Lessons learned under Golden Arches

Published 11:36 am Monday, August 27, 2012

I can still see my mother’s face as I handed her the job application.

“I’m going to work at McDonald’s,” I told her one evening, pushing the paperwork across the counter.

Cocking her head to the side, she raised an eyebrow and simply said, “Oh, really? You’ve never worked before …”

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For 15 minutes I used every resource available in my teenage playbook to convince her that I could – I should – go to work part-time. She just listened, never arguing, and waited until I was done.

“Well, grades come first. If they slip, you can’t work,” she said. “And remember, once you commit to this you have to follow-through.”

No problem, I thought, concentrating on the thrill of earning my own spending money and being able to make my own decisions about how to spend it. “This will be fun,” I said.

And it was. Until the Friday nights when I was scheduled to work and my friends were headed to the movies. Or the Sunday mornings when I was on the “breakfast shift” and had to drag my sleepy self to McDonald’s well before the crack of dawn. Or the times I had to mop the lobby and empty the trashcans. Ugh.

Sure, there were times I wanted to quit, but I didn’t dare admit that to my parents. I already knew what their answer would be: “You made a commitment. You have to follow-through.” Besides, I really liked getting that paycheck every week.

So I worked at that McDonald’s through the remainder of my high school years and even during the summer after my freshman year in college. I was blessed that I didn’t have to work to provide a roof over my head or earn an education, I know. We only earned a pittance – minimum wage was just over $2 – but I still valued the ability to earn my own way, if only enough to pay for dinner with friends or a tank of gas. Along the way, I learned that not every day was going to be sunshine and roses, but I knew the satisfaction that came from going to bed after a day of honest work. And I knew the importance of following through on my commitments.

To be fair, I was lucky. The owners of the McDonald’s franchise in my hometown were extraordinary people. They had exceptionally high standards (high school students had to bring in their grades each week; anything less than a B and you were off the schedule); they expected exceptional customer service (asking “would you like fries or a hot apple pie with that today, sir?” became second nature; they set the bar high and held us accountable (if anyone was late for a shift, they called home and roused your parents – even at 4:30 a.m.); and they never asked us to do anything they weren’t willing to do themselves (the owner taught me how to tie the corners of the bags filled with trash, a trick I still use at home today). They believed in instilling their work ethic into the employees in their restaurant, from part-time high school students to management trainees.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one learning life lessons in a McDonald’s restaurant. This week, GOP likely vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan talked about his experience as a 16-year-old burger-flipper at McDonald’s in a speech on the campaign trail. To paraphrase, he said the experience taught him the value of hard work and was a crucial part of the “American idea” of working to better yourself and your station in life. He flipped burgers, drove the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile and landscaped yards, all as “an American pursuing my version of the American dream.”

And as it turns out, that American experience found in McDonald’s played a role in more lives than you might imagine: Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon; actress Sharon Stone; comedian Jay Leno; singers Seal, Macy Gray and Pink; Olympic medalist Carl Lewis; even Andrew Card, the former Chief of Staff for George W. Bush all clocked time working in a McDonald’s restaurant during their youth.

Working at McDonald’s, or any other service-oriented job, isn’t a guarantee of a successful life. But it is an opportunity to begin to build a successful life. And I’m not sure our society always sees that. Head to a fast-food drive-through these days and you’re just as likely to be greeted with a curt “order when you’re ready” or a grunted “uh-huh” as opposed to the cheerful “how can I help you today?” Smiling faces are often replaced with bored stares or frustrated sighs. Instead of a sense of opportunity, folks seem filled with a sense of resentment. Is it at having to work or having to serve customers? I don’t really know.

I do know it’s harder to find that sense of optimism, that belief in the ability to change your stars that once led teenagers to don polyester uniforms and happily flip burgers under the Golden Arches.

Stacy G. Graning is publisher of The Messenger. Contact her at stacy.graning@troymessenger.com