Twenty years later, much had improved. Children no longer worked in mines, but whenever there was need, which was all the time, many of us found a way to earn money.
In July of 1956, while other girls spent their days at the town beach, I worked my first full-time job in a sweatshop; it was not a fun job. I was just 15. In those days children under 16 were no longer allowed to work in factories, but because I am tall, I lied about my age and easily passed for 16. No one ever asked to see a birth certificate or a “picture ID.” Nevertheless, whenever the authorities came to inspect the shop, the owner had me hide.
My duties at the shop were simple. At first I merely trimmed finished garments, preparing them for shipping. Soon after, the operators taught me to run the button and buttonholer machines, and I started earning “real” money. Thankfully, high school graduation marked the end of my career at the sweatshop. I had an opportunity to attend a four-year-college — the first in my family to live that dream. I walked away from the factory, but not without a backward look.
Admittedly, I carried away a few fond memories of the place, along with some not-so-fond memories. Still, working there I had been able to earn much needed money for commuting expenses, to buy text books and pay student fees for my first year at the City College of New York.
Because I was a good student, I had learned a lot of things at the sweatshop — things that had nothing to do with stitching on buttons or working perfect buttonholes, or even the complexities of marketing children’s garments — things that before taking the job I didn’t know I would need to learn. Yet, without a doubt the most important lesson I had mastered after working three long summers at the factory was that I would never return. Never. No matter what other people said about being able to earn good money or being prideful. I would never go back.