Recently, I found myself waiting in a long line at a toy store. As I inched forward, I noticed there was only one register open, with a lone, harried-looking, man behind it.
“Where’s your help?” I asked when I finally reached the check out. “Help?” he said. “I’ve been trying to hire help for years here, especially students from the high school across the street. But these days, they want to dictate their work schedule to me. No Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings—the very times I need help. And then I get calls right before the shift starts. ‘Something came up.’ Or they just don’t bother to show up. These kids have no work ethic.”
As a teacher, I can assure you that schools are a big part of the problem. High school graduates are utterly unprepared for work. School gives them the idea that employers should accept them for “who they are,” let them dress as they please, let them choose their hours, and pay well over minimum wage. Students think employers are there to satisfy employees.
“I’m quitting my job,” a student recently told me. I remembered how happy and proud she was to land a job at a McDonald’s after a long search. She had two children by age 17 and complained bitterly that “welfare doesn’t pay enough to support me and my children.” The father had been deported to Mexico long ago.
I wanted to know why she was quitting after just two weeks.
“It’s horrible there,” she said. “They expect me to show up on time even though I have two kids. I get yelled at for not working fast enough or keeping my area clean. The customers are rude but I’m expected to be nice to them. I can take a break only when they tell me, and only for 15 minutes. I’m exhausted by the end of my shift. It’s not worth it.”
This is typical. When I explain to my students what the workplace is like, they refuse to believe they should remove multiple piercings, cover up tattoos, avoid black lipstick or eyeliner (this goes for boys, too), dress normally, take the neon streaks out of their hair, put away cell phones and iPods, and be polite.
I blame the schools and their mandatory self-esteem curriculum, which instills an ego-inflated, me-first attitude. Students learn that rules and standards are irrelevant, dress codes are to be broken, arriving late is normal, it’s OK to be insolent to adults, and that respect is a “right” that need not be earned. As the parole officer stationed at our school two days a week explains, “They expect $15.00-an-hour jobs for $1.98 skills.”
Every year, a day or two into the fall semester, students are herded by grade into the multi-purpose room to hear the school administrators’ annual “expectation of student conduct and dress code” lecture. On stage is an old clothes rack from the defunct home economics department with a display of baggy pants with 40-inch waists to use as examples of what must not be worn to school. Other forbidden clothes are hats and T-shirts that promote drugs or alcohol, flip-flops, bedroom slippers, shower shoes, wife-beater T-shirts, and, for girls, pajama bottoms and low-cut and see-thru blouses.
“If we catch any of you wearing any of these things, we will call your home immediately and make you change,” says the administrator.
He adds repeatedly that students must show up on time, prepared and ready to learn. Too many violations of the tardy policy will result in after-school detention and calls home.
The students listen in bored amusement or stare down at their phones, texting their friends; anyone beyond 9th grade knows that the threats are empty. So many students arrive late to school that there is not much the administrators can do about it, and the students know it. There are so many dress-code violations that only the most spectacular violations get any attention.
And the threat of a call home? The worst students don’t care what their parents think.
“The effects of the ‘talk’ last a day or two, maybe,” says an administrator. “By Thursday, the shower shoes are back, and students show up an hour or two late carrying bags of fast food. Girls go for the sexy-vixen school look—short shorts and skimpy, midriff-baring tank tops, heavy make-up, multiple piercings in the nose, lips and eyebrows and, lately, neon hair colors sprayed on in streaks. The local prostitutes could take lessons from some of these girls.
“Boys shuffle in wearing bedroom slippers, pants sagging down their thighs, and hats with pictures of marijuana leaves or bottles of Corona Beer. We confiscate the hats and ignore the rest.”
The administrator explains to me that he was on supervision during final period and saw a student wearing a T-shirt with a large picture of marijuana leaves and the message: “Hanging with my Buds.” This was late in the day, and no one had done anything. This should have been turned inside out or replaced with one of the shirts the school keeps in the office for this purpose. The administrator said that when he calls parents to complain, at least one third of the phone numbers don’t work or are disconnected. When he does manage to get through, parents defend their children’s “choice in clothing.”
Some of the girls come to school dressed normally but run into the bathroom to change into their little-whore outfits. Presumably, some of them don’t want their parents to know how they dress, but you never know. The administrator told me that one of his students was wearing a shirt with a bunch of cats on it, with the message “Come and Pet My Pussy.” When he finally reached her mother on the phone, she said, “Yeah, isn’t it great? I bought it for her.”
Many parents know that all they have to do is call the district office to complain about a dress code or any other restrictive policy. This may be hard to believe, but the district office often sides against school administrators in cases like this. The district is always being sued by lefty organizations such as the ACLU, and is terrified of enforcing any standards that could be seen as an “infringement” of rights. It’s not the people in the downtown office who have to deal with students dressed like bums and hookers.
My informant adds that parents and children can’t seem to figure out that students may get away with sleeping late and dressing badly, but that this is not acceptable if they ever get a job. He says that if he asks parents if they could show up for work dressed the way their children do, they always answer “of course not”—if they even have jobs—but they don’t see the connection.
Part of the problem is that some of the teachers dress like bums. Even parents have complained about this, but teachers point out that there is no dress code in their contract. If someone has a complaint, they say, talk to the union.
A colleague at another school told me a story about a parent-volunteer who was on campus supervision during class time. There can be rough students who are just back from juvenile hall or jail, so she had a district-provided walkie-talkie in case of trouble. She spotted a homeless person wandering around “aimlessly,” she said, and immediately called the city police and the main office. Everyone came running, because of the high alert after Sandy Hook. The principal and vice-principal recognized that the “homeless person wandering aimlessly” was the art teacher!
I asked if the parent was justified in thinking the art teacher was a bum. “Yes,” she said. “Her clothing looked like it came from a dumpster.”
I was in my school’s main office not too long ago when the phone rang. The principal took the call, chatted for a bit and then hung up. “That was the owner of the Subway across the street,” she said. “He has applications from two of our students and was calling to find out what was on their last report cards, specifically how many times they’d come to school late and if they had unsatisfactories in citizenship from any of their teachers.”
The Subway owner told the principal: “Students who come late to school come late to work, and students who cause problems for teachers, cause problems for me and my customers. I don’t need that.”
Giving out this information is not considered an invasion of privacy. Among blacks and Hispanics it is considered helping out someone of their same group. If they can help a fellow black or Hispanic make a good hiring choice, so much the better.
Some students tell me employers ask them to bring a copy of their latest report card with them when they come for an interview, because grades are an indicator of reliability.
For the most part, though, young “workers” behave on the job just as they behave at school. Talk back to the boss? Dress badly? Act rudely? That’s what they’ve learned in school.