In this final post in our four-part series, Heather Michael talks about her experiences teaching high school students who were navigating their lives in school, while working for Walmart. She discusses Adam Reich’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “The Summer for Respect: Student Activists, Walmart Workers, and the Future of the American Labor Movement,” honing in on the parallels between the insight Reich gained through his project and the value of using oral history as a way to validate experiences.
While watching Adam Reich’s recent talk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of the high school students I taught, who got their first jobs at Walmart. I can remember one student in particular, Marc, who was so excited to finally have a job. For him, it was a sign of independence, a move towards becoming an adult, a chance to be in the ‘real world.’
The first few weeks of his job—something he did after school, late into the night—he would come to school tired but excited. “I made a friend,” I remember him saying one day. “I saw Mr. MacDonald (another teacher) in my section last night,” he said another day.
For Marc, this job was, in a way, an opportunity to be part of something bigger—to free himself from the rules of his parents, to assert himself in the world. The novelty, however, began to wear off. He was increasingly tired in school. His manager gave him extra shifts, even though he knew that he only wanted a certain number of hours. Marc’s stories of work went from excitement to dread. Eventually, he quit.
Marc wasn’t the only student I knew who worked at Walmart (or McDonalds or other big businesses). He wasn’t the only student I knew who took a job, so excited at the prospect of being an adult, only to find that they were being treated as sub-par, less-than, or in ways that went against what they were promised.
In ways, the mistreatment of high school students working for companies became an expectation, a predictable plot line in the coming of age process for students in a particular social group in the community where I taught. It is now, thinking back on it, that I realize how problematic it all is: the experience, the normalization, and the fact that only some students from certain communities pursued these types of jobs. The fact that I can even call it a “predictable plot line” is troubling.
As I consider adolescents who I currently work with and research, and how Reich’s participants’ stories get told, I can’t help but conflate his ideas and my own thinking on the past, and my future research work.
I think back on Marc. What could I have learned if I didn’t just listen to him in passing, but sat him down to hear his stories—an oral history of the trajectory of his experiences as a Walmart employee? Why he was compelled to start. What he loved at first. What was lost by the end.
It is here where Reich’s work inspires me to think about my work with adolescents—not just the ones who work at Walmart, but the life histories that lead them to be “the kinds of kids” who work part- or fulltime in high school. The “kinds of kids” who negotiate the world of being employee and student. The “kinds of kids” who take advantage of and are taken advantaged by companies, like Walmart, that rely on employees who perceive that they need and/or need a job. It feels like a study that matters if I am to better understand the experiences of high school adolescents.
At the same time, I think about where I am now, as a researcher, interested in the realities of adolescents. I see Reich’s work as an illustration of the importance of creating opportunities to connect oral history with the social sciences in a way that asks questions and honors experience, rather than presume it. In this case, the work he did with students and people associated with Walmart created moments of engagement that validated and explored, rather than reduced and tried to frame.
Life history and oral history are tools that enhance the research pursuits of social scientists in ways that validate the perspectives of people. This seems particularly important when those people may be on the receiving end of marginalization, subjugation, and with little perceived power.
Each time I hear about the use of oral history, I’m reminded that the thing we have is a story and as researchers our job is to let the participants fill the space, not the other way around.
Heather Michael is a doctorate student in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Columbia Teachers College. Her research interests include critical literacy, spatial theory and adolescent identity.