Several days a week last summer, I woke at 5 a.m., sleepily threw on a uniform and traveled through thick fog. I arrived at work just as the sun started to send pink streaks across the sky.
Then I served breakfast food to ravenous campers at Covenant College’s cafeteria, cleaned, served lunch and cleaned more — all the while growing in my understanding of what it is like to work in a college cafeteria.
I left only after the dining hall was thoroughly swept, mopped, vacuumed, rearranged and wiped down.
Then about three weeks ago, I spent part of a Saturday behind the Union maintenance building assisting a friend with running the wood kiln used about once a semester to fire ceramics.
For four hours, I and several others pulled back bricks and pushed wood into the blazing fire, stoking it every five minutes. Sometimes fire shot out of the holes, licking the sides of the kiln like the fiery breath of a dragon.
These two experiences were worlds apart, but their commonality is that they gave me the chance to take part in something that people around me do regularly but that I had never done and, thus, did not understand.
I am served food by the staff in Brewer Dining Hall every week, but I have no idea of what they go through to serve it. I often hear stories from art majors about their late nights and exhausting projects, but I have never spent until 3 a.m. working on a piece.
Despite having heard what it is like to be a staff member in a cafeteria or an art major at Union, I went into both experiences with a wealth of misconceptions.
When I first envisioned my job in a dining hall, I pictured myself slapping food onto plates and sweeping floors. I never expected to haul buckets of water or to mop the same floor multiple times in one day.
I had no idea how hard it was to figure out what people wanted when most liked to communicate in grunts and nods.
For my few hours working the wood kiln, I had the ignorance to bring homework. I soon realized that I would not get any work done in the five-minute intervals between stokings.
I now have a much deeper appreciation for the dining staff at Union. Their jobs are not easy. It takes huge effort to feed thousands of people daily and to do so in a way that meets sanitation standards.
I also have a fuller appreciation for the dedication of Union art majors. I worked the kiln for four hours.
Others worked it throughout the entire weekend. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to nap in the back of a truck, monitoring the fire for multiple days and nights to ensure that it reached and maintained the correct temperature.
I am not an art major, nor am I a full-time staff member in a college cafeteria. But doing a bit of what these people do helped me to better understand their work.
And that slightly clearer understanding that only comes from hands-on participation is, I think, a very valuable thing.
We should all strive to better understand others. Better understanding helps increase appreciation and makes a person able to better relate to others.
A small part of understanding other people comes from understanding what they do.
While some might think it impossible to take part in the tasks of others, opportunities are abundant. Accept a unique job for the summer.
When a friend is doing something interesting, don’t just watch — ask if you can try it yourself.
Hands-on experience is invaluable. The best way to grow in understanding something or the people who do that something is to step in and participate.