The Paper Route
by Ronnie Ugulano
My son was about 18 months old, and homeschooling was not yet a serious consideration when I saw the advertisment that said our local newspaper was starting up a new kind of paper that would require people to deliver it. This sounded interesting to me, because right about that time, I was looking for a way to get out of the house and do something other than our regular routine. The idea of having some spending money appealed to me as well, although there weren't many job opportunities for a mom who wasn't interested in putting her child in daycare.
Even so, I approached the idea of this new kind of paper route with caution, because not only did I not want to work in a full time position, I didn't want to have to wake up at 4:00am to be able to make the 6:00am delivery deadline for the morning paper, either. I was happy to find out that this paper would be delivered only once a week during daylight hours, all materials would be provided, and there were no collections taken by the carriers. The only real catch was that I had to have a working car with proof of insurance, since it was a motor route, and I had to pick up the papers myself, between 8am and 9am at a designated location. It sounded good to me, so after investigating the validity of the claims, I signed up.
The first few weeks were very difficult, since I had to learn on my own the best way of going about handling the deliveries. Also, I had my son with me the whole time, and he was still nursing, so the going each delivery day was very slow. I'm sure that I took at least twice as long as any other carrier in those first few months. It's hard to say what kept me going (probably the money), but I stayed with it.
It took several months to get into a routine, folding my papers, getting the baby in the car seat, wending my way through my assigned neighborhood and popping in and out of the car to deliver each house.
My son was not known for his placid personality in those days, and since he refused to fall asleep in the car, by the time we were near the end of the route, he would be busting for action. It was always a race to see who would finish first, me delivering the papers, or his patience. After all of the work I had done just figuring this route out, I was not about to give in at this point. So, I put the kid to work. I assigned him the last 3 houses of the route. It gave him something to look forward to, an outlet for the building energy, and a sense of being "on the team".
His first day on the job, I stopped the car, got out and escorted him to each of the 3 houses. After all, he was still under 2 years old. However, after a couple of weeks, he was determined to do it himself. So, buried under his 3 papers, with his diaper waving in the breeze, the youngest paper delivery person in town delivered his "route". I drove in the car, keeping pace with his progress and cheered him on.
Before long, the neighbors noticed exactly who was delivering their paper, and at one time or another, they'd come out and greet him with a smile and a thank you, and from that time on, they began to look for our car and the young man who delivered the paper.
Sometimes on the way from one house to another, he'd notice a bug or a house decoration that merited some interest. I'd turn the car off, and get out to observe whatever it was with him. Sometimes, it would spark questions. If it was a bug that he had noticed, we'd talk about what kind of bug it was, and how they lived, and how things fit into the cycle of nature. If it was something about the houses that he noticed, we would talk about why people decorated their houses differently.
One day, as we came to "his" houses, we noticed that the man that lived in the middle house was starting a new project outside at the end of his driveway. For many weeks, we couldn't tell what it was, and the man never appeared during the time we were there so that we could ask, but we were very curious. After several months we finally caught him outside actually working on it! He told us he was building a statue of a man out of metal! Now that we knew what he was doing, every week we'd watch for signs of progress, and after a long time we could see the boots of the man, then his lower legs. Little by little, we watched a metal man grow from the bottom up.
By the time my capable assistant was about 3, he realized that he was missing out on working for the greater portion of the route. He wanted to know if he could help, starting with the beginning of the route. I had seen this day coming for some time. It, of course, meant that we would be back to taking twice as long to get the job done, but he was eager, and I hated to disappoint him. So starting with the next week, my son had a larger part in the business.
He didn't understand the concept of house address numbers yet, so the correct houses had to be identified in descriptive terms. "Do the yellow house" or "Do the white house, skip the gray house, and then do the green house". Sometimes there was confusion over which yellow house I meant, or "Was that do two and skip one or did you mean do one and skip two?"
Doing so many more houses meant that there were many more distractions. We always had to allow time to scratch the kitty cats behind the ears and check out the bug population. We got many learning and entertainment hours just out of watching ant hills. Often sprinklers were left on too long at a house, and we would stop to watch the ants rescuing their eggs and nymphs to dryer ground. All of these events sparked interesting conversations on why these things were the way they were. Much of our time driving in between deliveries was spent in discussion about what we observed on the route.
Being a working man and all, meant that my assistant deserved some kind of definite benefits in return. He hadn't learned the value of money yet, so I paid him in treats. His energy and enthusiasm lasted to just under half way though the route, so at a convenient cut off point, we'd head for the nearest Quickie store to find something yummy in payment for services rendered. The man behind the counter started to notice our regular visits, and asked what we were doing each week that brought us to his store. I explained that we delivered a weekly paper route and it was break time. He looked directly at my son and asked him, "So, young man, does your mom just buy this stuff for you or do you earn it?" My son replied in a clear voice, "No, sir! I work for my treats!© I'm certain that his snack tasted better that day.
