In September of 1951, when I headed to grade school for the very first time, my mother made an important decision. Since I was now old enough to travel the bogs, trails, and back alleys of Bellingham, Washington (all in an effort to learn the three Rs of elementary school), I was certainly old enough to learn what my mother called “The three Ws of 25th Street.” Which happened to be: work, work, and work.
My mom was a big believer in teaching her boys how to sing for their supper. Unlike many parents who were satisfied once they had taught their kids how to make their beds, my mother wanted me to master a more arduous, less prissy task. In her view, it was high time I learned how to clean the toilet.
Transforming our toilet from a repugnant bathroom fixture into a shining porcelain trophy, wasn’t going to be easy. Not if it was done properly. And you can bet your can of Bon Ami that Mom was going to have it done properly. After all, our toilet was the one household accessary that separated our family from a hillbilly life. We may have lived in a tiny house perched on the edge of a swamp, but by golly when nature called, we would sit on a throne fit for royalty—that is, if I learned how to clean it properly.
My journey into the world of the custodial arts began with a lesson on germ theory, complete with hand-drawn pictures of bacteria and the role they play in causing pandemics. After delivering the microbiology lecture, Mother (always ahead of her time) implemented what social scientists now refer to as “deliberate practice.” She divided the toilet-cleaning job into separate tasks, set clear standards for each one, demonstrated the first task, and then had me copy her movements. After I attempted each component, Mom eyeballed my work from several angles until she found something wrong, at which point she showed me the proper remediation technique and had me replicate what she had just done.
It took me a long time to clean our toilet that day. At first, I thought Mom was unreasonably picky, but I soon learned that there was more to the story—much more. Later that Saturday morning, when three of Mom’s colleagues from work showed up with a deck of cards in hand, Mom immediately ushered them to the bathroom and told them to take a close look at the toilet I had just cleaned—which I might point out was now shining gloriously. You didn’t HAVE to wear sun glasses to stare directly at my sparkling masterpiece, but it helped.
Learning that a mere kindergartener had produced the lustrous toilet now on display in the Patterson’s bathroom jolted Mom’s friends into some sort of genetically triggered admiration response. They couldn’t say enough good about me and my work. The praise that they gushed was the kind that is normally reserved for cakes adorned with fondant kittens chasing pastel butterflies. It certainly wasn’t the reaction you’d expect from three ladies peering into a toilet. But peer they did. Then came a long chorus of oohs and aahs.
This was the reaction my mother was seeking. Lydia had a son who was sure to be a rocket scientist, Elenore was raising a surgeon, Marge’s daughter was a shoo-in at the Seattle Symphony, and Mom—not to be outdone—had a son who . . . well, she wasn’t sure what I would achieve; nevertheless, the glow radiating from our bathroom suggested that I was headed for some sort of acclaim. And now her friends knew it as well.
Finally, as the foursome settled into their card game, Lydia offered the ultimate accolade: “Did any of you get a glimpse of the toilet’s chrome-plated handle?” she asked. “You can see your reflection in the chrome-plated handle!”
Why someone wanted to look at a toilet and see her own reflection staring back at her was beyond me, but even my five-your-old brain understood that doing a repugnant job, and doing it well, garnered a great deal of admiration from the 25th Street crowd.
I was reminded of this incident last week when I met with a group of sixteen-year-old Sunday school students to share tips for succeeding in their summer jobs. At least, that’s the topic our Sunday school president had assigned me to cover, but none of the youth actually had a summer job. They were taking summer lessons—a lot of sports and music lessons. Plus, they would be enjoying extended family vacations. Some were going to Europe.
Granted, participating in these particular summer activities would certainly be beneficial, but they left no time for tasks such as flipping burgers, tending toddlers, or mowing lawns. And unlike my friends and I at the age of sixteen, none of the kids would be picking strawberries, raspberries, and beans—in the blazing sun—and getting paid by the pound.
This is not to suggest that you can’t develop respectable work habits without doing filthy, painful, and strenuous jobs. Surely, practicing the violin for hours every day teaches how short-term sacrifice can lead to long-term gains. Lifting weights while being spurred on by a personal trainer teaches what it feels like to work until it hurts. Receiving detailed instruction from a piano teacher reveals the importance of meticulously practicing techniques. Putting in long hours, pushing yourself, staying focused, mastering methods—all help create a strong work ethic. Right? Then again, I can’t help but think that when it comes to developing healthy work habits—dirt should be involved in some way. I just can’t shake the idea.
In truth, I actually don’t know what to think. It’s not as if we want our progeny to end up in a career that requires a lifetime of back-breaking, filthy work. We encourage the next generation to study hard so that one day they’ll be able to wear cashmere sweaters to “the office” where they’ll sit in sumptuous leather chairs and make important decisions. Nevertheless, I still see the value of teenagers performing jobs that involve muck, sweat, and at least a few disgusting components—executed at a rate that demands an all-out-effort.
At this point you might argue that I’m just an old codger clinging to old ways. Could be. But then I’m reminded of my daughter Rebecca who, at a very young age, learned (from me) the same toilet-cleaning techniques I had learned from my mother. Only in Rebecca’s case, as she practiced scrubbing and polishing, I explained that I wasn’t paying her a cent for the job. Instead, I was giving her the best reward possible: I was imbuing her with an unflagging commitment to working hard. There’s no inheritance greater than that. Nothing you can bequeath your children can serve them better than the willingness and ability to tackle tough jobs. How you go about passing on such a work ethic doesn’t really matter. It just matters that you do.
I fear that all this hard-labor talk sounds suspiciously old-fashioned, but it seems to have served my children well. For example, the other day as our family cleaned a friend’s cabin we had borrowed for a three-day weekend, I caught a glimpse of Rebecca as she feverishly and meticulously cleaned a toilet. It brought a smile to my face. I know it brought a smile because I could see my reflection in the chrome-plated handle.
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