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Life-long lessons from my dad’s ‘Summer School’

I loved working with my dad, but I hated a summer job he gave me.

He owned a small butcher shop. At his store the last person hired— “the new guy”— got the worst jobs and the boss’s son was not exempt.

The operation had changed from when he first started. Refrigeration and stainless steel had replaced ice blocks and sawdust. There remained, however, no shortage of detestable jobs.

I never looked forward to reaching into the cold corned beef brine in the early morning or spending hours scraping the frost from the ceiling of the walk-in freezer. But, it was Saturday afternoon’s job I hated most.
We received fresh chickens everyday. They sat in wooden crates surrounded by crushed ice. During the week, drop by drop, the ice and chicken blood slowly leaked into the drain pan below, creating its weeklong, foul smelling, witches brew. 

There was only one method to dispose of the blood and wash the pan. Hold my breath and carefully slide the pan from under the chickens, as I tried not to slosh the contents over my sneakers. Gag. Walk away. Find fresh air. Hold my breath again and open the rear door of the cooler, exposing the pan to the summer’s heat. Gag and gag again. Empty the contents into a receptacle. Gag and scrub the pan with bleach.

 Soon students who’ve cut lawns, painted houses, worked in offices, bussed tables or maybe even worked in a butcher shop will return to school. Some will have great memories and a few extra bucks for books, while others will return dissatisfied.

 Looking back I think about how my father could have spared me from my weekly hell. But my dad, who’d dropped out of school at 15 to help support his family after his father died, was a teacher at heart.
 He knew life’s obstacles should not be avoided by privilege. He knew, too, that treating me differently than his other employees would devalue both them and me. Most importantly he taught me to appreciate those who do the dirty, difficult and thankless tasks in life.

 For the next six summers, I returned to his butcher shop not as the boss’s son, but as one of the guys, and every Saturday afternoon I cleaned that damn chicken pan.  

David W. Manzo is president of Cotting School in Lexington, MA and an adjunct member of the faculty at Boston College.