School isn’t the only place to get an education.
In fact, some of the best education I have ever received was at McDonald’s. Yes, the place with the golden arches.
The origins of the fast-food chain have found the spotlight in recent days, as the film “The Founder” was released in theaters. In the movie, Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, the once-struggling milkshake machine salesman who became fascinated by the concept of the original McDonald’s in California and set about turning the hamburger stand into a global franchise.
I look forward to seeing the film, if only because Keaton is in it and he’s been on a hot streak the last couple of years. (Did you see “Spotlight”? You should see it.)
As the ads and trailers for ‘The Founder” have flooded TV and the web recently, I’ve found myself reflecting on the first job I ever had when I was a teenager. Yep, it was at McDonald’s. I worked my way through high school, and even a good chunk of college, under those golden arches.
Like so many positive experiences in my life, that first job happened because of my grandmother. This was back in the mid-1990s, and I was a student at Abbeville High. A new McDonald’s was to be constructed in the small town, and my grandma -- a firm believer in the Lord, family and an honest day’s work, in that order -- insisted that I apply for a job there. And by “insisted that I apply,” I mean that she went ahead and spoke with someone at the employment office and got it lined up for me.
And so, like countless other teenagers in the U.S. and abroad, I set about flipping burgers and cooking French fries and running the drive-thru and all that stuff. Working a few hours after school and longer shifts on the weekends. I always preferred opening the store on the weekends, getting in there and slinging biscuits at 5 or 6 a.m., so that I could get off earlier and go do something in the afternoon or evening.
Because I have a tendency get involved with things and, well, just keep hanging around, I ended up working there for years. I started out as a member of the “crew,” then became a crew chief, then a manager and, eventually, while I was still in college, the store manager. I literally did everything from cleaning bathrooms to hiring and firing.
As I said earlier, it was one of the best educations I could have received. Not an education in the academic sense, of course, but an education in real life. It taught me how to handle money (both at a cash register and via a meager, but appreciated, paycheck). It taught me how to deal with the public, with people from all walks of life. Trust me when I tell you that eventually EVERYONE walks into a McDonald’s.
Working at McDonald’s also helped teach me, as a young man, some of the challenges of the working class. While many of my co-workers were teenagers, there were also plenty of adults employed there. Single moms who were forever looking to work a few more hours, trying to figure out a way to keep the lights on. Dads who were working there as a second job, hoping to bring home a little extra. Folks who lost a manufacturing job and were using a gig at McDonald’s as a stop-gap until another industrial opportunity popped open.
These were eye-openers for a privileged high school kid. I was lucky to grow up comfortably. My parents were both schoolteachers, and worked hard to provide for my brother and me. Of course I knew that wasn’t everyone’s experience. But going to work at Mickey D’s brought it into sharp focus. I worked, and developed lasting friendships, with folks who were just trying to make it. Make it to the end of their shift. Make it to the next payday. Make it to the next opportunity.
And we had some fun while we were doing it. I once fancied myself the fastest Big Mac maker in the Upstate, second only, perhaps, to a gentleman named Foster Morris.
Like many, I appreciate what I gained from my high school and college experiences. And I’ve certainly gained quite a bit of perspective from nearly 13 years in journalism. But I also cherish the real-life education I received years ago under the golden arches. I wouldn’t trade that period of my life for anything.
The apple pies weren’t bad, either.
Chris Trainor is a contributing columnist for the Index-Journal. Contact him at ChrisTrainorSC@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter@ChrisTrainorSC. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.