Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Yesterday when I stopped by our local, family-owned pharmacy I noticed a new addition to the staff. Working alongside an elderly gentleman and his adult son (both pharmacists) was a girl dressed in an apron—complete with a nametag announcing “Hello, I’m Rachel.” She was sweeping the floor behind the counter.
As I waited for my prescription, I struck up a conversation with the youngster and learned that she was, as I suspected, the owner’s granddaughter. It was her first day on the job. Of course, she wasn’t allowed to go near the drugs or the cash register. Nevertheless, she was doing her best to make a contribution.
“I mostly load the cooler with drinks,” Rachel explained. “Today I’m learning how to straighten and dust the shelves.”
“And how old are you?” I asked.
“Twelve,” she blurted as if announcing a triumph of some sort.
“Twelve!” I thought to myself. “But she’s just a child.”
Seeing Rachel in her apron caught me by surprise. Could I have been that young back in 1958 when my grandfather handed me a pale green apron and put me to work in his grocery store? It was the first Saturday after my 12th birthday when Grandpa announced that since I had come of age (in his view, at least) it now would be my job to run the store every Saturday. Grandpa would drive to the wholesale house and load up his 1943 Chevy with groceries for the week. And then he’d take care of “personal business” (play poker with his cronies at the Elk’s Club) while I held down the fort.
In my case, “holding down the fort” meant fetching items from behind the counter, scooping ice cream, slicing and wrapping baloney, pumping gas, totaling the sum on the back of a brown paper bag, counting out change, and bagging the purchases—all the while, making sure nobody stole anything. All by myself.
After a brief orientation period where Grandpa taught me how to make change and watch for thievery, he donned his grey fedora, walked out the back door, and left me in charge of everything he owned.
“That’s my training?” I thought as I heard the Chevy pull onto the street.
I quickly learned that my job consisted of sitting in the back room watching TV until the bell hanging just above the door would announce a customer: “Jingle Jingle.” Like Pavlov’s dog I’d jump to my feet, push through the swinging door that separated the store from Grandpa’s living quarters, step up to the counter, and ask: “May I help you?”
The customer would then walk around the common area while selecting items such as bread, potato chips, and canned corn. Or they would ask me to get the more expensive items located safely behind the counter. For instance, when requested, I’d grab three packs of Camels (23¢ a pack), a quart bottle of Pepsi Cola (25¢), and so forth.
Initially, the customers were nervous about being served by a boy. I was a rather short twelve-year-old. Plus my voice hadn’t gone south yet and this didn’t exactly engender confidence. But I was good with numbers so, as I zoomed through the paper-bag math, the regulars soon learned to trust me with their orders.
With time, I too became comfortable on the job. In fact, it wasn’t long until my friends were routinely visiting me at the store. We’d play cards in the back room. That is, until a customer would enter. . .
Then I’d break away from my buddies and reluctantly wait on whoever had walked through the door. About six months into the job, I became bored—enough so that my friends and I decided it would be fun to play a trick on the kids who arrived with a pop bottle to trade for penny candy and then take forever making their choice.
Here’s what my bent little mind came up with to keep the kids away. I would crack open a can of chili powder, remove a plug from a hollow gum-ball, and fill it with the red-hot powder. Then I would replace the plug and place the loaded candy onto the lip of the gum-ball machine that sat on the counter next to the till.
“Say, look at that!” I’d exclaim with a look of surprise as a kid walked up to the counter. “Somebody forgot their gumball.”
“I love that stuff,” one of my friends would add.
The unsuspecting kid would look at the brightly colored sphere and then glance back at me for approval. I’d pause for effect and then add the Pièce de résistance: “Go ahead, you can have it.”
Immediately a hand would dart through the air, grab the candy, and stuff it into a welcoming mouth.
Then my friends and I would wait. First the kid would roll the orb around in his or her mouth, tasting the scrumptious outer layer. Next a small nibble. Then came the payoff—a big bite followed by a few rapid chews and eyes that would suddenly widen to full aperture. Next came a howl followed by tiny feet rushing through the door—Jingle Jingle—and ending when the kid leaped off the porch and spit the fiery concoction onto the gravel.
“What’s wrong with that gum?” he or she’d ask with a look of betrayal.
Of course, we never answered because my friends and I would be doubled over with laughter. It was just the kind of thing twelve-year-old boys find hilarious. It was also mean spirited and wrong on many levels.
My buddies and I carried out this trick for two gleeful Saturdays until my grandfather finally caught wind of our shenanigans. My father lectured me, but I could tell from his repressed smile that he thought the whole thing was pretty funny. Mom went off the deep end and chided me for falling in with a crowd of “hardened criminals.” She was convinced I had started down the slippery slope to a life of crime. Grandpa took a more reasonable approach. He asked me what I was thinking. This, of course, was hard to answer because I was thinking that causing the kids to believe that their mouth was on fire was hilarious—which, as I thought about it, made me sound like a sociopath.
Eventually, Grandpa ended his reproof with the classic guilt-trip.
“I expected more of you.”
Gulp. Given that I loved Grandpa dearly, those five words were a shot to my heart. Plus he banished my friends from the store and docked me two Saturday’s wages.
From that day forward, I worked feverishly to regain my grandfather’s trust. I scrubbed the shelves, washed windows, sorted the pop bottles, and otherwise kept busy every second of every eight-hour shift. I also treated every customer with respect. Especially the kids.
I tell this story because as I watch my own grandchildren grow older, I know they too will do childish things. And then when they’re old enough to know better, they’ll still do childish things. The truth is, they’re wired that way. Research reveals the logical and responsible parts of an adolescent’s brain don’t fully develop until around age eighteen.
Fortunately, if adults follow my grandfather’s lead and watch over their errant wards as their brains develop, correct them when necessary, and hold them accountable, they probably won’t (as my mother predicted) fall in with a den of thieves. And hopefully, when they take their first job and screw up as well, a wise boss will firmly correct them and give them another chance.
At a time when the press seems to take every new statistic as evidence of an oncoming Armageddon—in a world where arguments are purposely made for their shock value alone—it’s hard to maintain a proper sense of proportion. Not every drop of rain portends an oncoming storm. Not every sighting of a locust signals a massive swarm just over the horizon. More often than not, the rain stops after a light sprinkling, the locust continues solitarily down the path, and a boy in a pale green apron surprises everyone by growing up.