New York Times Essays

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A plumber’s daughter and a young man fascinated with garbage trucks take on jobs that few of their peers would want.

A dish washer rides home in the middle of the school night, flashcards in hand.

The shattered plate was only one of the many worries fighting relentlessly inside my head for attention — there was the Advanced Placement United States history midterm, a low grade in calculus, the eviction notice, a little brother getting into trouble and a dozen other smaller but pressing concerns.

For me, there was no calling in sick to clear my head, getting some much needed rest or carving out study time before an upcoming exam. I shut up, got back to work and pushed with all the energy I had left. I boarded the bus home and took out my notes to study.

However, it would be a while before I could join them in sleep. I venture that most people would struggle to tell the difference between a regular 90-degree PVC elbow and a street 90.

These are skills and distinctions I have learned over the past five years as an assistant to my dad in his one-man plumbing business.

I knew all too well the symptoms of bottling up my emotions — the bitter taste of salt in each drop of sweat, losing myself in the background music and the muscle aches were nothing new to me. I got the usual looks from people fresh out of bars or parties, either because of the stench of a hard night’s work on my clothes or because I was muttering to myself while feverishly flipping flashcards on a bus in the middle of the night. I was used to those too, and they were nothing more than another set of speed bumps in the way of achieving my goals.

I was tired of seeing childhood friends flashing gang signs, relatives glued to the beer bottle or my dad coming home late at night with burn scars from work.

But the money in our heads is a lot harder to arrange, lost as it often is in a haze of volatile emotions, pride and shame, jubilation and despair.

Reckoning with these feelings is hard, which is why people don’t talk about them much. Six years ago, I started asking high school seniors to send in any college application essay that happened to be about money, work, social class or related topics.

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