It’s the middle of a hot summer’s day. Ninety-six on the ground, one hundred-fifteen on the roof. The humidity is hovering just over ninety-eight percent, as I’m told it always does in southern Louisiana throughout the sweltering summers. Our crew chief calls the roofing crew down for a much needed break. As the paint crew joins us under the shade of a large tree in the side yard, we reflect on the harsh realities of labor intensive careers.
Together these crews add up to fourteen students and four adults. We have come together from various locations in Texas and Florida for a week long project. Our goal is to re-paint and re-roof this house in a low income neighborhood just outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in just five days. We have come together through World Changers, a Baptist organization that brings teens from across the country together to help repair homes at no cost to the owner.
Early Monday morning our group converges on our target house to start our work on the leaky roof and bare metal siding. We split into two crews; paint and roof. Between the six students and two adults on the roofing crew we have a total of two hours of previous experience. None the less, we charge in head first, removing the roof on one side of the house. As the day passes the sun gets hotter and hotter as the black tar paper and shingles steam and burn with the heat of the hottest kiln. We are ordered down every hour for water and a cool down. As the day goes on muscles burn, joints scream out in pain, and my head pounds like a bass drum. Finally, after eight hours under the brutal sun we pack up and head back to the church that is housing us this week for an icy shower, a warm meal, and a cool sleeping bag.
In the morning we feel further exhaustion than the night before. Never before have I felt fatigue to this extent. Still, we trudge our way to the vans for another day in the blistering sun. By the time we leave late in the afternoon we all have sore arms and wrists, accompanied by the persistent itch of fiberglass clinging to our arms.
By Friday we are into the routine and have the end of the roof in sight. We are all exhausted, but in good spirits, joking and enjoying ourselves despite the record heat. As our crew chief calls us down for a break from the boiling roof, one of our crew notes that the glue on the shingles is doing just that, boiling. As we gather around a shady tree one crew member inquires, “Who could honestly work like this five days a week, all year round, for the rest of their life?”
The city inspector overseeing our project adds, “A crew of ten roofers usually does two or three houses per day, yet roofers only earn about $28,000 in a year.” That astounds everyone in our group, since it took all the energy the eight of us could muster up to completer our tiny roof in 5 slow days. It is unanimous that if this was any of our careers we would probably all die of starvation. I joke “Why do I want to go to college? ‘Cause I would die as a roofer.'” Everyone laughs, but after a brief discussion we come to the conclusion that we were all fortunate to have a strong education, along with the opportunity to further our education if we choose to do so.
As we make our way back to the roof, finish the last of the shingles, and say our final goodbyes to the owner, I think of the times I had shrugged off what I saw as pointless homework. Looking back, I realize that those little homework assignments and grades do translate into one thing, my future. Sure maybe not every assignment or lesson will apply to our future career, but by blowing off the chance to learn something new we may be at the same time closing the door to a future opportunity. Even after the goodbyes and the plane ride home, that idea has still stuck with me. This trip taught me just how important it is to serve others, but it also showed me how education allows us to choose which path we want to take in life, even if we choose to become a roofer.
Matthew Atha of Carlsbad, California won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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