The holiday job learning curve

LET me take you back to the good old days - the 1960s when, after the exam diet, secondary schools went pure somnambulant: timetables didn't change until August, teachers snoozed in the staffie (surely not? - Ed) and only the school swots remained to annoy them.

The rest of us (pupils, that is) would be taking a self-sourced employment module enabling us to gain invaluable experience in the wider environment while evaluating the outcomes of practical, hands-on experience.

Yip, we got a summer job.

My first such module in lifelong learning came to a rather explosive climax involving the attempted murder of some seagulls (sic) and the learning outcomes have stayed with me since.

My job was a "chain boy", a quaint if slightly kinky title, on a building site. I served the two engineers, lackeying their equipment about and standing in awkward places, holding a big pole while they squinted through a theodolite and scribbled things down.

The hours were long, 8am to 5.30pm, and if the weather was Scottish, which it often was, you were wringing wet by lousing time (an essential environmental component of the module).

But if the hours were a shock to the system, you had at least the main economic outcome to look forward to - your first proper wage packet - though the scandal of the state taking something called National Insurance and then tax off you (the social studies aspect of the module) soon took the shine off that. And in terms of personal and social development, there was the brutal learning curve of your mother taking more than half your wages for your "keep" on the dubious grounds that she had brought you up.

We were roads and drains. That's to say, the company I worked for cleared the site, put in the essentials for housebuilding - the next company's job - and moved on. The only excitement came with the explosives when, on occasion, the quickest and cheapest way to level a rocky area was to blast it.

As our summer module reached its end, most of the labourers had gone. There was me and Wullie, the old guy who made the tea and kept the huts red up, one of the uncivil engineers, the site agent and the site foreman.

The foreman (the real boss on any site, as you quickly learned) was a big, burly Irishman with all the necessary management skills: an outrageous temper, a tongue to match and what is euphemistically called a wicked sense of humour. On our last day on the site, there were some explosives left over and the foreman decided to "bury" them under a smattering of earth which he then covered in bits of bread (I think my "piece" was taken as part of the obedience component here). We stood by a van as he attached one lead to the battery and waited with the other poised to connect.

Sure enough, a hundred yards away the seagulls began to circle. But they weren't daft. None landed. In his frustration, with the gulls wheeling just off the ground, yir man connected. An almighty bang and several dozen gulls flew into the air. Not one dropped. We looked in amazement as they flew off.

A lesson in aerodynamics, perhaps. But what was not streamlined was a rather large factory half a mile away. Some of its windows had cracked in the blast, as we discovered when a Rolls-Royce purred on to the site some 20 minutes later.

"He's fur it now!" crowed Wullie with undisguised glee. But he wasn't. Instead of the cursing and swearing - and maybe even thumps - that we'd hoped to hear from the adjacent hut there was the clink of glasses and laughter. And a demand for some water to wash down the whiskey. "Insurance," muttered Wullie darkly.

How the foreman got away with it I'll never know for sure but I always remember his final, firm handshake which caressed my palm with a rolled-up tenner (almost a week's wages), his conspiratorial wink and his parting words: "Good luck tae yae, boy!"

That summer module taught me three things, obvious learning outcomes when you think of it: money does make the world go round; the wheels on which it turns can be oiled further with strong drink; and have no fear of flying.

And, if I may add one multicultural observation, never underestimate the luck of the Irish.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you