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How Working at McDonald’s Changed My Career Path

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I was setting extra placemats, paper cups and napkins on the plastic tables as fast as I could, taking over half the tables in the McDonald’s Playplace. More kids had shown up for the birthday party than were originally planned for, and it was my job to make accommodations for them. Less than 10 feet away in the small party room, a plate of glass separating us, the kids were bored. I was paid to entertain them and in my absence, they entertained themselves. They released their energy by screaming, running and jumping on each other. I turned my head in time to see a one of the boys swing his leg over the statue of Ronald McDonald, climbing on top of that smiling clown like it was boosting the boy above a crowd. A mother shooed him down as a couple of others tried to control the bedlam. Until then, I had been optimistic that I could get the party under control, but seeing that drained all hope out of me, and I felt very, very tired.

Like millions of teenagers, I worked at McDonald’s in high school. I was mostly tasked with cleaning or working the cash register, but a couple months in, I knew what would be best for me: I wanted to be a birthday party hostess.

The Appeal of Party Duty

Before me, it was Brittany. She was blond and doe-eyed with a penchant for blue eye makeup — very Barbie doll-esque. The way she handled the job, however, was not from a place of enthusiasm. She didn’t have the personality to carry a party and found them exhausting. In contrast, I approached it like a camp counselor, far too excited at the thought of instigating the fun. Hosting a party seemed like the best way to get paid and goof off at the same time.

“You don’t want to do it?” I asked her one day as she prepared her party supplies.

She shrugged, apathetic. “I mean, I’ll do it,” she said. “I don’t really care.”

My senior year of high school was winding down, and it was around this time that I decided to major in elementary education. I wasn’t inspired by a great teacher, an earnest love to touch a generation, or even a cable rebroadcast of “Dead Poets Society.” I was a class clown, not a teacher’s pet. I was also a teenager desperate to have some idea of where I was heading in life, even if it was the wrong direction. I made extra money babysitting, and kids seemed to like me. Plus, having my summers off would be pretty great.

I told a few grade school teachers about my future plans at my younger sister’s eighth-grade graduation, and their reactions were not what I had been expecting.

“Oh, really? Well … good luck?”

One teacher actually laughed. “Are you serious?” she asked. “You’re going to be a teacher?”

Despite the detractors, I went forward with my decision. I told my manager at McDonald’s about my future plans and that, unlike Brittany, I actually wanted to host parties. I started by shadowing her and then hosted one for a preschooler while Brittany supervised. It was a blast. The kids were into it, the parents were great, and everything went smoothly.

“The parties are not always like this,” Brittany told me, but I didn’t believe her.

It turned out that the vast majority of parties were for first birthdays. One-year-olds, though cute, are not able to do anything but sit in a high chair. I was still expected to find ways to get them to participate in the party. I would play the clothespin game for them, holding the clothespin up to my nose and dropping it in a Ronald McDonald cup on the floor.

“You did it!” I would cry out, as the baby stared back at me.

The Biggest Party

For a long time, the worst party was the one that ended with almost an entire birthday cake smashed to the wall. Then, one day, I came into work to a note that mentioned today’s party would be different. The birthday boy was a 9-year-old, and he had invited his entire fourth grade class. They didn’t have an exact number, but I was told to prepare for 30 kids. Not only was it an older party than normal, but it had far and away more kids than I had ever had at one party.

The kids trickled in while I was still getting ready and preparing the favor bags. The room went from a few boys and girls to a sudden flood of youth, all of them talking over each other and poking each other and messing around the way fourth-graders do. To say it was overwhelming would be an understatement, especially when it turned out there were more than 30 kids — 39 kids total — and I had find places for them.

It was a busy Saturday, one that would leave the entire place bombarded for hours. In customer service fields like fast food or retail, the focus is getting customers in and out as quickly as possible. Everyone has their tasks to complete, and stopping to do anything else knocks the cogs out of whack. The responsibility of this party was all mine, and no one could help me.

After I set places for the extra kids, I asked the birthday boy’s mother what food order I should place for the party. In most cases, the families made it easy and I was told to get all the kids Chicken McNugget or Hamburger Happy Meals. It was not going to be that simple this time.

“Get what every kid wants,” she said.

I took individual orders from every single child: 39 individual orders. I knelt down next to them as they sat on child-size plastic stools. I tracked down kids who ran across the room before I could get to them. I asked, “What do you wanna eat?” so many times that it went from words to sounds. I confronted picky eaters whose preferences baffled me.

Mission Impossible

“A cheeseburger without cheese,” one of the boys told me.

“OK, a hamburger,” I said as I wrote it down.

“A cheeseburger without cheese,” he insisted.

“A cheeseburger without cheese is a hamburger,” I told him, my patience wearing out.

“Nooo,” he insisted. “A cheeseburger without cheese! Hamburgers don’t taste right.”

Taking all those orders, giving them to the people working in the kitchen and collecting the food as it was made all took time. A lot of time. The wait was even longer with the craziness in the rest the restaurant. From the counter where I was gathering the Happy Meals, I could see the mother craning her head to look at me, then turning back to the other mothers, shaking her head. I felt each horrible second passing.

“Everything else will be here soon!” I said every time I carried another batch to the table. There were mixups and unclaimed orders (“Hamburger with only ketchup! Who ordered a hamburger with only ketchup?”).

Trying to play games with a party this big was impossible. By the time they finished eating, sang happy birthday, and cut the cake, the kids were dying to get to their sugar rush out on the Playplace. I passed out their party bags and faced the mess they left behind.

Will There Be Anything Else?

The party ended with me sitting on one of those stools, my knees sticking out, while my manager apologized to the mother, who was “extremely disappointed” in how everything turned out. She gave me a sour look as she looked down at me. Under her arm was a bag with leftover party favors. I had to throw together more of them in a rush and there were more than necessary. She was taking home the extra toys and trinkets and I felt too defeated to say anything about it.

I had never taken on that many kids at one time, and my confidence was shaken. I told myself that if I couldn’t handle this birthday party, there’s no way I would be able to control a classroom. I was a couple of months from starting college, but I already knew I would be changing my major as soon as possible.

Looking back now, more than 10 years later, it’s insane that I was expected to take on so much alone and that I was so hard on myself. I can’t blame the mother for being upset when she’s paying for a party and everything is in the hands of a nervous 17-year-old. I had underestimated that by the time I got to a classroom setting, I would have be the authority figure, and that I would be trained on how to handle those situations.

Still, even if this party had gone well, I wouldn’t be a teacher today. The truth was that my heart wasn’t in it. It should go without saying, but going into education for summers off is the worst reason to be a teacher. At 17, I was still grasping for a direction in life, and students deserve educators who are passionate and patient.

So thank you, McDonald’s, for helping me decide what I don’t want to do.

This post originally appeared on The Billfold.

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