The Workforce Invisible

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Like everyone else coming into the world, I was born with a baby face. My misfortune was to keep mine longer than most, and through my twenties my face sometimes caused me problems. I finished graduate school in January and immediately began teaching part time at a community college. The job ended in June, leaving me three months without work until I started my full-time job as an instructor at a small liberal arts college. Needing money, I did what I had done throughout college: I took a summer construction job. I agreed to take down the old ceilings and remove a catwalk from the hallways of a suburban school. My help was a crew of high school boys.

The first morning of the job an observer could not have told me from my crew unless that observer looked at our feet: I wore work boots; the kids wore tennis shoes. They began with a certain enthusiasm, but the work was dirty. Whatever joy they felt in the first hour faded as the temperature rose and the years of grime accumulated on the ceiling tiles covered our arms, necks, and faces. The long oak planks of the catwalk were similarly dirty. They were also heavy, and the nails we had to remove before dropping the planks to the floor tended to bend in the tough, unyielding wood.

By mid-morning, the workers’ pace had slowed considerably, and I noticed that they were bending nails over instead of pulling them. I also noticed the superintendent of schools regularly sticking his face out of his office, staring down the hall, shaking his head, and retreating. The few times he actually emerged, he minced by us without speaking. As he passed, I had the distinct impression that he would have liked us to be as invisible as servants in a fine house.

At lunchtime, I stepped from the scaffold onto a spike that one of my crew hadn't bothered to bend over. When I returned from the hospital and a fresh tetanus shot, an observer could easily tell me from my crew: I was the one who limped. Two days later, the high school boys were fired, and I worked in the hallways alone. As I neared the end of the job, I noticed the superintendent watching me, as if he were trying to make up his mind about something. Finally, on my last afternoon, he approached and looked up to where I stood on the scaffold.

"I was talking to your boss," he said. "Is it true you have a graduate degree?"

"Yes," I answered.

"You look so young. Do you really have a college job in the fall?"

Again I answered, "Yes."

"I thought you were one of those kids," he said and turned to go. Then he looked back. "Good luck in the fall," he said. It was as if he saw me for the first time.

I'd said only two words, but the conversation was a revelation. Every abstraction I'd ever heard about work and status spun around me. The great ones do not do dirty work; they hire menials—those people the Gospels call slaves and servants—and lord it over them. Jesus, however, came to serve, and he was thanked with the cross. On my scaffold I felt blessed. I had a life ahead of me and a desire to be a disciple. For the price of a few days of invisibility, I had learned the terms of my service.

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