My daughter came home from the last day of school with a package of books, crafts and papers. It was the culmination of projects, journals and art from the whole school year, as well as information about the summer and information about the next school year. It was fun to flip through the various pages seeing her progress and seeing her journalised reflections of the events in our lives over that time. But one sheet of paper jumped out at me.
It was a print out of 25 photographs. At the centre was her teacher holding up a sign with the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” All around that were the images of my daughter and her 23 classmates holding up signs with their answers. There were future doctors, artists and hockey players, and in the midst of all of their lofty goals was my daughter holding up a sign that simply read “Waitress.”
In a lot of ways, this didn’t come as a surprise. She loves organizing things and she loves serving people. When she plays with her friends, they often create menus together and then come ask the nearby adults which of the imaginary food options they would like.
Still, her choice stood out from the rest of the high paying, professionally certified and/or socially prestigious positions so much that I wondered if it reflected poorly on my parenting. In her defence, there were a few other children whose signs could also demonstrate a lack of professional ambition. A few boys had “gamer” on their placards, and while that could very well mean they just want to play video games all day long for the rest of their lives (they are already on the “can’t date my daughter” list) there is at least the potential that they want to be video game designers. One girl’s sign read “mother,” a job that often requires more ambition than I have, but is rarely held up as “successful.” I think motherhood doesn’t get the social prestige that it should, but at least you know that when a little girl writes that as her life goal, you know she has good parents. But waitressing is the kind of profession that almost nobody aspires to. The vast majority of restaurant servers are using the job as a stepping stone to something bigger, or using that job to pay the bills while they pursue other dreams on the side.
It crossed my mind that this could be some kind of cruel joke. I wondered if maybe the teacher had taken photos of the kids holding up blank sheets and then used Photoshop to write in the jobs she thought they were destined for, in a kind of Soviet style classification exercise. That might even explain the gamer label on a few of the boys (one of them was on the aforementioned list before I saw this sheet). But, in all of my interactions with the teacher, she gushed about how great my daughter was, in terms of friendliness, intellect and enthusiasm. So much so, in fact, that I was surprised when she didn’t win the academic award for Grade 1 (parenting bias may have influenced my surprise as well.)
But it isn’t that I don’t respect my restaurant servers. I am constantly impressed by their ability to remember complicated orders, deal with difficult customers, and spend the whole shift on their feet. Also, I aspire to treat everyone equally, and that has to begin with people who are put in a position to serve me. I am a good tipper and when appropriate, I like to engage our servers in conversation. I’m not claiming to be any particular waitress’ favourite customer, but I really hope that staff at the restaurants I visit feel respected in their interactions with me.
And it seems therein lies my success, and perhaps my failure. Does my daughter want to be a waitress because I have indirectly taught her that it is a position worthy of respect? Am I disappointed by that choice because deep down I don’t respect them as much as I aspire to? Either way, the odds that a person grows into the career that their six year old self chooses are quite low. Her career path will be determined by her hard work, natural skills and the opportunities that present themselves far more than it will be by the choices she makes as a six-year old. I can try to instill a good work ethic, I can do my best to nurture the abilities she has inherited, and I can do what I can to put her in touch with people and organizations that will give her the opportunities she needs to succeed. But more than any of those, I need to give her a view of the world where success is not measured by a paycheque or by the social prestige of the position you find yourself in. Success is living with integrity regardless of where life takes you, and part of that integrity involves treating everyone with respect, regardless of the status society gives them.