One of my grandsons won the Lunch Bucket Award on his high school football team a couple weeks ago. And his father’s reaction to it and mine surprised me, especially for what it showed about class differences across generations.
The Lunch Bucket Award is given each week to the player who made the greatest contribution during practice in the week leading up to the Friday night game. My grandson is a third-string running back on a state-ranked top 20 team, and he seldom gets into the game unless his team is way ahead – and sometimes, not even then. He was proud to get the award and, as required, to carry a somewhat rusty lunch bucket to all his classes for the week after the game. His father, my son, was dismissive of it, calling it “the tackling dummy award” and suggesting that it should have been humiliating to lug an old-time lunch bucket around for a week – signaling to all his classmates that he was not first-team.
My grandson is an exuberant, talkative, sort-of-flashy 16-year-old who both teachers and coaches have designated as “very coachable.” He’s not that interested in academics, and school has never come easy to him, but he works hard and brings home good grades and is diligently prepping for his ACT test so he can “get into a really good college.” As an athlete he has some natural ability, and he’s a really good wrestler, but his main assets even there are self-discipline, the ability to learn and improve, and his willingness to work hard so he can do a good job.
His job as a practice-squad running back is to learn the offensive scheme of each week’s opponent, and then run it as good as he can to prepare the first-team defense for what they will face Friday night. It is potentially a highly confusing intellectual assignment, learning a new set of plays each week, followed by running hard and being tackled by the hardest hitting players at his school. It seems like highly honorable work to me, where the “dummy” part of “tackling dummy” is clearly not appropriate. But even more honorable is the grit it takes to do it at all, let alone to do it well “when nobody is watching” (except, of course, his teammates and coaches, who gave him an award for it).
Sports iconography is, of course, full of working-class imagery about “blue-collar” players who “simply show up for work and do a good job,” and who get little or no recognition for what they do – unless, of course, they do it badly. The old-time barn-shaped lunch bucket is a particularly powerful symbol of this steady, reliable, just doing-your-part work ethic — especially when your part is dirty, distasteful, or dangerous, or maybe just monotonous in a way that middle-class people sometimes call “mind-numbing” or “soul-deadening.” Most work that needs to be done in our society is like this. Even though what is often called “unskilled work” almost always requires a wide variety of skills to actually do a good job, these jobs also require a daily kind of self-sacrifice that is hard, very hard, to do day in and day out – and that is actively disrespected in our mainstream culture with its celebration of the best and the brightest, the entrepreneurs and the innovators. Sports is just about the only place in America that ever recognizes and celebrates the value of those who “simply show up every day and do a good job” at the kind of work upon which everything else, including all of us, depends.
My wife and I were raised in families that carried those kinds of lunch buckets to those kinds of jobs, and though once upon a time we did, too, for a while, we’re both glad we never had to find out whether we could have summoned the everyday courage, the true grit it takes to do it for a lifetime.
We were well on our way to becoming thoroughly middle class by the time our son was our grandson’s age, but even as well-educated grown-ups we didn’t know how to properly raise middle-class children — in what sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” Our son knows that and, while he’s very forgiving of us, he’s bound and determined to raise his children in that way – to make sure they have the education and skills they’ll need to avoid lunch-bucket jobs and to cultivate that never-settle-for-second-best achievement-orientation that so many middle-class people think is essential to living a good life. He has a middle-class job at which he earns a very good living, but just as our fathers did, he hates both the work itself and the kind of work he does. He wants better than that for his kids, and for him the Lunch Bucket Award somehow seemed to challenge that aspiration.
Our grandson needs no help from us in pushing back against his father. When asked if he was demoralized at not getting much playing time, he said, “No, I’m a big part of this team. On the practice squad I help the first team get better – and that puts me out there on the field even when I’m not actually out there.” I got a little too emotional in trying to congratulate him for his Lunch Bucket Award by referencing my grandfather (his great-great grandfather) who, as he knows from family legend, walked out of a steel mill in 1916 “on his own” right after losing both arms in a rolling mill. I said something like, “That’s an award for character, buddy, and that will be with you long after you can’t juke and jive anymore.” He said, “Huh?” Followed by a polite, though possibly comprehending, “Thanks, Pap.”
I understand that sky-high, you-can-do-anything aspirations — even when palpably illusory – can spur young people onward and upward in healthy ways. I also understand why parents often fear low expectations for their kids. But finding out what are realistic aspirations and expectations for ourselves and our children is a tricky business, and it will not help to believe that “you can never aim too high.” Most of us are going to need some lunch-bucket mentality for some or all of our lives. We’ll need the steady will to do what we have to do to earn a living and to have the personal integrity to do a good job even when we don’t feel like it and nobody is watching. I loved my job as a teacher, but even on my best days at work I brought that mentality with me just in case I needed it — and because I couldn’t shake it if I wanted to. My son is a maniac helicopter parent who hates his job, but he does it conscientiously and well more than five days a week. His son undoubtedly has noticed that.
Sometimes, for both good and ill, parents teach their children less with what they say than with what they do. For parents, somebody is always watching. Congratulations, Max, for finally getting our family a Lunch Bucket Award.
Chicago Working-Class Studies