Life Lesson 1: The Great Wall Of China

The first paying job I ever had was when my orthodontist asked if I might like to paint his fence for a hundred and fifty bucks. His office was located in an apartment building along a busy suburban avenue. The entire ground floor was occupied by commercial businesses, mostly medical in nature. As a co-owner of the property, he was responsible for the upkeep of the building and the land it sat on.

Behind the building, separating it from the next piece of land, was a long wooden fence towering seven feet tall and stretching to what seemed like infinity, but was probably more like two hundred feet. It was green. Mostly green. The old paint job was peeling badly, and much of the wood, weathered grey by years of rain and snow, was exposed. Excited by the princely sum offered, I agreed to slap on a new coat of paint that would freshen up the fence with a much more vibrant shade of green.

I arrived for work the next day and, within ten minutes, realized I had been screwed. The job, I learned, wasn’t just about brushes and paint. Before I could even begin, I had to strip the old flaking paint off with a belt sander. The process was slow and tedious, and it wasn’t made any easier by the fact that I was left to operate the belt sander with no instruction or on-the-job training. Worse was the painting itself. The planks of the fence were spread apart evenly, leaving a couple of inches between each of them. All those edges — hundreds of them — had to be painted individually with the brush before I could even think of applying paint to the face of the fence itself.

Three days passed. I would take the bus to work in old clothes in the morning, and return at night, exhausted and covered in flecks of green paint. I was a manual labourer and I looked it.

On day four, my orthodontist came down to have a look. He wasn’t happy with the progress I was making. He didn’t care about my diligent removal of the old green flakes, or my precise, smooth application of fresh paint.

“Like this,” he said, dipping a pole-arm roller into the bucket of paint and coating the next ten feet of fence in a matter of seconds. He didn’t care that there were still loose paint chips on those boards. He didn’t care that the sides of the boards were still the old shade of green. This was the back of the building, and no one was going to see the fence anyway.

“You’re doing a good job if you’re painting a room in a house,” he told me. “This isn’t a house.”

Then he went back inside. Taking the roller, I set out to do it his way. I broke the roller three minutes later and was stuck having to paint the rest of the fence, spaces between the boards included, with a brush. But I did it fast. And maybe I missed a spot or two, and maybe I didn’t get all the old paint off, but it got done by the end of the day.

After I got paid, I had another two sessions with my orthodontist before my teeth were declared sufficiently straight. I made an appointment for a follow-up visit to be paid a year later, but I skipped it and never saw him again.

Once I started going to CEGEP (college in Quebecese) I would pass my old orthodontist’s building every day on the bus. Peaking out from behind it, I could see a section of the fence and I would think, “I made it that colour.” No one else would take any notice because it was just a green fence. But it was MY green fence.

I remember, years later, being disappointed when I saw the old wooden fence had been torn down and replaced with a chain-link. My work was destroyed, the landmark I had added some colour to was sitting in pieces in a trash heap somewhere. But it had left one thing behind. It had left me with a very important life lesson.

Never do a good job when what people really want is a half-assed job.

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