes later to see that the task was completed. He told me I was a hard worker and that just motivated more.  My boss smiled another time and complimented my work.  He joked, “Who you trying to impress?”

However, I also discovered how I was not so perfect. As I was training on the register with my boss, I found myself being afraid to speak to the customers. In school, I am a talkative person with my peers, but in this new environment with Spanish-speaking adults, I found myself struggling to be perfect. I mispronounced words and felt shy about speaking to the customers. I discovered how we need more than book smarts to be intelligent in the world.

One day I had a fight with my mother right before I left for work. I was in a terrible mood until I put on my apron and my name tag.  In my work clothes, all of my personal problems went away. I was a new person. I was now Jaime, the grocery store employee. I had to demonstrate responsibility and respect toward all whenever I had my apron and name tag on. Having a job made me more responsible about dealing with my problems.  We can’t consider ourselves admirable individuals if we can’t put our problems to the side when helping someone.

After I received my first paycheck, I could not believe how much I made.  Because of the way I worked, I felt I deserved more. I saw mothers and fathers working at the same place I did and getting paid the same as me.  I thought to myself, how is this fair?

I thought of my parents, of how they came to the United States and sacrificed their wholes lives to have me in the position where I am today. I understood the pain they felt.  I’m grateful they did not give up because that pushes me beyond my barriers to not quit but to learn from my experiences in this new environment.

In the fall, Jaime Bautista will attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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