Exhausted from the pressures of status, popularity and peer pressure expectations, I was looking for any way out of my situation. I wanted to be around a life where there was a sit-down, home-cooked meal. I liked being in a real house. Not that my house wasn’t real, but when you live in a three bedroom house less than 1,000 square feet, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room. All I wanted was to be able to enjoy a happy childhood. Instead, I labored over feelings of racial and class inequality, poverty,and an overall lack of rue opportunity. It didn’t take long for me to realize that money was the one missing element that had an impact on all that I was enduring emotionally and physically.
I started to see less and less of my sister. I was spending more and more time with Mike, and she was anywhere but home. In fact, as soon as she turned 14, she started to work. She approached by a company called Michigan Elite Teens, a drug awareness company designed to employ youth and keep them off the streets and out of trouble. Teens would hop in a van, provided by the company crew supervisor, 4-5 times/week and go to various neighborhoods, in pairs of two’s, selling boxes of candy door-to-door. The boxes were $4.00/each, and the salesperson started off getting $.90 for every box sold.
Kathy was 2 years my elder, and since labor laws prevented teens from working before 14 years of age, I couldn’t join her. Talk about frustration. The opportunity was much better than having a paper route. She was 14, bringing home $15-$20 per day for 2-3 hours of work. We had never seen that kind of money. All of the sudden, she started buying her own clothes, bringing home all sorts of goodies and snacks from the store, and having lunch money every day. Every so often, she would throw a little money my way. There was never a time where I looked up to my sister more. I was inspired, and wanted desperately to start making my own money.
I bugged my sister every night about getting me that opportunity. I can remember her becoming so annoyed with me. I’d come outside when they would return in the van waving hi to everyone left, including Ron, the crew supervisor. He was young, but seemed very business savvy to me. Not that I knew what that was at the time, but he was different. He was fun, and very much a kid at heart, which helped him relate to us youngsters. Still yet, he was responsible enough to take care of us, and keep us out of bad situations.
I was a couple of months away from my 14th birthday when my sister finally buckled and convinced Ron to let me start working early. I had begged for so long that when it actually happened, I was excited but very nervous. It wasn’t a situation where you got an hourly wage. You made money if you sold candy. If you didn’t, you went home empty-handed. It sounds frightening, and the opportunity came with a lot of pressure, but I can’t remember ever coming home with no money.
We were given what was called a speech card, which gave us all an outline describing what we were doing knocking on random doors carrying a large plastic container filled with $4 boxes of candy. A good salesman would customize the card and share a more personalized experience of waht Michigan Elite Teens meant to them. I think I can still remember my speech:
“Hi my name is Mark and I’m from Michigan Elite Teens. MET is a drug awareness program designed to keep kids like me off the streets and out of trouble. We have drug awareness seminars, but mostly we spend our time going door-to-door selling boxes of candy to raise funds for those programs. We also get a chance to make a little money for ourselves. I was hoping you would be interested in looking at what’s inside my box to see if there’s something you’d like to buy to help us out!!” (or something like that)
On my first day, I sold 11 boxes (crazy how I remember that). Instead of $9.90, what I should have made, Ron gave me the extra 10 cents, making it an even $10. In a little over two hours, I made more than minimum wage. I was on top of the world, and I would only get better. On my second day of work, I sold 19 boxes of candy. Every day, before we started, Ron would announce a top-seller bonus. Sometime it was $5…other times $10, and on Saturdays, he would sometimes put up $20. I had just missed being the top seller on my second night. Being the competitive person that I was, I started putting more effort into being the best that I could be. I wasn’t the most popular person in school, I didn’t have a lot of nice clothes, I wasn’t a very good basketball player, and I didn’t have tons of friends. What I did have, though, was an unmatched drive for success. At MET, I could be the very best. My small stature actually gave me an advantage over others. People found it hard to tell me no, and I took every advantage of that. I set out to outsell everyone else on the crew each and every night.
Before long, I was consistently selling between 20-30 boxes every night, bringing home $25-$35. Playing basketball was still my dream, but making money consumed me. It had to. I was tired of being broke, and I was finally in a position where I could do something about it on my own. I was finally able to buy nicer clothes. I could afford a decent name brand pair of shoes. I could go to the store without taking bottles back for refund money just to buy a couple pieces of candy. I was so relieved.
You would think that I would turn over my money to my parents and help them out financially. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I was selfish. Working as a kid did relieve some of the financial burden from my parents. They didn’t have to worry about giving us any more lunch money. We could buy our own clothes and shoes, and oftentimes bought our own school supplies. I wasn’t trying to help pay for the water and electric bill though.
With my mom, dad, my sister and I all working, we started drifting apart as a family. Spending less and less time with each other, we started to become strangers. I remember thinking how I didn’t even know who my sister was any more, and I’m sure neither she or my parents understood me. That’s what happens to families like ours. When everyone has to work to keep the family afloat, we sacrifice those traditional, ever-important familial ties for the mighty US dollar. This is something that my family has still struggled to overcome.