By Christina Quarles, Senior Writer, 18, Palisades Charter HS
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Christina has gained experience while working as a cashier at Sizzler, her most recent job.
Photo by Katie Havard, 18, Beverly Hills HS

Many of my friends and peers are just now getting their first jobs. They come to me and explain how nervous and excited they are to go on their first interviews. I tell them to relax and try to show off their best qualities. Most people and even I find it remarkable that I have been working since the age of 13.

I remember when my Aunt Lecie opened her soul food restaurant in Inglewood. Every Sunday her restaurant would be full of people coming in after church to try some of my aunt’s delicious soul food. She served French toast, burgers, jambalaya, chitterlings, baked and fried chicken, peach cobbler, cornbread and German chocolate cake that would make your mouth water.

She covered her restaurant with Christian decorations, which reminded me of how important God is to my family. In the front near the register there was a giant brown cross on the highest self. She had framed Bible quotes on the walls and a giant screen TV that showed a Christian network.

My aunt allowed many of my older teenage cousins to work as cashiers, servers and busboys/girls. It seemed as though my cousins made a fortune. Every week they would come to school with the latest Jordans they’d bought with their earnings from tips and wages. Unlike most kids my age who simply wanted to watch TV or hang out, I wanted to work side-by-side with my cousins. When I was 12 I thought it would be really cool to work in the restaurant with my family, and I knew I would be able to buy all the luxuries I wanted, such as video games and expensive clothes that my parents would not buy. However, my aunt told me that I would have to wait until I was 13.

I was finally old enough to work for my aunt

Once I turned 13 I was ecstatic to begin working that summer in my aunt’s restaurant. I showed up 30 minutes early on the first day. I had to wear black shoes and pants with a white button-up shirt and a green apron. I started out as a busgirl. On the first day I was shown where everything was and how to make drinks and clean off the tables. My aunt told me I would have to memorize the menu, learn how to balance a tray and clean the tables quickly before I could become a waitress, or to be politically correct a “server.” I tried to absorb as much as I could on the first day.

Everything came fairly easy to me—balancing trays, serving drinks, cleaning tables, etc. The most difficult task was appearing naturally friendly to the customers. My aunt told me that my smile seemed “forced,” which it was because I (and many other members of my family) tend to have a very stern look. But I did my best and my aunt and older cousins recognized it.

I would come in about three times a week and would work for five hours on slow days so I could get the hang of it. Even though minimum wage was $6.75 at the time, my aunt paid us $6 an hour. However, she didn’t take out taxes and called it even. For lunch we got to eat for free, but only the cheaper, easier-to-make items like burgers.

Once my aunt noticed that I was catching on she decided to have me work on their busiest day, Sunday. The restaurant would be so crowded that I would often have to help the other servers serve food. I would be frantically walking around getting one person napkins while someone else asked me for a drink. I pushed a cart with a bucket on the inside and filled it with dirty dishes from the tables. Then I swept under the table, wiped it down, and reset it with a placing. Sometimes customers would look at me and ask how old I was, and I would simply reply, “13.” They were very surprised and questioned why I was working at such a young age. I explained to them that my aunt owned the restaurant. Some looked reassured, others seemed concerned. But either way I knew what I was doing was rare and I was very proud.

I inherited my family’s strong work ethic

The best part about being a busgirl was receiving 10 percent of all the servers’ tips. On a busy Sunday I would sometimes receive $40. The bad part was that being a busgirl is often the most tiring position in any busy restaurant. One day after work I got home and immediately plopped down on the couch in the living room. The aches from standing for so long settled in. I shifted, desperately searching for relaxation. I glanced at my father’s favorite chair in the house; he was in it, fully reclined, in a deep sleep. I gazed at his paint-splattered clothes, tattered old work boots and blistered hands. I knew not to disturb him, and instead I watched his chest rise and fall with each deep breath he took. I saw that he too was exhausted after a long day of construction work.

A faint grin emerged from the corners of my mouth. I was reminded of how endurance is one of my family’s characteristics. The Bible says, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-4). This scripture has manifested in my life and within my family. My grandfather did not receive a high school diploma; yet he overcame, and even became one of the first black contractors in Los Angeles. My grandmother indefinitely postponed her dream of going to college so that she could raise her 16 children. My Aunt Lecie was the third of those children and my father was the last. I lay there, gazing at my father, feeling the pressure of my eyelids steadily increase. The thought of my family’s history eased some of my weariness. Slowly, I drifted into a peaceful sleep.

After seven years of running her restaurant my aunt grew tired and decided to close it. I had worked there for only four weeks. The following summer, I was involved in the Summer Youth Employment Program, which was basically a program that found jobs for 14- to 21-year-olds around the city for eight weeks out of the summer. I was in this program for three years. The first year I worked at the Inglewood DMV. I didn’t like the work—filing papers and shredding files. I would have much rather preferred to be running around my aunt’s busy restaurant cleaning the tables as quickly as possible. My next summer in the program was spent on the UCLA campus sorting mail and stamping envelopes. During my final summer I worked at the Boys & Girls Club of Venice supervising children. Working with kids was a hassle but it forced me to be patient and showed me how much of an influence I can have on a child’s life.

