The Summer of Tombstone
By Jon Taylor
I was the middle of my mid-morning store tour when Raven, my Backroom Coordinator, ran up to me and said, “That new kid just threatened to fight me!”.
“Yes! He said, “I’ll fight you right now!””
The two of us returned to the backroom to find the new associate, Ahmad, along with his work coach, Mr. Jackson. As we approached, Ahmad smiled at me and said, “Why Johnny Tyler, you madcap! Where are you going with that shotgun?”.
Raven was officially done at that point – “You see? He’s threatening me! And now he’s threatening to shoot you! He has to go!”.
Ahmad was definitely saying threatening things and she had every right to be upset. But Ahmad was calm, still smiling, and seemed proud of himself. Mr. Jackson was not pleased. He was trying to get Ahmad to apologize and stop making threats. The entire backroom had come to a standstill. I was about to send Ahmad home when it hit me: he’s quoting from the movie Tombstone. I looked at him and said, “I’m your huckleberry.”.
Ahmad nodded, laughed, and repeated the quote. Raven, Mr. Jackson, and the rest of the team stared at me like I was out of my mind. Once I explained his movie references everyone calmed down. Raven and I asked Mr. Jackson to talk to Ahmad about appropriate topics (and movies) to discuss at work, and I resumed my store tour.
That was one of the many interactions I had with Ahmad that summer. He was part of an employment program run by Arkansas Workforce Services (AWS). That program was funded through the Promise grant. As it was first explained to me, Promise was an attempt to break long term poverty through employment. It focused on families who had been receiving Social Security Disability for more than one generation. The children of the current generation were given job training and placed with a participating employer. Some of those children had an intellectual or developmental disability and some did not. The goal was to introduce them to the world of work and move them towards financial independence. Ahmad and nine others were part of that program.
The other standout participant that summer was Alik. Alik loved Kit-Kats. Every time we met Kit-Kats had to be discussed first. So, we talked about Kit-Kats and then he got to work.
When the program ended in August, I hired eight out of ten participants. The two I didn’t hire were Ahmad and Alik. They still needed Mr. Jackson most of the time, and they needed more training to work independently. That frustrated me, but I couldn’t hire them if they weren’t ready. But I learned an important lesson: Ahmad and Alik were not in the program for me to “fix” them. They were there for job skill training and workplace experience. This was the first job they ever had, and they both needed more time to learn the fundamentals of work. Ahmad and Alik went back to school, and that was the end of the summer of Tombstone.
The following summer the program was offered again, and I was happy to be a participating employer. Ahmad and Alik, with Mr. Jackson once again as their coach, wanted to come back. My team was surprised I was even considering their return. When I asked “why” the response was either “I’ll fight you right now” or “I’ll be your huckleberry”, followed by one of the following objections:
- They need a work coach to do their job. That was true. But by the middle of that second summer Ahmad and Alik only needed a little more supervision than the average associate. And that supervision usually came from Raven, not Mr. Jackson.
- They only work well together. Also true. But how many “regular” associates are more productive when they get to work with people they like? And while they liked to work together, they could work with the rest of the team too.
- They are kind of odd. Yes, Ahmad memorized movies and quoted them throughout his shift. Yes, Alik loves Kit-Kats, and usually won’t say “Hello” until after expressing his love for Kit-Kats. I love sci-fi, and I will patiently explain to you how warp drive really can work (and lightsabers). We all have our “thing”. And that’s okay.
The three objections were a major point of the program. Learning how to work with minimal supervision, to be productive while working with friends, and how to act appropriately at work were all lessons Ahmad, Alik and the other program participants were in our store to learn. And for the record, after nearly 30 years in retail management I have encountered entirely too many adults who have yet to learn those basic lessons.
After we worked through all the objections, we welcomed them back. We welcomed them back because they already knew the job. We welcomed them back because we learned that when we gave clear goals and expectations everyone, not just Ahmad and Alik, were productive. We welcomed them back because they were as dependable as our regular associates.
And I welcomed them back for all of those reasons, and because Tombstone is a really good movie.