I was a mess. The dust from the tar roof that we were ripping off naturally settled on whatever skin of mine that was exposed — mainly my arms and face —and when mixed with my sweat burned like I had put them in the middle of a raging bonfire.
The sun, with the temperature hitting the 95 degree mark, bore down on us without mercy. The high temperature and the lack of any substantial shade bothered me, but that wasn’t everything. My back ached from getting up-and-down so many times throughout the day. I had a bloody cut that ran up the side of my left leg, where my workpants got tangled with some sheet metal, and my whole body felt like I had run a marathon.
And it was just Tuesday. I had three more, twelve-hour plus days left in my work week.
In the summer before my sophomore year of college, I worked as a roofer for a contractor in my small hometown. We worked mainly on businesses, replacing flat tar roofs with sturdy rubberized ones. I worked a number of different jobs, but more than anything served as a glorified helper, doing whatever I was told and whatever needed done. The hours were long. We got started well before the sun came up and didn’t stop until the work was complete. And we’d get up and do it again the next day, and the next and the next.
I hated the work. It was tough and demanding. However, I loved the money. It was more money than I had ever earned in my life. On top of that, I got to work most of the summer on one of the traveling teams. We left early Monday morning, traveled to Harrisburg or Williamsport, worked all week on site and slept at a dingy, local hotel. The work was even tougher and more demanding on those jobs, but the money even better.
When I came home from one of those jobs late on a Friday, my local friends would always ask if I wanted to go out or do anything, possibly even get a bite to eat. The answer was always the same: I just wanted to sleep. My mother worried that I was ill. There was nothing wrong, I was just exhausted.
The job came at the right time. I loved everything about college, but I worried a lot about the loans I was taking out and how I would spend the rest of my life. I was a good student, but I cared too much about all the extracurricular activities — some good and some not so good — that were happening outside of the classroom. My focus on my school work wasn’t where it needed to be.
I started the summer thinking that I might give up on my dreams of becoming a writer and find a good, permanent job in my hometown. I ended the summer, knowing deep in my heart that going back to Penn State was the best choice for me. I came out of the summer with a better sense of who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. My summer experience taught me that I was better suited for a job that took advantage of my creativity and imagination, rather than my brawn, and, in turn, I needed to refocus my attention to what was most important, learning as much as I could and doing my best work.
Many colleges and universities have ended for the summer. I always wonder this time of year how many students will come home full of questions and doubts.
My hope for them is the same every year, that they are lucky enough to find a job just like the one I had that teaches them the value of hard work, pushes them physically and mentally to the brink, and challenges them to think about how they want to spend the rest of their life.
I can’t help but think that a few extra bucks in their pockets and a skinned knee or two are good things too.