Now I work at Sizzler as a cashier and it’s actually the fifth job I have had. I’ve been working there for 10 months, the longest I have ever had a job. I applied for more than 10 restaurant jobs and went on so many interviews but Sizzler is the one that hired me. I know that Sizzler is giving me the experience I need to move on to a higher-end restaurant or better job opportunity. I am currently searching for a new job, and once I find one I will stop working at Sizzler. I want a new job because I’m still just a cashier after 10 months. I know that with the experience that I have I can find better opportunities elsewhere. I’m going to miss working at Sizzler, serving my regular customers and laughing with my managers and coworkers, one who has become a friend. But I also know I need to do what is best for me. Sizzler got me to where I am now and I am grateful for that. However, I don’t believe anyone should stay in a place that prevents them from growing or progressing to the next level. It is simply time for me to move on.

Working in general has taught me responsibility, how to handle money, how to be punctual and how to be professional. More importantly it has tested me. There have been times when I didn’t like my coworkers, times when I’ve wanted to give a rude customer a piece of my mind, and many times when I’ve wanted to give up. But I haven’t, and I won’t, because just like my grandparents, I will continue to endure and achieve.

All of these jobs have been a great experience, but none of them are quite like my first job. I can no longer get angry at my cousin Tiffany for leaving too many plates on the table, or compete with my cousin Breynne over who can clean the best and the fastest, or complain that my cousin Akida is too bossy. And I can no longer proudly proclaim to customers, “My name is Christina Quarles, I am 13 years old, and this is my aunt’s restaurant.” I cherish the memories I have working with my family.

Today I am embarrassed, yet at the same time proud, to say that I have been working since I was 13 years old. I’m embarrassed because I don’t know anyone my age who has worked like that. When I tell people (which is rare), I worry that I’m giving them the impression that my family is poor or that I was forced to work to help my family, which is not the case at all. The truth is I begged my aunt when I was 12 to work but she would not permit it. I saw my cousins who went to school with me working with my other family members, and I wanted to join them. I wanted to make $6 an hour, which is a fortune to a 13-year-old, and $40 cash just from tips and be able to spend it on whatever I liked. Right now, the money I earn from working is going toward a car I intend on buying (with my parent’s help) before college. I am proud because I believe my family epitomizes the results of perseverance and hard work.

Throughout my life my mother has always told me that everyone is dealt a certain hand in life, and all I can do is make the very best of what has been given to me. I know that I have been blessed and I took advantage of my resources as best as possible. Statistically speaking I’m not supposed to have achieved what I already have. I come from humble beginnings. I spent the first 13 years of my life in South Central and I am the first person in my immediate family who will receive a bachelor’s degree. I have and will continue to achieve. Some may call it luck, others may say it is self-motivation, but I know that my achievements are blessings due to the values and work ethic my family has instilled in me.

Now I know that I am ready to go out into the real world and accomplish goals my parents and grandparents always dreamed of. I will never forget the values of family and work ethic that I learned working in my aunt’s restaurant. It helped me in school and at the other jobs I had afterwards. I will learn, I will succeed, so that my children can have an easier beginning in life.

Click here to read Se’s story about learning the rewards of saving money and how to open a bank account.

Click here to check out our special issue dedicated to jobs from 2003.

Other stories by this writer …

Building Hope. When Christina, 17, went to New Orleans to repair a home damaged by Hurricane Katrina, she realized that helping others strengthened her faith. (January – February 2008)

I got caught. Feeling unprepared for a quiz, Christina, 17, peeked at her neighbor’s paper. (May – June 2007)

Enough violence! Christina, 17, says a stranger’s death made her look at violence in her community differently. (January – February 2007)

When can teens work?

Work hours for teens ages 14 and 15

Work hours
• 7 a.m.–7 p.m., from Labor Day–June 1
• Not during school hours
• 7 a.m.–9 p.m., from June 1–Labor Day

Maximum hours when school is in session
18 hours a week, but not more than:
• 3 hours a day on school days
• 8 hours a day Saturday–Sunday and holidays

Maximum hours when school is not in session
• 40 hours a week
• 8 hours a day

Work hours for teens ages 16 and 17

Work hours
• 5 a.m.–10 p.m. when there is school the next day
• 5 a.m.–12:30 a.m. when there is no school the next day

Maximum hours when school is in session
48 hours a week, but not more than:
• 4 hours a day Monday–Thursday
• 8 hours a day Friday–Sunday and holidays

Maximum hours when school is not in session
• 48 hours a week
• 8 hours a day