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Trial By Fire

April 18, 1996

The pungent odor of industrial detergent filled my nostrils as hot plates scorched my palms through thin plastic gloves. I quickly stacked dishes in neat piles, threw pots and pans on a shelf, and grouped steaming glasses in grids. A fellow student quickly jammed plates into the other side of the monstrous, fire-breathing machine — he was the source of all of my labor; the faster he pushed carts through, the more quickly I had to dry the items and sort them. A fast loader could have us scurrying off to our precious little remaining free time in as little as twenty minutes of work, while a lackadaisical loader could have us in slow-motion, taking as much as three hours to complete the job. Of course, a lot of it depended on the dinner, too. A sticky dinner meant more detailed washings, and an increased likelihood of a dish emerging yet soiled from the machine. Such dishes when come through would be quickly placed upon a metal shelf barely within arms reach. A quick cry of “Pots!” would be sufficient to summon the two poor wretches assigned to scrub these out in addition to those that didn’t fit in the machine: the stickiest, nastiest, and largest items of the crew. These were usually the outcasts and those low on the social ladder, i.e., the middle-schoolers. I had had my hour in that section, and I was none too eager to repeat the experience.

None of us were here by choice: what freshman would wash dishes voluntarily? Despite the fact that we had been bound together arbitrarily by faculty disconnected from our lives, we often managed to get along quite sociably. We would talk about who had placed well in the last Debate Tournament, and when our basketball team would be playing next and with whom, and we would whine about our interminable French assignments and cold girls, and frequently gossip against Wesley, the wall-eyed dork of our class. Since rubbing a towel against china doesn’t usually provide a great deal of entertainment to the average high-school freshman, we would also find our own ways to entertain ourselves during crew. For instance, we composed and sung “We Didn’t Break the Dishes” [to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel] a few times. We made up the lyrics during a very boring study hall:

We didn’t break the dishes,

They were always broken

And we’re not jokin’. (x2)

Pots, pans, silverware

Hither, thither, everywhere… 

And on the song went. (I have trouble remembering the rest)

But our entertainment and social contact extended beyond chatter. Doing dishes put me in a quiet, philosophical mood, and it was not rare to see me engaged in deep, philosophical discussion with a junior or senior while drying plates. We talked over God, the Bible, and spiritualistic books that we had read recently, even ones related to animals. (In such a discussion, a senior pointed out a wonderful trilogy called “Duncan Quest” that was completely about moles and quite possibly one of the best books that I have read — the only books that I have shed tears over) I really got to know fellow students that I would not have had contact with otherwise than through crew, and exchange ideas, thoughts, gossip, and jokes. (A joke I learned in crew about a man urinating in a bar is hilarious, but perhaps not appropriate for this essay)

Our olio of arbitrarily chosen students turned into a social group as we worked. This group taught me how to better understand and cope with my world, how to laugh at my mistakes, and how to swear in Mandarin. It was a bittersweet experience, an unpleasant growth and maturation, but now, with all said and done, I am happy that I was tried by the fiery dishwashing machine.

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