Prestidigitation: A Life of Education

I am not a good teacher of things. I lack both the patience and willingness to use it to be an effective educator, at least when it comes to the fundamentals. This is a downside of how my intelligence works. I tend to pick things up through osmosis, give them a go (in private, where no one can see me fail), and then pretend that it wasn’t all that difficult to begin with. The only things whose difficulty I intentionally emphasize are the things which I have absolutely no interest in being asked to do again. Just ask my wife on laundry day. She has a very specific set of standards on how she feels that clothing must be folded, and is in no way impressed by my technique, which involves a quick doubling of said textile, with no regard to whether they will appear to be septuagenarian leggings. Unfortunately, my wife has known me long enough that she has figured out my game plan. So now I have to fold the laundry correctly. I did earn a small concession, however: I do not have to fold her blouses, as even she has admitted that they do not conform to the laws of physics, and would rather that I didn’t tear a hole in the space-time continuum whilst attempting to neatly and geometrically fold them. But she does expect me to attend to the rest of our clothing in the manner which she has taught me.

She is a good teacher, you see. Flor will keep going over the basics, and even answer my patently ridiculous queries as to why it’s actually important do it in a certain way. I could never teach another person how to do their laundry. I mean, I could explain how to use the machines, and the describe why detergent is important, and when not to use chlorine bleach, but their clothing would remain forever wrinkled, and they, like me, would have not the slightest inkling of what fabric softener actually is, or why a person should even bother using it, or how to use it in the first place. But that’s regarding something which I am incapable of caring less about. What about when someone needs to know how to do something that I’m actually half decent at?

One of the things which always drove me crazy when I was working in restaurants, was having to train other people how to do things so that they wouldn’t remain completely useless. I’m crap when it comes to laying down the fundamentals, as any of my former employees would most likely tell you. There are certain basic concepts about how one does his job, and if you cannot understand them from the get-go, then I grow irritated, and probably counterproductive. That’s why I most often just farmed the first couple of shifts worth of training to my new employees out to someone who only did that particular job day in and day out. The owners usually wanted the newbies under direct management supervision, but I felt it was better to get new hires started under the tutelage of someone who wasn’t me. I didn’t want to waste my time talking someone through the basics of how to use a register, or how to do the busy work that comes before one is allowed to actually touch the food. I’d watch for those couple of days, jumping in to make a correction now and then, and finally, when it looked like the rookie had finally achieved mastery over the basics, I would step in to finalize their education.

You see, I’m all about the nuance, at least when it comes to work. I want to know why things work so that I can figure out the best way to make them happen, and then pass that on to my employees. Take register monkeys, for example. There are three stages that most cashiers will go through: Inept, Proficient, and Stellar (there is also a secret, fourth stage: Burnout, but that is usually reserved for those employees who no longer need this f’ing job).

Inept covers the first few shifts, and I like to think of it as Training Wheels. Sure, on the surface it appears that they can ride the bike, but there is no real confidence or speed, and if it weren’t for the extra help to prop them up, they would probably fall over. After cashiers have finally found their balance, they are upgraded to Proficient. There are several subcategories here, but the main defining quality of Proficiency is that I, as the manager, will not be called up every couple of minutes to answer a question that might just as easily be addressed by reading a menu board. Most cashiers tend to stay at this level until they find other employment, as they will not get their shift preferences until they achieve a Stellar ranking. Proficient cashiers are still not my problem, but I have been known to give advice or point out little shortcuts to those I think are on the rise. Think of a Proficient cashier as running the secondary register on a busy night.

And now we get to my favorite type of employee: Stellar. These are the people who take work seriously, and are always looking out for how to do their own jobs better. These are the people who get preferential scheduling (although they never seem to get to have a weekend to spend with friends or family anymore), and keep their hours when the restaurant hits the slower times of year. These are the people who have noticed that there is a difference between being good, and being great, and are no longer satisfied with remaining among the former. I love this class of employee, and will gladly teach them what I know regarding how to streamline customer interactions and generally rock it like a professional. How does one move their line faster when it’s slammed? Limit what you say, and don’t ask open-ended questions: If someone wants something to drink that isn’t Coca-Cola, they’ll correct you immediately. If you ask them what they’d like to drink, you might as well take a seat while they decide. Stellar cashiers will know the POS and menu shortcuts, know what’s in each menu item, and know how to make proper change. These are the people whom I am indebted to for making my job easier, and I will do everything within my power to keep them happy at their life-draining, soul-crushing place of employment.

But that sometimes doesn’t work, and this Stellar individual begins to fray around the edges. They are starting to Burn Out. Maybe it’s because they are so good that the restaurant cannot really run without them, which means that weekends are for other people. Maybe it’s because the owner hasn’t approved their raise, because it’s been forever since he’s had to worry about the personal cost of basic things, despite his constant moaning about just how broke he is. Maybe it’s because the truly talented people realize that they are simply too good to be wasted on a cashier gig, and that there’s more to life than being mistreated by the general public. I’ve seen it happen so many times, and have felt its seductive call, myself. And it’s hard to argue effectively against, because it is so obviously true. Despite knowing all of this, it still broke my heart to witness one of my Superstars decide to throw the towel in, and turn down the Burnout path.

At this stage, the once-Stellar employee begins to let things go. He begins to drop his standards and perform, at best, as a high-functioning Proficient. If there is line running out the door, he can still kick it into high gear, but usually that’s just a vestigial reaction back from when he still gave a crap. At this point he is looking for another job, or has made the other job that he already has, his main priority. He will change around his availability so that you can no longer schedule him during the really busy times, and he knows that he’ll still get as many hours as he wants because he’s still the best cashier you have. You can tell a Burnout from the hatred barely, if at all, concealed behind his eyes. He doesn’t care anymore, and doesn’t mind sharing that knowledge with you.

At some point he will either become insubordinate to the detriment of everyone around him, or else he will simply not show up for shifts (usually on the busiest days), and management will have to let him go. I tried to view this as a mercy killing, but I always took it personally. I only befriended the good employees, the best employees, but it was most frequently the members of this very group who wound up breaking my heart. I’ve since wished them the best, and have taken solace in their happiness, at least to their faces, but it still hurts that they couldn’t stick around to help me get through my own purgatorial days.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me to deal with newbies. I don’t want to invest myself in personal interactions with people who aren’t going to make it through their first week. Or maybe it’s because, after decades of living with Bi-Polar, it’s simply easier for me to point out how someone is failing, as opposed to setting them up from the very beginning with a chance at legitimate success. I have tried to learn from the managers that I respect the most, though they seemed to Burn Out just as easily as I did, in the end. It’s hard to balance both the ledger and your humanity. But I thank them, all the same, for showing me the importance of retaining my humanity in an industry which seems to encourage its dismissal. In my mind, they shall always remain Stellar examples of how to do things the right way. And I hope that (if I don’t win the lottery this week) when I get back into the industry which has become the harshest of mistresses, I can face it all with courage and humanity until the very end.


A good friend, and a cautionary tale I never took to heart. Too good a man to work in this industry.
A good friend, and a cautionary tale I never took to heart. Too good a man to work in this industry.
I hope you have been resting well, and I just want you to know that I have always hoped that you were proud of me.
I hope you have been resting well, and I just want you to know that I have always hoped that you were proud of me.
The man who taught me to value my time... and myself.
The man who taught me to value my time… and myself.

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