After hearing my name announced on YouTube as a graduate of the class of 2020, I felt relieved. I shut my laptop and threw my black cap toward my bedroom ceiling.
Later on, my family had a small party with graduation balloons and sandwiches. There was also a chocolate ice cream cake with blue frosting.
I started crying but wasn’t sure why, not knowing whether I was happy to finish high school, or if I was sad because my aunt had died in February from cancer and was not able to see me graduate. Or maybe it was disappointment that thanks to COVID-19, my senior plans were canceled, like going to prom and walking across a stage as my name was being announced to a live audience at graduation.
Regardless, school was over and I had to start looking forward.
The Hunt for Money
Throughout high school, I long knew that my family was broke, so my mission after graduation was to make money to help support me, my mom, and two siblings. However, I got accepted to four colleges, including Medgar Evers in Brooklyn—my top choice because it had a biology department. My dream job is to work in a field in nature, with animals, or plants.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have enough money to pay for classes. I knew I could apply for financial aid or loans but I was afraid to get caught in debt. Getting a job wasn’t as risky; I could support my mom and even keep some money for myself. I thought about this for months. I was tired of not having clothes I wanted and it had been more than five years since I’d had a phone. Plus, my family needed help now. I decided there was no way I could go to college and carry the stress of owing money.
Fortunately, I already liked the idea of working. Before my senior year was over, my school website posted an opportunity for writers to apply to a program that paid them to write personal stories for YouthComm Magazine. I applied right away, thinking I could get a head start on earning income.
I was accepted. This was my first job and I was excited. The program was held through Zoom meetings because of the pandemic, but I gained valuable work experiences like being sure I showed up on time, meeting deadlines, and planning a schedule. When the program ended in the middle of August, I had to look for another job.
Soon, my aunt asked me if I wanted to cover for a janitor for a few weeks at the supermarket where she worked. Even if this wasn’t my ideal job, I was happy knowing that I could keep working since the pandemic left my mom without work.
Working During the Pandemic
When my first check was handed to me, I was anxious to see how much I made and immediately opened it in the janitor’s room. It was $460 before taxes, leaving me more than $400. I couldn’t believe it. I kept in mind I had to help my mom, too, but I saved up and I bought myself an iPhone 11. It was my first phone since middle school and I was proud of it; I had paid for it all through my own effort.
I began to help out in other departments such as the freezer aisle, where I stocked frozen fruits, vegetables, ice creams, and fish. I learned to stock other shelves with cereal, canned goods, and packets of flour. Even though I didn’t envision myself working here for long, this all gave me more experience and opportunities to learn different tasks on the job and interact with more people.
A few weeks after working as a janitor, the manager told me I could train for the cashier position. I thought I had only been hired for two weeks, but keeping this job and having more income didn’t sound bad. My managers liked my performance, and eventually I was frequently chosen to train new cashiers.
The only thing that worried me was being exposed to COVID-19. We had to wear masks and rubber gloves and clean the conveyor belt with anti-bacterial cleaner and paper towels after every customer. There was also a clear barrier in front of our registers.
Still, I felt unsafe being in the open as an essential worker; I was now face to face with hundreds of strangers 40 hours a week. I wondered if customers thought of the risks I was taking to serve them. I wondered how many were unvaccinated.
When I wasn’t busy, I leaned against my register in my dark green sweater uniform and thought What could I be doing if I wasn’t working? Enjoying the weather outside playing soccer? Hanging out with friends? Going to the movies? Should I save up for college? Or an apartment?
I also worried about what the future held. How long will I even keep this job? Will finding a job more suited to my interests be easier when the pandemic is over? What will I do when I decide to quit? Go to college? Do I want to risk getting in debt? Do I only want to go to college because of societal pressure?
Why I’m So Worried About College Debt
It may sound like I am overly concerned with borrowing money for college. There is a good reason why.
Seven years ago, my father decided to open up a pizzeria. At first things seemed to be going well and I enjoyed visiting and eating free pizza. He kept installing new additions to make his restaurant more successful, but I didn’t know that he racked up a huge amount of debt. Two years later, my father was forced to sell his restaurant.
He couldn’t support his family because when he got a job, his money would go straight to the people he still owed money to. Our cell phones, cable, and internet were disconnected. I stayed late after school to do work I couldn’t complete at home because we didn’t have WiFi. I was embarrassed that everyone else was able to go home before me.
I remember many times after midnight, when my father would be working late and the rest of us were asleep, and there was banging on the doors and windows of our house from people looking to collect their money. I was scared; I didn’t know what they might do to us.
My parents argued time after time about the situation, which broke my heart.
They eventually broke up. Over time, I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t have an ideal father or the ideal example of a man, and I feared that someday this might happen to me—that if I pursued my dreams, I would rack up huge debts and be unable to care for a family of my own.
Will I Be a Cashier Forever?
Most of my co-workers were seniors in high school and planned to go to college. They were interested in nursing, computer science, modeling, journalism, criminal justice, and business studies. Being around other people with goals was something I didn’t realize I missed.
But this environment also added some stress to my life. Later, I remember talking to one of my co-workers, Genjebek who said, “I’m going to college because I don’t want to work here forever.”
Although we laughed and took it as a joke, I kept wondering if that was true. Was college the only way out? If not, would I be a cashier forever?
Eventually, I grew to dislike the job. The customers who complained about not having the correct prices on products on sale drove me crazy. I had to manually change the price on my screen, but that didn’t seem to calm down the customers.
There were scenarios where the customers always think they’re right and I would have to prove them wrong. One time, someone yelled at me: “If you don’t know how to do your job, then don’t work here!” It was the first time someone made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. I feared it would happen again.
The more I had those interactions with customers, the more I didn’t feel it was worth staying there and dealing with customers’ rage. I began always checking the time to see how close I was to getting my lunch break. I just wanted to be away from people and ate my egg sandwich and played Clash Royale on my phone. Was it worth being degraded just to make money? I wasn’t even in a job I was proud of.
Helping at Home and Working Toward a Better Future
I always felt good coming home at 10pm with a growling appetite, and hearing my younger brother Kenny excitedly welcome me back. Smiling, I’d yell back, “Mom, I’m home, what’s there to eat?”
After filling up my belly, I’d look at my schedule for the next day. I usually went to work early as my older brother Alejandro takes care of our 1-year-old cousin and supervises Kenny, who is taking 2nd grade classes on Zoom. As hard as the conditions are in our family, I am reminded everybody does their part to try and help out, which makes me feel supported.
Even though I dislike my job, being able to help out my family makes me happy and relieved. It feels good to be an adult and provide for others. I still haven’t found a job I love and am still unsure about college, but I’ve taken steps like getting a bank account and filing taxes, so I become more knowledgeable about managing money and don’t make the same mistakes my father did.
1. What are the pressures that E.M faces when deciding whether to go to college or get a job directly out of high school? How did familial obligations dictate his choice?
2. How has E.M’s father’s past experiences with debt shaped his perspective of handling money? What support do you think E.M. needs in order to gain a new perspective when handling money?
3. Although E.M likes to support his family, he starts to wonder if getting the cashier job was the right path. If you were E.M’s peer what advice would you give him to help him decide his next steps?