The Work You Do, the Person You Are–Self Esteem

October 30, 2017

The Work You Do, the Person You Are

The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed.

By Toni Morrison

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

All I had to do for the two dollars was clean her house for a few hours after school. It was a beautiful house, too, with a plastic-covered sofa and chairs, wall-to-wall blue-and-white carpeting, a white enamel stove, a washing machine and a dryer—things that were common in Her neighborhood, absent in mine. In the middle of the war, She had butter, sugar, steaks, and seam-up-the-back stockings.

I knew how to scrub floors on my knees and how to wash clothes in our zinc tub, but I had never seen a Hoover vacuum cleaner or an iron that wasn’t heated by fire.

Part of my pride in working for jer was earning money I could squander: on movies, candy, paddleballs, jacks, ice-cream cones. But a larger part of my pride was based on the fact that I gave half my wages to my mother, which meant that some of my earnings were used for real things—an insurance-policy payment or what was owed to the milkman or the iceman. The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide—and it earned me a slow smile, an approving nod from an adult. Confirmations that I was adultlike, not childlike.

In those days, the forties, children were not just loved or liked; they were needed. They could earn money; they could care for children younger than themselves; they could work the farm, take care of the herd, run errands, and much more. I suspect that children aren’t needed in that way now. They are loved, doted on, protected, and helped. Fine, and yet . . .

Image result for Toni Morrison Toni Morrison receives Presidential Medal of Freedom. Toni Morrison, the renowned author and the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Princeton University, was named by President Barack Obama a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Little by little, I got better at cleaning her house—good enough to be given more to do, much more. I was ordered to carry bookcases upstairs and, once, to move a piano from one side of a room to the other. I fell carrying the bookcases. And after pushing the piano my arms and legs hurt so badly. I wanted to refuse, or at least to complain, but I was afraid she would fire me, and I would lose the freedom the dollar gave me, as well as the standing I had at home—although both were slowly being eroded. She began to offer me her clothes, for a price. Impressed by these worn things, which looked simply gorgeous to a little girl who had only two dresses to wear to school, I bought a few. Until my mother asked me if I really wanted to work for castoffs. So I learned to say “No, thank you” to a faded sweater offered for a quarter of a week’s pay.

Image result for toni morrison quotes on life
“Make a difference about something other than yourselves.”– Toni Morrison–

Still, I had trouble summoning the courage to discuss or object to the increasing demands she made. And I knew that if I told my mother how unhappy I was she would tell me to quit. Then one day, alone in the kitchen with my father, I let drop a few whines about the job. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. No “Oh, you poor little thing.” Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”

That was what he said. This was what I heard:

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

  3. Your real life is with us, your family.

  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home. ♦

11 thoughts on “The Work You Do, the Person You Are–Self Esteem

  1. There’s one nursery rhymes my parents taught me and all my brothers and sisters, till this day we never forgot: “If a task has once begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” I taught this to my children, and now they are teaching theirs.

    When I left Malaysia to come back to the States for college, in his very first letter to me my father advised: “…Be strong enough to stand alone, smart enough to know when you need help, and brave enough to ask for it….” I got scholarships to cover most of the expenses for my master and doctorate programs, but I really had to struggle to put myself through my undergraduate program. I remember one semester I was so broke that I didn’t have the money to buy textbooks. (Till these days I don’t understand why science textbooks are more expensive than other disciplines.) There was an assignment about to due. I went to the library but found the book was checked out by someone. In desperation I went to see my professor and told him my sorry story. He gave me a copy of the textbook, and helped me to get free textbooks for my other classes. I never forgot his kindness. My success has a lot of kind and good people helping me along the way.

    I’d done all kinds of odd job to put myself through college. I’d worked as dishwasher, busboy and waiter at restaurants; I’d worked in McDonald and learned to make donuts in donuts shop; I’d picked table tomatoes under the scorching sun in a farm in Woodland, California; I’d worked as painter in housing projects (I only did the first coat painting and the second coat and touch up were done by experienced painters); I’d done landscape gardening; I’d worked as attendant in gas station; I’d worked as bag boy and cashier in supermarket … anywhere I could make a few bucks I would work.

    Actually my story is not uncommon in America. There were and are a lot of students like me. Kids growing up in America learning nothing is for free. You want something, you’ve to work for it.

    • Yup. Scholarship students like us really had to struggle in America. Working in the dish room, working in the library, working in Security …. My most interesting job as a Senior in college was the midnight shift from midnight to 7:30 am on Friday and Sat nights as a lab technician in the microbio labs of the U of Rochester med center. Had to stay awake the whole night. And sometimes could not sleep at all when I got back home on Sat and Sun morning !

      As a foreign student, was amazed at the wastage on campus e.g. entire trays of hot dogs thrown into the meat grinder at the end of the evening in the dining hall dish room.

    • ha ha LaMoy, ditto. I did the same thing. I delivered newspaper (Wall Street Journal) early AM, then off to college and worked in the computer lab in between classes and late at night did Inventory for Washington Inventory Services. Meantime on weekends pick up any odd job that were available as I had a wife and 2 kids to support while going to College. Yes most American kids work while in College even though some may have scholarships or grants.

    • Semper and Dr. Phua:

      Looking back, don’t you agree those were our happy days? Physically tired we might be, but we had something to look forward to. Don’t you agree those experiences had shaped us into men of stronger character and more independent?
      LaMoy, adversity toughened us. It is mind over body.–Din Merican

  2. Simple, yet profound message.
    Powerful though antiquated.
    Perfect recipe for happiness and self-esteem without the need to even apply modern technology.

    Coming and staying home took priority over jobs, and everything else

    But living and growing up in a country like Malaysia with religion and race, education and job opportunities taken priority over an esteemed, unity home, makes its children feel unwanted and humiliated, forcing millions, Dr Bakri and the likes, leaving and staying away from home.

    That is saddest part of the Malaysia story.

  3. This blog is getting darned depressing, my friend. This was a message of hope and freewill. So what happened to all the free spirited bull we used to have?
    Even inspirational messages become ‘intellectualized’ and despiriting. Such melancholy!

    Time to liven up things, without SSRI’s, magic mushrooms nor ketum leaves.
    Ahh.., my favorite dead Austronesian Polynesian with the satin voice, Iz:

  4. The Dato Seri that beat up 3 Rela members then through an emissary offered to pay RM 10k to each of the 3 Rela members should be charged with attempted corruption of a public official. if found guilty he should be fined and sent to jail and his Datukship withdrawn. Zero tolerance for corruption meh.

    Just like that lady (err lady?) that verbally assaulted the Parking Enforcement officer and disrespecting court decorum was sent to jail to cool off. Great job Magistrate.

  5. My worst holiday job was to gut and fillet fish in a cold shed in the back garden of a fish and chip shop.
    The best advice was from an older Malaysian student who made me promise to work hard so that future Malaysian students will get employment because of our good reputation for work.

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