Child Labor at Dan & Whit's
As it has hundreds of times before, the conversation starts with an employee near the office at Dan & Whit’s in downtown Norwich, Vermont asking a teenager, “Can I help you?”
As it has hundreds of times before, the teenager is uncertain, uncomfortable, unmistakable in his nervousness.
He replies, “I’m here to get a job.”
The boy exhales, his hardest work complete. It is a watershed moment in his life. He conquered all that is adolescence and delivered his line exactly on cue, as he had assuredly practiced ahead of time.
The employee, who assuredly has been part of this process for many moons, begins to explain the application to the young go-getter. There are age considerations: one must be 16 to run the cash register -- though kids can start a few months shy of their 16th birthday by stocking shelves or other sundry tasks -- and 18 to handle knives. Like a pastor or an all-season Santa Claus, the employee puts the boy at ease, asking him easy but essential questions (“Do you have transportation?” “I live a 20 minute walk from the store.” “Oh, that’s good.”) mixed in with some reassuring words (“You don’t need to fill in the social security number until or unless you are hired. For a lot of high school students, this is their first job.”) Finally, he explains one tripping-up point that can be hard for teenagers: you can’t be in two places at once. So for multi-sport athletes who play an instrument and volunteer at their church and serve on student council and do photography for the yearbook...well, it’s hard to find time to work at the store.
As always, deep community roots are present in this place that some describe as a community anchor. The employee explains that references could come from a teacher or a neighbor but “they are not critical.” A neutral observer cannot help but notice two things. First, a reference from a neighbor is the most community-oriented reference imaginable. Second, that the same reference is “not critical” means that the overall trust and belief in the young people of this very same community is limitless.
Think for a minute about what this potential job offers this boy and his fellow students. It is here that hundreds of boys and girls have learned about what it means to punch a clock. In a town that exudes tranquility, these young people learn how to handle the stress of a price check or a spilled tub of seafood salad or not enough coins in the till to make change in the middle of a 5pm rush. They learn how to deliver customer service in a way that would make their grandparents proud. In between shoppers, in a professional environment, they chat with fellow students who may not be part of their natural social circle, learning one of life’s most essential lessons: there is much more that unites us than drives us apart.
Odds are at some point their cheeks will burn with embarrassment when their mother or father or sibling or family friend or coach or dentist appears in their checkout line. They learn that attitude and personal opinions are wonderful aspects of existence, but not always appropriate in a place of work. Somehow, they manage to be cool, calm, and collected when someone is buying a pregnancy test, lice shampoo, or a plunger. In one memorable case, a teenage worker maintained his equilibrium when an armed robber demanded the contents of the cash register he was manning.
Their growing brains absorb all of this while simultaneously dealing with the distractions of extracurriculars, homework, and hormones.
Plus, they get a paycheck!
When asked recently about their favorite part of the job, one high school boy answered, “It’s a pretty good place to work. There are really nice people here.” Then, in a manner that only a 21st century teenager could muster, he added, “If you need a day off, they can always make it work.”
Did you ever stop to consider that the slogan “If We Don’t Have It, You Don’t Need It” includes building self-confidence for generations of young people? You won’t find it on the shelves, but it is always there, usually greeting you with a smile.
Note: This is the third in a series of stories about Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, VT. Previous stories can be found here.