Student Reflects on Full-time Work
By Max Robinette, Associate Editor
At the end of a creative nonfiction class in February, Professor Ed Stankowski pulled a newspaper out of his saddle bag.
He opened it, folded it over, and held it up. In the classifieds, a large listing read: HIRING FULL-TIME REPORTER.
“My wife gets this paper from work sometimes,” he said. “It’s a small paper in the Mon Valley.”
He paused and looked at the listing and then back at the class.
“All of you are talented enough to get this job,” he said. “If any of you are interested, you should apply. Really. Put yourself out there and see what happens.”
I didn’t know anything about Monongahela River towns. Along Pittsburgh’s north-south dividing line, the universe chose McKnight Road as the place to spring me. What lay beyond the Liberty Tunnels was as familiar as a foreign country.
And the idea of more work didn’t excite me either. But after a breakup a few months earlier and bouncing from sofas to spare bedrooms, I discovered my under-the-table painting business (don’t look it up) wasn’t sustainable if I ever wanted to leave dirty dishes in the sink again.
So I applied. I shined my shoes and cleaned my computer camera, dusted my Redhawk Post articles, and asked for an interview.
By some luck or some trick, the editor said she’d love to bring me on. I’ve had one foot at La Roche and the other in the wind since.
There’s something romantic and impractical about working for a small newspaper at a time when people can find local news on their phones more easily than paging through a $1.25 rag.
But it would be a lie to say it’s not the best job I’ve ever had.
Young and old talk past each other when they discuss work. From my brief peek into the professional world, I think I know a reason why.
I hardly know any La Roche student who doesn’t work. Stocking shelves, dealing with customers, washing dishes, nailing roof shingles – we cram school around the time we use to make ends meet. They pay us change on the dollar to work repetitive jobs that, as the pandemic showed us, no one wants to do.
It’s thankless work. And school becomes a way out. It may be a continuously shrinking window, but there’s still light coming through.
I don’t get paid much better writing about the Mon Valley than I did painting stairwells in Etna. My credit card debt lingers, my car wheels squeak and my end-of-the-month paycheck gets sucked up by rent.
But I’m not out on a ladder anymore. I’m out of the dish room and on a new path.
Mentors warn us about the cutthroat, soaked-brow, gladiatorial arena of professional life. We know this, though we rarely know what fulfilling work feels like.
If parents and teachers spent half the time showing how work can connect us with the world as they do trying to harden our work ethic, they wouldn’t have to worry about the latter. We’d throw ourselves on the fire for a little life affirmation.
The workload was never the problem. We’re starved for meaningful work.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying. Maybe some students need a kick in the butt. But I believe many talented students crave bigger things.
The idea isn’t new – ever since those early farmers cast aside plows for factory levers, smart people have talked about working-class alienation. And young people get the worst of it.
A few months back, I covered a board meeting at Ringgold School District. Board members had recently adopted a policy that banned students from using phones on school grounds.
A high school senior spoke to the board and urged them to slightly revise the rule. She cited 56 instances of student projects made possible by phones.
She spoke clearly and reasoned logically. Her arguments were grounded and persuasive. She was everything a teacher could hope for in a student. And the board dismissed her as soon as she left the podium.
Maybe it would’ve been different if she were the varsity quarterback. Maybe it would have been different if she were a parent. Maybe the board wouldn’t hear it from anyone.
But I left the meeting thinking, “Why teach kids to think if you ignore them when they use it?”
I don’t think it’s fair. And maybe one day it’ll change. But for now, I still think there’s meaningful work out there.
I wasn’t sure anybody read a word I wrote the first few months at the paper. Folks in the Mon Valley slant elderly. When I looked up my articles online, I heard crickets.
I wanted to write crazy things – Bear attacks school board meeting; Mothman sighting at the corner store; The moon opened its mouth Wednesday in thunderous homage to Bernie Sanders– just to see if anyone paid attention.
Until one day, I got an email from a reader. The message had no introduction. It simply read: “The council president you wrote about, his name is McDowell. You called him McDonald.”
I checked the story, and she was right. I accidentally butchered the name of the Donora council president. Moreover, I discovered people really did read what I wrote.
I realized it was the first time in my life that someone else – not family, friends, or someone obligated to listen – gave two cents about what I had to say.
Since then, I’ve sat in town halls, spoken with politicians, been thanked for my work by strangers, and chewed out for my mistakes. The world spins in ways I never knew.
I see people listen, and I see meaningful work every day. And because of encouragement from professors like Ed, I get to be a small part of it.
To be honest, I’m still shocked any of them give me the time of day. But I take it when I get it.
Great piece, Max! Looks like your on your way. Welcome to the Monongahela Valley! It’s cool here!
I thought this was a very well written piece; an insightful look into the life of a working student.