My father taught me to clean a kitchen when I was seven. He taught me and my older sister at the same time while we were living in the farmhouse in Gordonsville. The impetus for this lesson in housewifery was that my mother was bedridden at the time, experiencing a very tough fifth pregnancy with my brother Abe.
Abe made mama sick. He made her sick unto weakness for nearly the whole nine months, if I remember correctly. So Sophie and I learned to wash dishes by hand and clean bathrooms, and do a little rudimentary cooking. From then on, I remember cleaning the kitchen with my siblings after every meal, and conducted a cleaning day on Saturdays.
Although we didn’t generally get an allowance for those jobs, there were occasionally special jobs that we got paid for. Cleaning out the plastic pool, or cleaning out the attic, or cleaning out the fridge. The windfall, for these special jobs, was an overwhelming $3. Three dollars, carried into the Lebanon Walmart, would buy you one pack of Juicy Fruit and one Snapple lemon tea, with a few cents or so left over. We would make them last for a week.
So it was with much joy that I moved on to my first real paid job. When I was eleven or twelve, we were in Hermitage, and my dad’s old buddy started a recording project of Christian kids’ songs. It was going to be a series, put out by Tyndale, and they needed kids who could carry a tune and behave professionally.
My older sister, my younger sister, and I all got hired, along with two boys who belonged to another musical family down the road from us. The Franklins were also family friends.
It was a stupendous first job to have, really.
On a recording day, we three girls would wait by the door, our little lunchboxes packed with sandwiches and carrot sticks. The Franklin dad would pull into the driveway in their conversion van with the boys in tow, and we would all climb in and ride to the studio while most kids were riding to school.
We were homeschooled. We could do this kind of thing. (On a side note, the unlimited field days we took meant that we often worked, in a leisurely way, through the summer. I was able to graduate from high school at age 15, with a bit of money saved. I really think it’s a grand way to do education.)
The Franklin boys were the first boys our age we ever became real friends with. (If you want to know what the drawback to homeschooling is, you just found it.) It was from them we learned that boys like to make sound effects and pretend to crash things. It was from them we learned that all boys—not just our dad— like bathroom humor. It was from them that we learned how men and women can collaborate effectively in the workplace.
We would be crammed into a booth together for hours, getting take after take of songs like “99 sheep grazing out in the field, 99 sheep in the field,” which the writer had put to the tune of “99 Bottles of Beer.” (That song was about the parable of the one lost sheep.)
I still remember little studio tricks and phrases we had, like “Happy Happy, joy joy, Barnie KP.” The producer would say this to us when he wanted a pass that was especially smiley, especially bright sounding. “KP” stood for “Kiddie Pass.” Was it dumb sounding? Yes. Did it work? Usually it did. The other producer would sometimes make faces at us through the booth window, to remind us to smile wider and make our voices more childish and pronounced. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
We’d get breaks every hour or so, and were allowed to play on the swingset in the back yard. The studio was in the basement of the producer’s house, like most studios are. His wife and two little girls would talk to us when we went back into the kitchen on lunch break, and we would try not to bother them too much or be too loud.
We did dozens of songs, dozens of those happy little childrens’ songs, over months of working one day or two a week. They paid us by the record, and I think it worked out to about $8 an hour or something; I don’t know.
Did this violate child labor laws? Maybe. I doubt it. All I know is that we had a wonderful time and learned, and that you can’t beat experiences like these with 100% classroom instruction. You just can’t.
And hey—it sure did beat doing dishes.