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Art by Riley Kerns

How I learned to balance my first job with school

When I turned 16, I didn’t want to get a retail job. I didn’t really get that choice, however, because I needed a job fast. So, day in and day out, I ask the same question to every customer: “Paper or plastic?”

In addition to taking Advanced Placement and Honors classes, I work at the Hy-Vee on West Broadway as a “courtesy clerk,” which is a fancy term for bagger, about three nights every week. I needed a job and finally found one in the beige walls that build up the Hy-Vee brand. For this to happen, however, I had to acquire something important: a license.

Finally, on July 19 my world became one of freedom. In my fun-filled fantasy of cruising and attempting not to crash, my parents reminded me that gas costs money. So does your car. So does eating out every night. I realized it was time to enter the working world, and I was ecstatic.

I started my job at Hy-Vee Aug. 10. It was light and bright outside, and I was ready to begin the day. Bagging groceries for $9 an hour seemed like a pretty good trade-off for me to drive whenever and wherever I wanted. My world was a fantasy where I could leave my house without a parent driving me around or policing my every action from the passenger seat. I was an uncaged bird, and I didn’t want to land. My idea of complete freedom outside of work was nice for the first two or three shifts, but the reality of how school and work would fit together clipped my wings.

Looming shifts for work and beginning of the year assignments packed my calendar. Textbooks filled my backpack, and beginning to nod off behind the wheel became a routine. Then money to get gas for my car started to dissipate.

Adjusting to the tasks I took on, I became a part-time student to accommodate my homework, family and to pick up as many shifts as possible. I would get home at 2:45 p.m., do homework for half an hour, then rush to work. I gave countless rain checks for hanging out with my friends and was rarely with my family for longer than 10 minutes in the day.

Between working and doing homework, I was consistently exhausted. As soon as I would get home, my head would be against my pillow before I knew it. I started falling asleep in bathrooms. I drank too much coffee. I snapped at family when I would come home at 9 p.m., feet sore, arms heavy, trying to figure out which missing assignments I should tackle next. There were no warning signs at the time, but looking back the red flags of negative changes were clear.

I arrived home after work one night and proceeded to lash out at my parents, probably a little too harshly. In the span of five minutes I started an argument, got sent to my room and was called back out to talk with my dad outside our house. He confronted me with a question I was unprepared to answer:

“Where’s our Emily?”

The rage in me dissipated. I didn’t know. I’d misplaced myself beneath scheduling my day by the minute, beneath my attempts to keep up with my school assignments.

“My world was a fantasy where I could leave my house without a parent driving me around or policing my every action from the passenger seat. I was an uncaged bird, and I didn’t want to land. My idea of complete freedom outside of work was nice for the first two or three shifts, but the reality of how school and work would fit together clipped my wings.”

Emily Dearing

I was drowning under the frustration of explaining to my friends that my paycheck could not be anything less than $100 or I was a disappointment to my parents, since I wouldn’t have enough to pay for my insurance, and that the $150 I gave to my folks every month was the only way I could show them I could succeed as a student, worker and daughter. I had lost myself in this weird world I stumbled into during the summer.

I thought about how I had changed. I didn’t enjoy lashing out at my friends and family; I loved playing with my siblings and blaring music with my friends. I didn’t enjoy dreading homework; I loved taking notes for my classes. I didn’t enjoy being mad at myself; I missed valuing my diligence and knowing I am worth more than a dollar sign. I missed the old me.

It was time for a change of pace. Weekends for work? Sounds good. I could work late shifts and crash at friend’s houses. Communicating with teachers? They know what balancing school and work is like. They know what junior year does to kids, and they wanted to help. Talking to friends? They bought me lunch for a few days to ensure I would be able to eat.

There are definite ups and downs to working during the school year. There are still moments when I need to remind myself I’m doing what I can, even if those around me may think otherwise. There are still times at work when I wonder how I’m going to get all of my homework done when I get home. But, I am learning as I go, and that’s OK.

I’m still getting to do my late night drives. I’m laughing with my managers and coworkers at 8:45 most nights, now that I feel more comfortable with how much I can work, and reminding myself how much fun it is to make people happy. I’m getting caught back up with my classes and taking school one day at a time.

The last few months have been a rough transition, and I’m not even close to figuring the balance all out. Being a working student is a new and strange experience, but one I recommend if you’re up to the task. If you are? Anticipate paper, please.

Do you have a job? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below. 

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