By Terri Rowe
Secret identities aren’t just for super heroes. You might not know it to look at me, but I have one, too. In my everyday life, I am an ordinary blue-collar worker. I have held a wide variety of jobs since my youth, from food service to factory. But there is more to me than what you see.
For the past 17 years, I worked at a tier-one auto parts supply plant. I assembled the components of automotive interiors: headliners, floor consoles, overhead consoles. These days, I continue to work in manufacturing. However, my role will soon be changing as I train to become a technical operator focused on the building of hybrid batteries. The work I do on a daily basis consumes my energy and time, but it isn’t who I really am.
The work has been steady, but never easy. It has been hard to be part of the working class that people deride. I worked for a shop that was non-union, and people would still complain that the employees sweating it out on the production floor were bleeding the company’s resources dry.
My fellow workers and I have endured a lot in this ever-changing global economy. There have been multiple pay cuts. The stress that comes with those can be harrowing. Even before our last pay cut, when I was considering buying my own home for the first time in my life, I qualified for a low-income loan. And yet, some survey indicated to the CEO of our company that my coworkers and I were overpaid for employees in our region, so a thirty percent pay cut was in order.
I stayed with my job even as its ability to support me dwindled. There were no other companies hiring in my region. I was one of the lucky ones; I managed to keep my home. For the first time in my life, I was grateful I didn’t have children as I watched my friends struggle to support their families. It was so discouraging to see so many people whose homes were foreclosed having to move in with either their elderly parents or their adult children.
Please understand: I’ve always been grateful to have a job to go to each day. I am proud of the high-quality parts that I make with my hands and by the sweat of my brow. I am proud that I push my body to its limits and follow long-held traditions in my family.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked as a temporary worker in a furniture manufacturing company. I helped assemble small- to medium-sized filing cabinets. One of the jobs I was trained for was a final inspection. When I told my dad, he said that was something his father used to do in the 1950s when he worked at a refrigerator manufacturer. He was known as the ding man because he could repair any dent or nick at the final inspection post. Since my grandfather had passed away years before I was born, I felt a strong connection to him through my work and a great pride.
The next permanent job I got was the one for the automotive supply company. I was proud to start working there; again I felt a family connection, this time to my mother’s father who spent many years working on the assembly line for a taxi cab company.
But the work was hard. There were efficiency goals that had to be met, no excuses. It was hot, well above 120 degrees Fahrenheit over by the forming press. I was highly allergic to some of the chemicals. This caused my skin to peel off in sheets; I would wake up with blood smeared across my pillow. My friend Brandi would say, quite often, I know this isn’t what my mama had in mind when she used to dress me up in lace ankle socks, patent leather shoes, and a frilly dress. I had to agree. Would any mom wish this for their child? Would Kenny’s mom have envisioned this future for her son when she dressed him in short pants, knee socks, and a clip-on tie each Sunday? Family traditions aside, this is no parent’s dream for their child.
I persevered with that job, eventually getting transferred to another plant. I know some people will argue as long as they have breath that production workers of most stripes are overpaid. And I know that in some cases this is true. But what I have witnessed every day is people working extremely hard to reach ambitious goals, people who sacrifice the strength and health of their bodies to complete their work to exacting standards. The processes are difficult. Even when you take great care, there is the possibility of injury, especially due to repetitive motion. By the time most of my friends will be able to retire, they will not have a very high level of physical health left with which to enjoy their “golden years.” Most of them will never actually be able to fully retire. This is a truth I accepted for myself long ago.
I know what brought me down the path I’ve traveled. In my youth, I suffered from an incredible lack of foresight. I tried going to college. I took out loans and cheerily went off to my freshman year. Yet, when I saw the amount of money I needed to borrow at the start of each semester, it made me physically ill. I had no idea how I’d ever pay off such a high debt load.
I took on a job working third shift. My attention to my school work diminished with each hour I worked, and I eventually quit college all together. A friend’s mother asked me, “Doesn’t it feel better to earn money than to spend it?” I had to agree with her…it did.
And yet, even as I toiled away in the various jobs I worked, accepting my identity as a factory rat, I still kept a dream from my childhood alive. I had a secret purpose, a secret identity.
When I was four years old, I was still an only child. I loved a television show about a large family growing up in Virginia during the 1930s. I really identified with the oldest child in the family because he wanted to be a writer. I knew, even at that young age, that I wanted that, too. I also really wanted six younger brothers and sisters. When we went places, like to the park, and people would ask me what my name was, I would happily tell them it was John-Boy. They would look quizzically at my mother. She would just shrug. She wasn’t one to stifle her children in any way, even if her little girl told everyone she met that her name was John-Boy Walton.
Over the years, I have continued to write. My work has always been busy and intense for my physical being, but I’ve had plenty of time to allow my mind to wander, exploring story lines, working out plot points, developing characters. At the end of my shift, I would hurry home to capture my ideas on paper.
I managed to get one short story published once. I entered a contest in our local paper. Sometimes I think that maybe the only reason I won was because I was the only one who entered, but really, it was the encouragement I needed to keep dreaming.
I found my way back to college, eventually. I went to school strictly to study all the subjects that interested me and would feed my soul as a writer. My degree may not ever translate into a high-paying job, but it gave me exactly what I needed. As I studied the human narrative through literature and psychology, I learned to understand myself more and how my story fits in with everyone else’s story. I managed to have great success with my studies as an adult, 20 years after my first attempt.
I found a new path as a writer when a friend encouraged me to write a story as a present for a Christmas gift exchange. I ended up writing a children’s story for my coworker’s daughter. It was very much appreciated.
Since then, I’ve continued to write stories as a way to share thoughts and ideas with my friends and their children. My writing dreams and goals may be small and personal. I may never be widely read. I may never make a best sellers list. But I am a writer nonetheless. This is who I really am.
Photo provided by Terri Rowe.