Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chief Block Hauler and Mortar Mixer

On Friday night as I cleared the supper dishes from the table, Daddy said, “When you’re finished in the kitchen, I need to talk to you.” I wondered if I was in trouble. I stacked the last dish on the counter and followed him into the den. He faced me and said with a business-like tone of voice that he had a job to offer me. He wanted to hire me as his helper for a weekend project. He would pay me $25 at the end of the job if I did good work. Would I accept the position?

I was nine. And a girl.

My little nine-year-old girl heart swelled with importance. A job! My first job! TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! A fortune.

The weekend project was to build a concrete masonry block office inside a large metal building. I don’t know how Daddy learned to do this type of work. His regular job was electrical maintenance at a large chemical plant. But my dad can do anything.

Mama packed us a lunch early Saturday morning and we drove to the work site.

“What am I going to do, Daddy?” I asked eagerly.

“You’re going to be the Block Hauler and the Mortar Mixer,” he replied. “I’ll show you exactly what to do.” As we got out of his pick up truck, he handed me a new pair of gray leather gloves with blue and red striped canvas cuffs. “Here,” he said, “You’ll need these.” The adult sized gloves swallowed my little hands, but I put them on proudly.

“Look, Daddy,” I waved my hands at him and smiled. “I’m a real worker.” I hadn’t yet spied the stacks of 16” concrete blocks.

“Yes, you are!” He smiled back at me confidently. “And it’s time for us to get after it.”

“I’m going to start in this corner,” he said. “You bring the blocks to this spot, so when I need one, there will always be at least one block right behind me.”

Throughout the next two days, I lugged each twenty-pound block, one at a time, to a spot near him as he spread mortar and lay the blocks along a run to meet the leveling string. I watched the walls get higher and higher. About every two hours, Daddy poured another heavy bag of cement into a mixing trough while I hauled buckets of water to add to the dry concrete. He taught me to use a long garden hoe to mix it until it was “about like pudding.”

It was August in South Texas with no air conditioning. I was only a little girl. I could have been playing jacks with my next-door neighbor, Debbie. I wanted to tell my dad, “I can’t! It’s too hard!” Even my fingertips ached.

I wanted to quit.

A Culture of Quitters
At a young age we become experts at justifying our reasons for quitting. But we must be honest:  sometimes it’s just hard to keep going. Sometimes it’s not fun. There is a part of us that wants, all the time, ease and amusement.

In a recent Time Magazine essay, Andres Martinez lamented the pervasive lack of discipline in our nation. “Americans, in short, have forgotten how to do the hard stuff,” he said. (Volume 175, No. 11, March 2010, p. 42)

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, examines persistence as an indicator of success in reaching a goal, stating that we must persevere through about ten thousand hours of concentrated work in a field before we can master it. He referenced a study measuring cultural persistence in mathematics. He found that Japanese children continued working on solving math problems about 40 percent longer than American children. In our culture, quitting is an attractive and popular option.

Persistence Has a Reward
By Sunday evening the office was completed, and we drove home. Before I went to bed that night, Daddy gave me $30. “You did a very good job;  you earned it,” he said, as he placed the bills in my palm.

I had earned it. The demand of being Block Hauler and Mortar Mixer pushed me to my physical limit, but my dad's confidence and trust in my capability to stick with it made me keep going that weekend. Though a nine-year-old doesn’t have a highly developed consciousness of “defining moments,” I was hyper-aware that my father was proud of me for each block I carried, proud that I did not quit even when the work was very hard.

It was an experience that shaped my approach to work, problem solving, goal-reaching, and even endurance of pain.

Daddy remembers that weekend with feelings of guilt, he says, because he made me work so hard. But I don’t know. I’m wondering if he should resurrect the position and create a Concrete Block Boot Camp for Kids. 

Not only would we see some solid walls, but solid character, too.

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