Column: The real nuts and bolts of life lessons

Have you ever had a job you had never anticipated doing, but it turned out to be one of the most satisfying experiences and a great learning opportunity?

Jinger Gustafson

Jinger Gustafson

It was the mid 1980s, when I was looking for summer work before I started another year of college. I happened upon a note posted in the cafeteria advertising for a “laborer position.” When I arrived at the town, there was a grain elevator, silos, and grain bins, with catwalks connecting the large, steel structures and a cafe. The foreman approached me, in my car, and asked what I needed. I told him I needed a job. He said, “Boss never said anything about not hiring a woman. Be here at 6 a.m.” He walked away. Goal accomplished. I had a job (even though I did not know what it was).

When I arrived at the job site, I was greeted with a five gallon bucket and a brief explanation of what I would be doing for the next 10 weeks: walk around, from dawn to dusk, to pick up bolts, screws, nuts, and nails that the construction crew would drop while they were tearing down and rebuilding the massive structures. I thought, “Easy enough.” Next thing I knew, the foreman’s voice was saying break for lunch.

Not knowing where this was, I just followed the rest of the crew into the grain elevator. There were about 20 of us.

Clearly, they had worked with each other for a period of time as they were talking and laughing amongst themselves. I learned quickly that there was a crew of 19 and me. Not saying a word, nor anyone saying a word to me, after lunch I continued my work – fill up the five gallon bucket, sort out the bolts, screws, nuts, and nails, into four separate containers, fill up the five gallon bucket, etc. – with no one even acknowledging that I was there.  This went on for approximately two weeks.

Then, one day when I got to work something different happened. Another crew member came over to me and said, “All hands on deck. We have the crane here for three hours and everyone needs to help. Time is money.” My job now was to help guide some of the steel beams that were being placed on and within the massive structures. Before I knew it, three hours had passed and it was lunch.

Lunch was different that day and every day after that day. Members of the crew asked me what my name was, what I had for lunch, where I lived, and so on. Outside of lunch, the crew started joking with me, asked me to help get tools for them, showed me how, and even allowed me, to put together some of the grain bin panels with the electric drill.

While at the company picnic the foreman let me know that my work was done at the site. It was not a surprise as it was about 10 weeks to date. The foreman shook my hand and gave me a hug. He expressed that he would have me as part of his crew anytime again. Word spread that my time had come to an end. The rest of the crew followed the foreman’s suit – shake of the hand and a hug. I have not seen any of these folks since, but their memory lingers with me.

I cannot remember hearing the term “21st Century Skills,” back in the late 1970s when I was a middle school student. It’s a term that’s prevalent today, especially among educators and employers. However, messages I do remember, especially from the adults that were in and outside of my middle school classrooms were: work hard, cooperate, share, listen (even when the news may be bad), change something if it is not going well, and most of all, believe in yourself. Hmm, sounds a lot like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, which are part of our student outcomes for 21st Century Skills. We called it something different back in the 1970s, but the concepts are much the same.

In 2014, we continue to prepare our middle school students for the global economy. And, along the way, we prepare them to potentially take a job they had not anticipated. We believe they will have learned skills in our classrooms to be successful and lessons around ways of thinking, tools for working, and skills for living in the real world, much as I learned from that long ago summer job.

Thank you for your continued support for our students.

Dr. Jinger Gustafson is the associate superintendent of middle schools for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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