62. Learning to Pay Our Way

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

By John P. Buentello

Learning to Pay Our Way

When on the brink of complete discouragement, success is discerning that... the line between failure and success is so fine that often a single extra effort is all that is needed to bring victory out of defeat.

~Elbert Hubbard

It was in our junior year that my brother Larry and I ran into money problems. When we first started college, we were at a state school where tuition was cheap. But after transferring to a smaller private school, the tuition skyrocketed. Trying to figure out how to pay for college for the two of us turned out to be a lesson in itself.

At first, we managed with student loans, grants from the government, and work study. Work study was part-time work we did on campus, in this case working at the university library. It helped to defray part of our college costs, and being among all those wonderful books was a fringe benefit of the job. We juggled this financial cascade for the first two years with no problem. Then came the summer of our junior year.

Usually during the summer we worked full time and didn’t take any classes. Our work study program provided enough hours for us to save for the coming fall semester. It was a formula that worked very well, provided we scrimped and saved. Luxuries were not part of the program. Still, we felt ourselves pretty lucky to have a job that allowed us to help pay for school.

But the third year that we walked into the business office ready to sign our work contracts for another summer, we were told that the rules had changed. Unless we were enrolled for classes during the summer we couldn’t work for the college. But because we didn’t have the funds for summer school we couldn’t enroll, and that meant we couldn’t work during the summer to save money for the following fall.

We tried to argue our way past this Catch-22, but the reply was always the same: rules were rules. Besides, according to the new rules, even if we were offered summer jobs at the library they’d be at greatly reduced hours. The chances of finding outside jobs this late in the summer were pretty slim and it looked like our chances of staying enrolled in school through to the next semester were about to fall apart.

Then our supervisor offered us a slim chance. She said there was something that the campus needed done, a project that they had lost money on and were looking to recoup their losses. We were led to a large auditorium in the science building. Inside this gigantic lecture hall we were confronted with a mountain of junk. The junk was the disassembled and broken pieces of office modules; fragments of walls, desks, and cabinets used to create new office spaces.

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“Here’s the deal,” our supervisor told us. “This was a bad buy for the campus. Our engineering team tells us there’s nothing we can do with it. We bought it to provide offices and departments with desks, workspaces, and the like. Right now it’s a total loss. If you want, I’ll give you the summer to find a way to turn this junk into something we can use. You’ll be independent contractors. Find a way to do that and I’ll pay you for a summer’s work.”

“And if we can’t do it?” I asked.

“Then you don’t get paid. That’s the best offer I can give you.”

My brother and I looked at each other. “What have we got to lose?” he told me.

“We’ll do it,” I told our supervisor. “You’ve got yourself a couple of fix-it men.”

Our first big hurdle was where to start. It took us a week to separate the huge roomful of junk into smaller piles of walls, cabinets, hinges, and bits of plastic and metal that we couldn’t put a name to. There were no blueprints, no instructions to follow. We looked at our collection of bits and pieces and began scratching our heads.

Next we scouted out the departments and offices that had requested tables, desks, and workspaces, measuring and taking notes. Some offices needed new desks. Other departments needed cabinets. The campus library, the department we couldn’t work for during the summer, needed a ton of shelves for new books. We sat on the floor of the auditorium and sketched out what needed to go where. There was no way the pieces would go together as they originally had. Some we’d have to saw and hammer back into shape. We’d have to design our own tables, desks, and shelves and figure out how to put them together.

We went down to the wood shop; the basement where the props and backgrounds were made by the drama department for plays produced on campus. We commandeered electric saws, hammers and nails, everything we’d need to do the job. By the time we’d set everything up in the auditorium, we had a game plan.

For the next three months, we measured and sawed and hammered and screwed and bolted those pieces of junk together. Bits of plastic and metal that had been consigned to the junkyard slowly turned into desks, tables, cabinets, shelves, workspaces, and everything else we could imagine and put together. We built dozens of shelves for the library. Each day, we carried heavy metal, wood, and plastic pieces from one end of the campus to the other. We worked harder that summer than we’d ever worked before. By the time we were finished, the only things left that we hadn’t found a use for were a few nuts and bolts and a handful of plastic.

We took our supervisor on a tour of the campus, going from department to department, office to office, showing her the things we had created from that massive pile of junk. She looked everything over, tested its strength and use, and watched as people used the things my brother and I had built together.

“Well,” she finally said, smiling at us. “Looks like I owe the two of you for a full summer’s work.”

My brother Larry and I sat in the empty auditorium on the last day of summer, remembering the mountain of junk that had first greeted us here. When fall came around and we were able to pay for our tuition, we knew we’d learned something here at college that we hadn’t anticipated learning. We’d learned our own worth, through the creativity we’d brought to the job, the belief that we could do it, and the sweat that we’d poured into it. That summer was a summer of learning that served us well through the rest of our college careers and beyond.

~John P. Buentello

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