The Job That Taught Me How To Be An Adult

During my sophomore year of college, I started looking for a job on campus so I could make some extra cash. My roommate was a film major and worked at the university media library. She made the job sound pretty great: shelving movies, studying during quiet stretches, checking out films for the weekend at the end of her shift. She gave me her boss’s name and I set up an interview.

The interview was brief: he came in assured that I was a reasonable person because he liked my roommate. Unlike previous interviews in my life, I had to take a spelling test: Samurai, Tornado, Apocalypse, Vendetta. The digital catalog would not return results if they were misspelled.

The job paid minimum wage and remains one of my favorites I’ve ever held. It was a closed-stacks collection with all the DVDs and VHSs stored in bookshelves and drawers by number. Students, faculty, and staff requested titles and I wrote down the catalog number and disappeared to find the items. I checked the films out and reminded the students that there was a $5 per day late fee for each DVD.

Yes, that’s each DVD. Yes, per day. Yes, it will cost you $25 if you return all of these on Thursday instead of Wednesday.

My coworkers and I recommended films to indecisive students looking for something for snowy Friday nights. We suggested alternatives when all the Oscar contenders were checked out yet again. We rejoiced when Cool Runnings got returned two years after its due date, casually dropped in our overnight bin.

Because this was my first job that lasted longer than a summer, I learned basic lessons on how to be an employee. 

Be consistent 

The first shift that worked in my schedule was 30 minutes in the mornings on Wednesdays that the library didn’t already have coverage for. I had a class immediately beforehand, so I rushed in and worked for twenty minutes until the next student arrived. I think I made less than $10 per biweekly paycheck, but the next semester I was scheduled for more shifts. I think the hiring manager was partially amused that I would agree to such a short shift, and I continued to work there for two more years.

Ask for help

During one of my first shifts, a wave of students came in during a course break. It was probably only a five-person line, but in my memory it was a cavalcade that filled the room, demanding obscure and hard-to-spell French films and insisting that they’d all forgotten their student IDs.

I panicked and tried to handle them all until one of the full-time staff came out of the back room to ask, “Why didn’t you ring for backup? We’re always there!”

You may be a student first, but that’s not an excuse

The student staff were responsible for getting shifts covered when they had conflicts. Emails would go out to the staff listserv requesting shifts to be taken, sometimes with the suggestion of bribes included if no one responded in a few days. One finals week saw increasingly urgent and increasingly all-caps messages from a theater student directing his first play, which apparently needed several last-minute dress rehearsals.

At the start of my third semester, our manager sent around an email clarifying expectations for the job. He outlined some habits that a lot of students had fallen into, like texting during work or doing homework while there were still DVDs to file. He then fired half the staff. I was never late to work or caught reading my history notes while waiting for customers after that.

Every job has perks

My previous jobs in retail had come with employee discounts, but this was the first job that felt like it had benefits. For one, I finally saw a workplace culture that wasn’t built on clocking in and selling as many jeans as possible. I often worked evening shifts, which tended to slow down after 7 PM. If it was an especially quiet night, the other student workers and I would race each other at Sporcle quizzes to pass the time. The staff also had a standing challenge to get anyone to check out Zardoz, a 1974 Sean Connery sci-fi flick that I still don’t have the courage to see. If you succeeded, you’d win chocolate and glory. Occasionally, especially rude customers would be greeted with, “I’m sorry that we don’t have the film you’re looking for. Have you thought about Zardoz?”

I also loved having access to information. One of my former grad student instructors came in to check out a few DVDs, and he clearly didn’t remember me. It wouldn’t have been so bad except that it’d been a creative writing class of fifteen students and we’d met one-on-one to go over my final short story. The sting of being forgotten – apparently my fiction hadn’t left an impression – was balanced by the fact that I could see that he owed $250 in overdue fines.

My favorite perk was a joy every time it happened. When you searched for a film in the system, you could see who currently had it. Every so often, someone would come in, ask for a title, and I’d look it up and see that it wasn’t available … because my coworker at the next terminal had checked it out.  

For me, a major part of having a student job was learning how to be an adult. The full-time staff at the media library expected us to show up on time and do our jobs. In other areas of university life, I felt like I had a built-in excuse as a student. I was late because I had another class. I forgot to do my reading because I had a midterm. I can’t come to your event because I have to finish this paper. Having a job was a constant in an otherwise flexible approach to my time and obligations. I couldn’t skip a shift. I couldn’t ignore customers because I had to study. And I was rewarded for reliability and learned how to act professional. Sure, it took another post-college job for me to fully learn how to operate in the workplace, but the media library set me on the correct trajectory.

 

Laura Chanoux works in higher education and almost always returns her DVDs on time.

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