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Summer job provides whole new perspective

I arrived home from France on May 31. Invigorated by nine months as a foreign exchange student, changed by the struggles of adapting to a new culture and learning French, I set out to find a summer job and reintegrate into American life.

To my dismay, the local grocery stores, coffee shops and pizza parlors had no use for me. Finally, I went to a temporary agency, convinced that no one wanted a bilingual high school graduate planning to leave town for college in mid-August. The agency found me a position packing products on an assembly line at a chemical plant.

At 7:30 a.m. on my first day, my co-workers and I were greeted by a man eager to flex his authoritative muscles. "Stand next to Kate and put one bottle in each box." No job in the entire place requires more than a one-sentence explanation. And therein lies the challenge.

Tedium set in within minutes. After half an hour, my stomach was churning from staring at the moving belt in front of me. After an hour, my mind was numb, and after two hours, my feet started to ache. A bell sounded at 10 and everyone dropped what he or she was doing and rushed toward the door for a 15-minute break.

Gathered around a picnic table next to the parking lot, my co-workers chatted and smoked. They were a diverse group, ranging in age from 16 to 75. Men and women, Hispanics, Caucasians and African-Americans, college students and grandmothers, we worked side by side. In spite of their tiresome jobs and long work days -- for many this was just one of two or three jobs -- they managed to laugh and carry on upbeat conversations. I felt like a zombie after three hours of work.

Too soon it was time to return to my post and the endless bottles of grease cleaner. Grip, set down. Grip, set down. I was sure I'd have carpal tunnel syndrome by lunchtime and varicose veins by the end of the day. Ninety-nine bottles in each layer, I calculated. Four layers per box, and four boxes per pallet. The pallets never stopped coming. By 11 a.m. I had seen more grease cleaner than most people see in a lifetime.

I was jolted out of my trance when boxes started piling up in front of Kate. She couldn't shove the instruction booklets in fast enough, and hastened to pull the boxes off the moving belt, hugging them close to her, trying to break their fall to the floor.

I grabbed a few of the boxes, wishing they were the chocolates Lucille Ball and Ethel Mertz had had the good fortune of dealing with during their stint on an assembly line.

As the clock crawled toward 4 and my misery increased, I wanted to drive by the grave of Henry Ford, the creator of the assembly line, dig up his bones and use them to hurt the people responsible for this dreadful job.

As the days slowly rolled by, I contemplated the purpose of my work. I contemplated my job in relationship to the functioning of my wealthy and powerful country. I contemplated the pasts and futures of my co-workers. Our seemingly trivial work placed us at the bottom of our country's social and economic ladders.

It wasn't until after I had left the chemical plant and gone to college that my disgust with what I had seen as a pointless assembly line job grew into appreciation for the millions of Americans who grit their teeth every day and do those undesirable jobs to make their lives work and keep the U.S. economy's wheels turning.

I have returned to the job this summer.

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