From my son's viewpoint, one of the most important features of the paper route was The Vacant Field. It took me about a half an hour to fold all of my papers each week, and I arranged it so that I could do the folding at the field near where I picked up the papers. I allowed my son to play in the field while I folded my papers after a discussion of the importance of following a few safety rules.
Although it was probably only about 2 acres of land, it probably appeared to him to be miles and miles of free space. This was little kid "heaven"! Complete with permission to play in all of this dirt!
What appeared to be an empty field was a wonderful learning opportunity. There were, of course, dirt clods to be thrown and dust to kick up, but you would be surprised that the amount of interesting, educational things you can find in an empty field. As usual, I was called upon to stop working to identify various rocks, bugs, birds and plants. Sometimes people would dump various things in the field, leading to the discovery of Neat Stuff. Much of it had to be left behind, but some of my son's most important treasures in his younger years, were found in that field. It was a sad day when we learned that a drugstore was going to be built on the site. Whenever we drive by the now built place, my son still gets grumpy at the sight of having "his" field paved over. The only comfort he receives is the thought that a favored plastic dinosaur is now buried under the concrete slab corresponding to where they keep the Slim Fast stocked. Somehow, it makes him feel better to know that a part of him stays in that field.
By the time we seriously began to consider homeschooling when my son was 4, he was a veteran paper carrier. He knew the houses he was assigned to deliver, that he was expected to put the paper on the porch, and was on friendly terms with many of his customers. I gave him a promotion in the form of a regular income, and in addition to his regular stop at the store, some of the customers would make a point to give him a tip for his hard work. Although the route rarely changed much, we were able to watch the changing of the people in the neighborhood and the seasons, and each week there were new learning experiences to be found.
Sometimes there were workmen out fixing the street or the sidewalks or some other type of public property. It was absolutely necessary to stop and watch part of the process. We got to watch concrete being poured, fire hydrants being cleared, and asphalt being laid. Getting to see all this as it happened made me realize what my son would have missed if we had sent him to public school. Instead of learning from a worksheet about various community workers, he got to see it in action. Also, since he was an outdoor worker himself, he felt a certain affinity for other people who were also out and about doing what needed to be done. Nothing could have replaced this close up view of various occupations and the people that worked in them.
In time, the paper route became part of the fabric of our lives. Family vacations had to be planned around it, and Paper Route Day came around, literally, as regular as clockwork. With a regular income came the responsibility of learning how to spend money wisely. My capable assistant began to understand that mom and dad paid for basic necessities, but anything else he wanted had to come out of his own money. So, he learned how to save up for a much wanted toy or game, and how to comparison shop. There were many times he would save for months, to reach the $25 or $50 price tag he had his eye on. It was a special treat to drive him to the store to finally get the prize he had waited so long to get.
At first, my part of the route money went to bolster the grocery budget. Money was often tight and sometimes we really needed that small check. However later, as our financial situation eased, the route money funded other activities that we wouldn't normally have been able to do. It paid for trips to the museum, the zoo, and the all-important trips to McDonald's. It made it possible to add many fun things to our curriculum because we didn't worry about having to take money out of the family budget.
While I was "the boss" of this small family business, my son and I were also co-workers, and he was good enough at his job that I came to rely on his expertise on various job related issues. He knew his houses and his people, and if for some reason he wasn't feeling well, and my husband had to help us out, we had to have a full briefing from him before we could possibly substitute for his part of the route. In fact, there was one apartment complex that we delivered that we split in half, each of us doing a part. For the 7 years that we delivered that complex, I depended on him so completely, that when he once went camping with some friends, I had to have him make up a route list and a diagram in order for me to find my way successfully.
The money was great, and the work experience was valuable. Not many young adults will, upon graduating High School, have a resume with work experience reaching back to toddlerhood. Without a doubt though, the most important gift the route gave to us was a special time together in a totally different way than classroom time at home, or even congregation activities could have. Watching other families go about their business would bring up various important subjects for discussion, and the route gave us some rather special opportunities for heart to heart talks. Also, once my son learned to read, he made his way through many, many books on his way in between houses, and we would discuss the merits of various plots, authors, and fictional characters as we went along. I think this time in the car gave us time to see each other as people and not just mother and son, and I would not have missed it for the world.
We delivered the paper route for about 11 years. After such a long tenure, we decided that we wanted to move on to other projects. Also, all of these years, we've been dealing with the weather in hot and cold, while we were feeling good, and sometimes even when we were feeling bad. We wanted the luxury of not having to work every single Wednesday, come what may. Both of us know that working is part of life, but it's been wonderful lately to look out the window on a blustery Wednesday morning and know that we weren't going to be out in it, at least for the time being.
While I've heard of other delivery people that have had routes in our area for longer periods of time, I know that we were amongst some of the longest running route carriers in the history of the system. It's a small thrill, I know, but it's kind of neat to be able to say that we stuck it out for so long. We learned so much, both in connection with lessons that could be applied to "school", and in deeper, emotional ways. That being the case, I can honestly say that the paper route was an important part of Pontiac School's curriculum.