I Want to be a Lion Tamer

By: Mary Forde

During this time of pandemic, the word “hero” seems to be used more than ever. And it had me thinking about what are the qualifications to be a hero. There was an interview with one of the flight attendants from the plane that went into the Hudson River years ago and the interviewer asked the woman something like, “What does it feel like to be a hero?” and she answered something like, “While I appreciate the recognition, I was doing my job. I’m really not on the plane to serve your weak coffee and stale nuts (that was an embellishment from me), I am on the plane to keep you safe, the pillows and refreshment gig is what I do to pass the time. My real job on the plane is to do what I just did – save lives in a crisis, and that is what I did.”

That interview got me thinking that so many of us, particularly our students/children, don’t know what people do as work/jobs, what are the responsibilities for those jobs and what it looks like when someone is doing that job really well. Related to that, we really don’t know and appreciate how dependent we are on people who do jobs we don’t see. So much of children’s perceptions of work these days seems to be derived from television shows and movies and involves capes, fast cars or glitzy technology.

Back in the day when we used to go on field trips, I had one teacher who specialized in more nontraditional locations. While every other class on Long Island went to the Museum of Natural History and the United Nations, we went to the Fish Hatchery and the Industrial Home for the Blind. And while other third graders stood under the big whale, we were talking about all the people who were working at the Fish Hatchery and what they had to do as part of their job. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time (and bitterly resented not being able to get a pretzel from a street vender in the city) this was Miss Schneider’s version of career education. I don’t know that anyone from my class became a marine biologist but at least we were aware of possibilities beyond the jobs our fathers and mothers did. Speaking of which, for most of my childhood I had no idea what my father actually did. I know he put on a suit and tie and took the train into the “city.” On Christmas we would all get dressed up and he would take us to his office in lower Manhattan to show off his six offspring. We sat at the desk and stapled papers together, knocked over the ashtray (think Madmen without the glamour) and made long strips of paper tape come out of the adding machine. But we never really asked nor did he volunteer what he actually did as part of his job.

I think we do a disservice to our future workers (somebody needs to be paying for my Social Security!) if we don’t let them know the infinite number of possibilities that can be pursued as careers. Equally important, is that they understand the necessity and value of all the different jobs that make it possible for us to live our lives as comfortably as we do here in Greenwich. While in the car or waiting on line, look around and pick out one object you see. Then try to create a chain of all the people who needed to work to get that object to you. For example, start with a box of cereal – somebody had to put the box on the shelf – who did that? Is that their whole job or just part of it? What skills do you need to do that? How did the cereal get to the store? If it came in a big cardboard box, where did that box come from? Who made the box? Who designed the factory where the box was made? Who built the factory? And on, and on, and on. It is something of a rabbit hole but you can go on for at least a week just on the cereal box. Truck drivers, clothing manufacturers, insurance companies. The important lessons are the infinite possibilities for careers/jobs and the interdependence of all of the workers. If one person doesn’t show up or do their job well, the whole system could come crashing down and there would be no Fruity Pebbles for breakfast.

For those of you Monty Python fans, there is a skit about an accountant who goes into an employment office and says “I want to be a lion tamer.” Then the interviewer asks, ‘what qualifications do you have and the accountant replies, “I have a hat that says lion tamer.” The interviewer then shows him a clip of a roaring lion with fangs bared and the man asked, “What is that?” and the interviewer replies “that is a lion.” The man looks horrified and says, “I want to be a banker.” How many people spend a lot of time and money preparing for a career/job without really knowing what it involves and whether or not it is something they really want to do? While career-identifying hats may have some place in job selection, a broad understanding of the ‘in’s and out’s’ of jobs should prove to be more helpful.

As we go into the future, most of our children will most likely have more than one job and more than one career, but with a little education and experience maybe they can make better, more informed choices and receive a measure of satisfaction with what they do. They may or may not be heroes but even better, they may go out to work feeling that they are making a contribution and getting satisfaction in the bargain.

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