The October sun beat down on my head with a relentless anger that seemed out of character for that time of year. As sweat beaded on my head and ran down my face in tiny streams, I continued to pull the rake back and forth across the ankle-deep leaves on that five-acre patch of land behind an old farmhouse. I was a starving college student in Arkansas in my early 20s, and the $100 I was promised for this particular task seemed like a small fortune—until about four hours into the job.
The man who hired me was a ruddy farmer who almost exactly matched my preconceived mental image of his weekly attire with old, faded coveralls and a straw hat to match a face and forearms that throbbed in a hue of dark red that reminded me of an overripe apple. I met him at a church I just started attending, and he seemed a genuinely nice sort who just wanted to help a youngster out with a temporary job. I learned a lot about him the first day I was there.
He set a platter of sandwiches and a jar of lemonade on the splintered and weather beaten picnic table on the side of his house and gave a loud whistle for me to stop and grab a bite. The whistle was quite unnecessary, as I was standing maybe 20 feet from that table. As I dropped the rake and stripped off my work gloves, he clamped his hands to his wide hips and shook his head slowly as if the burden of the world had suddenly descended upon him. His first words were jarring.
“Boy, you ain’t worth the skin God printed you on, you know that?” he said in his low, gravelly voice. “If you was my son, I believe I’d drop you off at a bus station somewhere and wish the world luck with you.”
Gone was the sweet, smiling older gentleman who welcomed me to his church only a few weeks before. His upper lip was curved in a sort of menacing grin that told me these next few days were going to be the longest of my new tenure in adulthood. As I settled down at that old, rickety table to hush my stomach with the help of a few ham and cheese sandwiches, he continued to stare holes through me.
“Seriously. What have you been doing all morning?“ he asked in a growl that dripped with disgust. “You should be halfway through this job by now and you ain’t got 20 feet from this house!”
He paused his tongue lashing long enough to bless the food, and once he uttered “amen” (in Jesus’ name, of course) the verbal flogging resumed. Each bite I took through that entire meal was punctuated with some new commentary on my work ethic, the way I gripped a rake, the size of the piles I made with the leaves in his yard. I waited through the entire meal for some nugget of encouragement, but none came.
The verbal beat downs continued each and every day for the entire week I worked for him. I went to bed each night with blistered hands, a throbbing back, and a wounded spirit. By the time the week was over, his entire property had been raked, an old storage shed had been torn down (and the rubble hauled off), his house had been repainted, and that old picnic table had been fortified, sanded down, and repainted.
At the end of the last day, he called me over to get my check before I left. My shoulders slumped as I trudged over to receive my remuneration—and probably one last commentary on how I represented the most worthless generation he ever witnessed.
I stopped in front of him and noticed immediately that the man I had been working for all week was gone. In his place was the warm, smiling man I met recently at a country church. As he handed me a folded check, he gripped my hand tightly and thanked me for all of my hard work. As my face turned into a soupy mess of confusion, he patted me on the shoulder and gave me one last speech.
“Son, I believe in hard work. Always have,” he said. “You were doing okay from the start, but I knew I could get a lot more out of you with the proper motivation. No matter what job you are given, you owe your best. All you can give. That will always be rewarded.”
As I climbed in my car to leave, his words continued to ring in my ears. I started the engine, but before I shifted into gear, I took one peek at the folded check from that old farmer with a unique motivational approach. He had doubled my promised pay, but I earned much more than a couple of hundred dollars that week. I earned a life lesson on the importance of pouring my all into every responsibility I have.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.