Baling Hay to Teaching English: #firstsevenjobs

#firstsevenjobs is the Internet meme that everyone’s talking about. So here goes, my first seven jobs.

Customer Service guy. I guess most people’s first jobs are boring or dirty, but mine was quite interesting. My first wage job, at the ripe age of 18, was at the world-famous Selfridges department store in London. It wasn’t the usual retail job that most people get at that age. Instead of being sat behind a check-out, I got to sit on a comfy chair behind a nice desk in the customer service department.

My main role in this job was calculating tax-free shopping claims for overseas shoppers and sending them away with the completed paperwork. This meant I often had to deal with Middle Eastern royalty, and very wealthy people, and even the odd celebrity. For a shy, working-class youngster this was as scary as it was intriguing.

The great thing about grand old department stores like Selfridges is that they draw every kind of people from all over the world. It was like the world was coming to me, rather than me having to go out and explore the world.

Hay baler. This wasn’t a paid job, it was work in exchange for getting to live somewhere cool, but I wanted to include it because I have such fond memories of it. I drove a freakin’ tractor! For a man raised in the concrete jungle of East London this was thrilling. In order to be allowed to drive it, however, I had to tell a little white lie.

When asked whether I had a driving licence or not, the word “yes” came out of my mouth before I knew it. So, yes, I drove a tractor illegally and without any previous driving experience. (But only in a field).

But it didn’t take me long to get the hang of it. Though I did nearly crash into a tree on my first go. Which got me a suspicious and slightly puzzled look from its owner. Somehow he remained convinced that I did know how to drive and let me drive it up and down his land.

What an experience. Here I was driving a big, loud tractor, taking turns in hauling bales of hay on the back of it. It took the entire day and I never felt so physically exhausted in my life afterwards – hay bales are surprisingly heavy – but it was so much fun. (Although I imagine the novelty wears off after you’ve done it ten or twenty times).

Telesales guy. Against every introverted instinct in my body, I forced myself to go to the interview for a telesales job. Even though I swore I would never do telesales. Very much to my surprise, I did a good interview (which involved dreaded ‘roleplay’ ) and got the job. That day I truly absorbed what ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’ means. Motivated by the urgent need for money, I invented a new me on the spot.

It turned out that this salesman me, who came out of nowhere, was quite capable. I quickly realised that a high percentage of my sales came from women, and so I focused all my energy on them and breezed over dudes. One day I made 15 sales, which was the joint highest anyone ever made. Still, I hated the job.

Though the people I worked with, fellow backpackers from Britain and Ireland, were good fun. By quarter past five we would all be in the working man’s club around the corner, getting sideways looks from regulars, drinking ridiculously cheap drinks, and playing drinking games involving whatever was playing on the jukebox. It’s great how a crappy job in a foreign land can create an instant comradery among a group of strangers.

Primary English teacher. A private school in South Korea hired me to teach American English. Speaking American English is a highly valued skill there because it’s the language of international business.

I remember being so nervous on my first day of teaching that I thought I was going to be sick. Much to my dismay, there was no training and barely any settling-in time. It was freezing cold and I had no warm clothes because I had spent the last year in Australia.

This time I was truly in a foreign land. I couldn’t read anything. I couldn’t understand anyone outside of the school and they couldn’t understand me. I got lost. I got buses going in the wrong direction. Wonderfully, many people I met on the street insisted on helping me, even though we couldn’t understand each other. This kindness from strangers was probably what kept me from quitting.

Pushed into a classroom of kids, I was left to die on my feet or survive. I survived. Just. How much the kids actually learned from my classes I don’t know, but we had fun and we had plenty of conversations. I certainly advanced my knowledge of the English language and developed a new-found appreciation for it.

After a while, I got into the swing of things, but it’s not easy to be a good teacher, let alone a great one. That was one thing I learned. I also learned that South Korean kids are expected to learn a lot from a young age. From the age of five, my students were learning three languages.

Many of the older kids were going to Korean school, then English school, then learning a musical instrument in the evening. It seemed to me like they were pushed a little too hard, but they seemed to thrive on it. I was seeing children in a new light.

I left South Korea feeling that we in the western world underestimate children’s capabilities and knowing that language or culture is no barrier to human kindness and compassion.

Car insurance salesman. I did this for a year. I would go through hundreds of calls in a day. After a while, I could predict with a high degree of accuracy within minutes if I was going to get a sale or not. Which meant I could economise my efforts and not waste precious mental energy. It’s amazing how quickly one can develop this kind of specialised knowledge, and without even consciously trying to.

These kinds of jobs are always more about the people you work with. My team were up for a laugh. We used to play games to keep our mental energy up, like seeing how many Bond film titles we could slip into conversations with customers. Stuff like that.

Point of Sale software/hardware support guy. This was my first IT job. I worked for a company that provided POS and back of house systems and hardware for restaurants, pubs and hotels. It was stressful. My overriding memory is of one other guy and I, both constituting the entire support team for thousands of clients, sitting in an otherwise empty office on a Friday night looking up at the display indicating there were 30 something calls in the queue. And knowing that all of them were pissed-off restaurant and hotel managers. Still, it was character building if nothing else.

IT support guy, again. This time, it was in-house support. This role was so uneventful that I would nod off in my cubicle, dismantle something just so I could put it back together again, or drink a litre of water so I could take a walk to the toilet. It was three brown partition walls of boredom. The only thing that saved me was that we played sport at lunchtime. And that we had a pool table.

The most amusing memory I have from this job is from one of the weekends when I was on 24-hour support. The deal was that if a top priority problem was logged, then I had to fix it wherever I was or whatever time it was.

It was three or four in the morning. My work phone beeped. A system was down. It needed me urgently. Unfortunately, I was drunk. But that didn’t stop me. Though, technically, I was intoxicated whilst in control of a computer network, I logged in and fixed the problem. Now that’s professionalism and dedication for you, kids.

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