Cleaning up after mice

I didn’t know I was building character for a lifetime. I just wanted some extra cash.

I was a freshman in high school, and I was hungry. Not literally, of course: I came from an affluent middle-class home and I had all the basics amply provided. However, my parents were instilled with that hard-nosed work-ethic, which says life is meant to be earned, not handed to you. If I wanted money for something, I had to wait for a holiday.

So, when my Dad mentioned someone he knew and worked with who needed help on his ranch, I jumped at the idea. Then he told me the wage.Two bucks an hour. Minimum wage was more than double. Still, I took the job. It wasn’t like I had other options.

When I say “ranch”, you probably conjure an image of livestock, crops, and associated activities. Not this one: this one raised mice and rats. Thousands of them. The customers? Pet stores: some go home as pets, others as food. All those cages need cleaning. Guess where I came in.

I’ll never forget my first Saturday morning. I was up so early, I could swear I saw the glow from the sun the day before. The ranch was located on the other side of San Diego county, so my Dad and his friend agreed to meet halfway and hand me off. After arriving and having my first ranch-hand style breakfast, I waddled and burped my way down the walkway to the barn. The owner flung the doors open wide.

Did I say thousands? It looked like tens of thousands.

Rows and rows of shelves, with each shelf holding kitty-liter pans and makeshift covers of chicken-wire and wood. The shelves stretched both far and wide. Towards the back were the aquariums, arranged in similar fashion. In each pan, a liter of mice; in each aquarium, a liter of rats. Each day, they would go through each pan and aquarium in systematic fashion, separating babies into new pans, mixing couples for breeding, and putting the stock in fresh containers.

After taking it all in, I took a deep breath and looked at the owner. “So, where do I start?” The owner smiled, turned around, led me out of the barn and around the corner, to a trough on cinder blocks under the shade of a lone, small tree. Next to the trough was rubber gloves, dish soap and a toilet-scrubbing brush. Next to all of that was a stack of kitty-litter pans, eight feet high.

And next to that stack was another. And another.

Did I say tens of thousands? It must have been millions.

“All of these?” I gulped.

“Yup,” the owner replied. “Let me know if you need anything.” And he walked away.

Do you know how cold the water from a garden hose is when the temperature is barely above freezing? In spite of shivering and aching hands, I attacked that stack of pans. As the day warmed up, my efficiency and speed improved. Determined to impress my first-ever boss, I set a goal of finishing the stack by the end of the working day, and I succeeded. Sore and tired, I walked into the barn and told the owner’s wife I finished my task. I started walking back toward the house to get some sleep.

“Where you going?” the voice said crossly.

I turned, took one look into her eyes, and realized for the first time that eight-hour workdays don’t exist on a ranch. The glow from the sun (this time on the side of the horizon I swear I could see that morning) was already long gone by the time I was released.

The next day, I cleaned aquariums, and I worked harder than I ever worked before (aquariums, as it turns out, are heavier and more fragile than kitty-liter pans). At the end of the weekend, the owner placed my weekend’s worth of wages in my prune-shaped hands. Strangely, I was re-energized by that cash. I came back the next weekend. And the next. For a year and a half, I worked weekends on that ranch. The owner liked my performance, enough to tackle projects he long held off. I even received a fifty cent raise during my time.

Every good servant-leader I’ve met shares a similar story. Servants are made, not taught. One of the key ingredients to a servant is this word humility. Humility never says “I’m too good for that.” It only looks at what needs to be done and gives no thought to one’s standing or stature. Humility is only installed through experience.

It also helps when one receives comparisons.

The owner had a couple of ranch hands come and go during his time there, all illegal immigrants. The one I remember most was Manuel. We would often sit on the porch after a meal and listen to Manuel’s stories with the owner as translator. He would talk about his wife and kids in Mexico whom he had not seen in many years, about the factory job he had before it closed, and about the dangerous trek he endured through the desert to get across the border, along with his fear of surviving that trek a second time if he went back to see his family, whom he sorely missed. One weekend, I arrived to find Manuel gone. Manuel couldn’t handle the longing for his family anymore, bade goodbye to the owner, and hitched a ride with Border Patrol back to the border.

That day as I bent over the trough, I pondered Manuel. As humbling as the work was, it paled in comparison to Manuel’s situation. At the end of a weekend, I would go back to my middle-class life in the wealthiest nation on earth, while my co-worker would go to a room that was not his, sleep in a bed that was not his, and dream of those he loved, because dreams were the closest he could get to them. I didn’t have to live in fear about being caught and deported tomorrow, nor about what would happen to my family if I did, or how I would be able to find work again.

What is humility? It is the instillation of knowing there is no such thing as being too good or important for any task or for any person, repeated until there there is nothing left to humble. Humility often introduces itself through fate and circumstances, and will occasionally come back around for another visit unexpectedly. Blessed is the person who extends an invitation.

I realized that my social position in life would be a huge insult to those that were not blessed with what I had, if I refused to do the job before me simply because it didn’t pay enough or because it was beneath my dignity. The humble person has self-esteem, for they know who they are and what they are worth, but they don’t have an overvalued sense of that same self-worth.

How does a person gain humility? Simple. Be willing to be humbled, for a servant is, first and foremost, humble. Humility is a necessary prerequisite for the character formation necessary to become a true servant, and good servant-leaders are drawn from good servants.

When humility is instilled, character development follows…

(Recommended reading for executives: Humilitas, by John Dickson)

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