Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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Right after graduation, I got a job. I was so excited about the prospect of earning cash money on my own that I could hardly sleep the night before my first day. To prepare for the big event, I set the alarm for 6:00 A.M. and placed my work clothes neatly on the floor next to my bed. The next morning I awoke without the aid of my alarm, made a breakfast of six pieces of toast and two cups of hot chocolate, packed a lunch, and then trotted out to the corner where I waited impatiently for my ride.
When my carpool vehicle jammed with coworkers eventually pulled over and picked me up, everyone was deadly quite. It was still fairly early in the morning and driving out into the countryside alongside the morose crew felt as if I were being transported to work in a wheeled casket. It took just under an hour to arrive at the job site where we immediately took up our posts. I didn’t actually know how to do my job, so I decided to fake it. A couple of hours later when I handed in my first project, my supervisor ridiculed my efforts and then forced me to redo the job. My fellow employees came by the supervisor’s work station and handed in their work—all the while poking fun at me. It was humiliating.
As the day dragged on and the sun rose in the cloudless sky, two of my coworkers actually passed out from the heat. They fell like stones while the rest of us pushed ourselves to get even more work done. With continued practice I became more adept at the job so I eventually was able to produce a better product and at a faster pace. When I finally arrived home dog tired and filthy at the end of my first day of work, I ran up to my mom, gave her a big hug, and exclaimed, “I earned almost two dollars!”
This all took place in June of 1958 when I was twelve years old.
I had just graduated from elementary school and during that summer before entering junior high school, I took a job picking strawberries (later in the season, I picked beans and raspberries). The commuter vehicle that picked me up was a berry bus and my coworkers were other kids who gladly signed on to pick berries—fifty cents for a flat of twelve boxes. The boxes were large. The berries were small.
Of course, today kids don’t perform these jobs. If you sent one of your own children out into the dark morning to wait all by him- or herself for the bus, your neighbors would probably report you to the authorities—and rightly so. Having young kids hunch over a row of strawberries all day long, sliding their flat through the dirt, picking through the slimy muck in the mornings, and suffering the heat in the afternoon would also be frowned upon.
Don’t get me wrong; even in 1958 not everyone made it to the end of the berry season. After the first day about a third of the kids never again stood out on the curb. Several didn’t return to the fields after lunch the first day. They lay in the shade, ate strawberries, and giggled while the rest of us slaved away. All of those who didn’t last very long shared one characteristic in common: They didn’t need the money. They had taken the job on a lark and when it turned out to be dreadfully difficult, they quit. The rest of us stuck with the job because we’d be using the money to buy our school clothes. I’d be using it to buy clothes and to fund my daily school lunches.
I suppose a lot of those kids as they grew into adults swore that they would never force their own children to take a similar job. Several friends who picked berries with me have even gone so far as to suggest that they are the person they are today in spite of their years of tortured labor in the berry fields. I’m of the opposite belief. I think they are who they are at least partially because of those unending hours where they continually forced themselves to the limit.
I realize that the job was a bit too much for a twelve-year-old to perform—even in the fifties. But I do know I learned dozens of lessons as I worked those fields for the next six years.
For example, I’ll never forget the day I was hurrying along a row on the way to take a bathroom break, and I came across a full tube of Sea-and-Ski suntan lotion. I could see the tube lying ahead of me in the furrow with its cap off and facing away from me. At the same moment I spotted Jimmy, a fellow teenage berry picker I hardly knew, coming my way. He didn’t talk much, and when he did speak he sounded rather childlike. I don’t think he picked more than a few boxes of berries all day.
When I spotted Jimmy coming toward me and the lidless tube of lotion lying half-way between us, I had a vision. I could see myself leaping through the air and coming down with my full weight on the tube of lotion. The tube would then shoot a mighty stream of slimy grease at Jimmy. It would be funny.
This thought entered and exited my brain in an instant. And since I was around thirteen years old at the time, I didn’t pause to contemplate the moral consequences of bullying a person who was probably handicapped. I could clearly imagine the stream of lotion shooting at Jimmy, it seemed like a cool idea, and that’s all I needed to move me to action.
A split second later I sprang like a ninja, flew through the air, and came down on that tube with every ounce of my weight—just as I had envisioned. Only the tube didn’t spew a stream of lotion at Jimmy. It was more like an explosion. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny globs of white grease hit Jimmy from the crown of his head to the tip of his toes. There wasn’t a two inch square space on his body that didn’t have a daub of lotion on it.
Both of us were shocked speechless by the result. I hadn’t intended to paint Jimmy’s body with slimy chemicals. Nevertheless, I’m ashamed to admit that I felt a bit exhilarated. Jimmy responded differently. I don’t think he had the capacity to impute evil intent to what I had just done to him. I flew through the air, he was now covered in lotion, he didn’t know what to make of it, and so he looked to me to see how he should react.
I hadn’t intended anything evil, and noting that Jimmy wasn’t offended or angry, the sight of him completely covered in lotion struck my funny bone and I began to laugh. Jimmy laughed back. Then I guffawed. Jimmy even more so. Soon we were howling as tears rolled down our cheeks. Eventually we fell to the ground and laughed the laugh of the totally insane, pounding our thighs with our hands and pumping our legs as if we’d fallen off a bike but had continued peddling anyway. I’m pretty sure I’ve never laughed that hard since.
Once we regained control of our faculties, I helped Jimmy remove the lotion from his clothes and spread it on his and my exposed stretches of skin. As we completed the cleaning job, not once did Jimmy chide me or act offended. I hadn’t intended to harm him. I really hadn’t thought about what the stream of lotion might do to him, and I realized that Jimmy’s pleasant reaction was what made the situation delightful instead of one I would surely have regretted.
For the rest of that berry season, whenever Jimmy and I saw each other we’d chuckle a little and then continue along as we hustled our flats full of berries to be stacked and counted—two friends remembering a humorous moment that we had shared. And every time I saw Jimmy I mused over the fact that he hadn’t become the least bit angry at me because he hadn’t miscalculated my intent. He wasn’t easily offended. He didn’t carry a grudge, and he took his cue from my laughter. Instead of getting angry over something that had already happened and had been sort of by accident, he gave me the benefit of the doubt—he took the squirting like a true sport and enjoyed a good laugh.
That day, through the innocent eyes of my new friend Jimmy, I gathered more knowledge about human beings than you’d ever expect to find between the rows of a strawberry field.