By NICK CHILES
Last week my son got laid off. His supervisor at the pool where he has been a lifeguard for the last year-and-a-half informed him that after Labor Day, his services will no longer be needed. Up to this point, the disaster that is our economy has lingered in the air of our household more as an abstract, media-generated fear than a checking account reality. Sure, we have been acutely aware of hardship around us—as writers, we know that book deals are harder to come by; as a magazine editor, I know that the ad sales team has to scramble with much more desperation to get businesses to buy advertising pages. The papers and television reports are filled with stories of regular folks sinking into the deep waters of despair and agony, good people losing grasp of tenuous holds on subsistence, survival.
But it all got more real when I saw the depression written all over his face, saw the disappointment registered in the slouch of his shoulders. Achingly real. Cause I know what’s going to happen now. As his check account withers into nothingess, we return to life as it used to be: ATM Dad. I know that when your teenage boy loses his job, your wallet instantly gets lighter, almost as if your bank has called you out of the blue and told you that your mortgage payment just went up $200 a month. Or your local gas station immediately doubled the price per gallon of unleaded. This impending unemployment is especially painful because the boy is four days from the start of his senior year of high school. If memory serves me correctly, high school seniors are a veritable cash abyss, a black hole that sucks up every dollar bill in sight. He will have senior class dues, senior parties, senior this, senior that—and every day, every week, he will have a gas tank always in need of more petrol. More dollar bills. More withdrawals from ATM Dad.
But aside from all the personal, selfish consequences of his job loss, there is the practical matter of what else the household will be losing. A teenager with a job is a kid who has enrolled in a daily course that might be called Life Lessons. In his job as a lifeguard, he is given a great deal of responsibility, imbued with the trust of legions of parents and children. That stuff eventually becomes internalized. While he still has his knucklehead moments, my boy made impressive leaps in his maturity and sense of responsibility in the past year. I could see it happening right before my eyes, days when he had to do his own problem-solving, figuring out his schedule at the pool, how many hours of work he could get in per week without compromising his play on the football field, how much money he could spend and still have something in his checking account and gas in his tank. It was all good stuff, lessons that it would take a parent much more time and anguish to get across to a teenage boy.
When I read the numbing statistics about the teenage unemployment rate, particularly among African-American teens, I am saddened to realize that too many of my son’s generation won’t get these lessons until perhaps it’s too late. A report on FORBES.COM last month said the unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was the worst that it’s been since 1965. For African-American teens, the number is even scarier: 38 percent. So that means this past summer, a time when a healthy teenager is supposed to be out collecting amusing tales about flipping burgers or scooping ice cream on the boardwalk, more than one out of every three black teens is sitting in front of the television inhaling his little sister’s favorite cookies and sucking down jugs of Mom’s favorite juice—or, even worse, he is out somewhere discovering the truth in that old adage about an idle mind being the devil’s playground. For too many of this generation, important lessons about the workplace won’t be learned until after college—if at all. That’s a scary, sobering thought.
My son’s last day is sometime around Labor Day. After that, the checks will quickly dry up and I will once again hear that ominous knock on the bedroom door, the knock that somehow seems to carry its own language, like drumbeats in the village. Let’s see—that one was two quick knocks, followed by a longer, louder one. Translation: “Uh, Dad? I need…”
About Our MBB Contributor:
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of six books, and the editor-in-chief of the travel magazine, Odyssey Couleur.