I remember just before I turned sixteen, my parents called me downstairs to let me know that my national insurance card/number had arrived, and with the official notice now from the government that I could go out and start working, I decided it was time to start earning the Ps. That summer, I threw together a CV and started dropping it into every job application I could find – from Next, to New Look, to Superdrug, to Boots – I let them all know that I had officially arrived. I figured – how hard could it be? I had gotten my GCSE results, achieved almost entirely A*s across the board (and my CV listed out every subject and every grade at the time). What else could they want from a 16 year-old, other than that?
Things turned out to be a lot harder than expected, because that summer, all I received was air time. The only shop that decided to get back to me to let me know I had been rejected was Superdrug, and that was months after I had applied, plus they seem to have had some sort of glitch in their system such that they sent me a good 10 rejection e-mails to make it very, painfully clear that no, I had not been accepted. The next summer rolled around and I decided to change my strategy – instead of applying to all the big retail stores that probably had 100 kids just like me applying, I decided to target smaller shops, outside of big shopping centres. I would go on these shops’ websites, find their e-mails, and e-mail in my CV. Again, I didn’t hear back from most places… other than one – a cafe that was around the corner from where I lived. They invited me in to interview the next day! I remember my mum giving me a bunch of tips on how to impress, which I took on board, but the interview ended up going like this: “we’re paying you minimum wage, is that okay? Yeah? You’re hired!!” (I think for my age at the time minimum wage was maybe £4.50 an hour… but when you’re young, even a little bit of money seems like a lot!)
Once I started in the cafe… it wasn’t really quite what I had expected. When I first joined, I didn’t know how to use the coffee machine, or even how to cook or prepare what was on the menu, so instead – they put me in the kitchen. I would spend my time at home washing plates, and then came into work to wash even more plates. When the plates were washed, I got to do something even less exciting – I folded napkins. Tons, and tons of napkins, I folded in half and stacked in a pile. I remember thinking – well, damn… this isn’t quite what I signed up for. I didn’t really know much about working in cafes, and didn’t realise that I’d spend all my time hiding in the back. I also didn’t realise how stressful the job could be (for example when it got really busy). I remember my boss would complain a lot about “getting me out in the front, making coffees and paninis”, but I was never taught how to do any of these things, so I didn’t do them. The furthest I got to actually feeling like part of the team came when another girl who had worked there for some time taught me how to make a few of the main paninis, and where to find everything I needed. But when the big bosses got into work, I was sent back into hiding.
After a few weeks I got tired of working in the back, so I took home a menu and studied it. I learned what went into each of the orders, and I also took it upon myself to watch some YouTube videos about how to effectively use their coffee machines. I remember feeling really riled up and ready to bang out the job and get more involved. But this was met with constant complaints. For example, once I was serving a customer, and taking my time to make him a well-presented panini; my boss called me to the back and told me I was taking too much time, he told me that butter doesn’t need to be spread properly, “just slap it on” he said. But then, the next time I served a customer and did ‘just slap it on’, he took me to the back and asked me if I thought the presentation “was acceptable?” My boss, and the guy that worked right below him, would always make sly comments regarding exams. Of course I had gotten good GCSE results, however neither were educated up to GCSE level, so would make comments such as: “I ain’t got no GCSE results and I even can do this…!” One time my boss asked me to come into work one Saturday, and when I got there I was told I was not down to work and was sent home (with a free water bottle as consolidation that I threw at a wall in anger on my way home). Another time they asked me to get creative and write the ‘special of the day’ on a blackboard (apparently because I was a girl it meant that I could come up with something more creative… okay…), but when I did write it, I was told it didn’t look good enough and it was re-written by my boss (in anger). And these are just a few of the crappy things that happened whilst I worked there.
After a number of weeks feeling mentally beatendown, they decided one day that they were finally going to teach me how to cook for customers, and they called me to the front. They started quizzing me, they pointed at a number of ingredients, vegetables, etc… and asked me to name them. I wasn’t very successful at naming most. Why? Well one, I have it in me to be quite ditsy – I’ll be honest. Two? More importantly… I’m Nigerian! We use different staple ingredients and vegetables in our food. So some of the stuff they were asking me to name I’d never even seen in my life. They laughed at me that day, deducted an hour’s pay from my already minimal pay – and sent me home. My boss told me that “even his 10-year old daughter” could name the ingredients, and said I should spend two weeks at home learning a bit more, then ask to come back. I returned home that day in tears, to which my parents told me I should just go ahead and quite the job – “It’s not even a proper job! If the extra £20 a week is really that big of a deal – we’ll give it to you! For now – just focus on your studies!”
That Monday I sent a text in to my boss to let him know that I was quitting. I was told to “return my uniform, washed and ironed.” He also let me know that because I didn’t give them the two weeks notice (even though they had sent me back home for two weeks minimum…) I was “going to lose my rights”. And that was the last I heard from them. Obviously the 16 year-old me was worried about ‘losing my rights’, but my dad told me a tiny corner shop cafe that couldn’t even pay me more than minimal wage, was not going to have the power to make me ‘lose my rights.’ A few years later, the whole thing is funny to me now. I still walk by the cafe whenever I go back home and I’m sometimes tempted just to go in and let them know how much life has moved on (for the better) without the ‘rights’ they claimed to have taken away from me. And by the way, soon after I walked out (okay, half walked out half told to get out/fired), another girl who had worked there for only a short about of time also decided to say goodbye with me.
So, what can you (and I) learn from this?!
1. Persevere – although it wasn’t a great job, there’s nothing quite like getting your first ever job offer. Despite getting tons of rejections, I pushed on, and someone eventually accepted me.
2. Don’t be afraid to get help – in this case, it was from my parents. I always had this thing whereby I felt I needed to be completely independent and fend for myself (including monetarily), but remember your parents are you parents – they’re there to help if you really need them.
3. A lot of the time, where you are now has no indication of where you will be at the future – see the bigger picture! If what you’re struggling to do at the moment is get a job or an internship, and you’re find it hard, just remember than in 10+ years, these situations are probably something you will sit and just reminisce about.
4. Things can change in a split second – just because you’re feeling down in the dumps now, doesn’t mean you won’t be feeling on top of the world next month (another reason never to get cocky. The person you’re speaking down to today could be your boss in 15 years… it happens!)
5. Be open to learning – as miserable as I was, I still took the time to go and learn about the job. As much as it wasn’t appreciated, it did help me improve in the role