It was the meeting all young couples both anticipate and dread: the first time you meet the parents. I was 21 years old, and bringing my then-boyfriend home from college to meet my parents for the first time. He’d recently experienced some academic struggles on campus, an issue my career-minded father was quick to zero in on:
Dad: I understand you failed a pair of classes last semester.
Boyfriend: Yes, sir.
Dad: That seems to suggest you don’t take your studies seriously.
Boyfriend: No, sir.
Dad: Well, if you expect to get serious with my daughter, you better buckle down and study, or you’d better start practicing saying, “Do you want fries with that?” (a reference to a McDonald’s ad campaign at the time)
That’s Just Wrong
I’d largely forgotten that conversation until a few weeks ago, when I heard an interview with Dikembe Mutombo, the former Georgetown basketball star recently elected to the hall of fame. He was recounting his experiences under Coach John Thompson Jr., whom Mutombo considers a father figure. He said that at one point, Thompson admonished him to work harder, lest he end up working at McDonald’s, rather than going on to an illustrious NBA career.
Upon hearing that interview, I thought back to my dad’s initial interaction with my then-boyfriend (now my husband). And, for the first time, I didn’t think it was funny; I didn’t think it was a good lesson, or a warning; I thought it was elitist and grossly unfair.
To tell someone that if they fail to work hard, they’ll end up working at McDonald’s – or any other place of employment – demeans the work of the individuals who actually do those jobs. It suggests that the guy taking your order at the local fast food drive-thru didn’t work hard; otherwise, he wouldn’t have to work where he does.
The fact is, there are plenty of hardworking people in every industry, just as every workplace also has its share of lazy, good-for-nothing employees. Some people weren’t afforded the opportunities to allow them to pursue certain career paths; largely, this is a failure of the system and society in which we live, rather than the individual himself. Other people did take advantage of opportunities for education, career advancement, etc, only to have live go awry; again, this is often a reflection of larger socio-economic forces.
Everyone who chooses to work – whether in a high-profile, glamorous job or a position you consider “beneath” you – deserves our respect. There is dignity in ALL work, regardless of what society sometimes leads us to believe. It’s a lesson I didn’t understand at the start of my 20s.
I do now.