WHAT A TEENAGE RIDE OPERATOR LEARNED ABOUT COMMUNITY

Colossus 1990
Colossus 1990

Throughout my teenage years I spent every summer working as a ride operator at Six Flags Magic Mountain in my hometown of Valencia, California.  My fondest memories from the summers of 1988-1992 are not with friends I knew just from school, they are with the friends that I got to know while working at a theme park.  People I bonded with over the absurdity of working under the leadership of “bosses” who were also teenagers, as well as the craziness that comes from working with the general public.

During my tenure as a ride operator, I learned some valuable life lessons:

  • Bad things can happen when you fill up your belly with a liter of soda and processed pizza and then ride a spinning attraction.
  • Always wear deodorant if you’re going to spend 14 hours at a theme park in 100 degree weather.
  • Spandex shorts are flattering on no one.

But perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from working at a theme park came from wearing uniforms.  At the impressionable age of 16 I befriended people who were very different from me because we were all dressed exactly the same.

Teenagers categorize their peers into various cliques largely based on clothing and outward style.  However, at Magic Mountain it was common to talk to someone at work for weeks before you ever saw what they wore in real life.

The first time I went out with my ride crew after work, I was surprised by the differences in our appearance as we emerged from the employee locker room.  We looked like the cast of “The Breakfast Club” and actually drew stares from people when we walked into Denny’s together for a late night snack.  It was awesome.

If I put myself into a category as a teenager, I would have to admit that I unfortunately fit many of the 1980 suburban, valley-girl stereotypes.  I had big hair, talked really fast, and grossly over-used the word “like”.

Among my Magic Mountain friends were peers who fit other stereotypes:

  • A young anarchist with a quick wit, a foul mouth, and a good heart who’d been expelled from military school.  Today he works in IT.
  • A beautiful teenage girl who grew up in a traditional Catholic family with nine sisters and loved fashion.  She moved to Spain to study something artsy after high school graduation.
  • A teenage guy who promoted peace in all situations, wrote poetry, and brought a perspective of compassion into our discussions.  He is now a firefighter.
  • A teen who lived at a military boarding school in another state during the school year.  He eventually became a police officer.
  • A slender, soft-spoken teenage girl who was gentle and kind.  She is an elementary school teacher.
  • An athlete who loved baseball.  He played in high school and college, and is now an engineer.
  • A quirky teenager who drove a restored 1965 Mustang, worked at The Gap, and had the lead role in his high school’s musical.
  • A teen who attended a continuation high school.  He raced motorcycles, gave himself a couple of homemade tattoos, and was thoughtful and kindhearted under his rough edges.  He became a mechanical engineer.

This ragtag group of teenagers (and several others who I didn’t mention because the list was getting too long, not because their friendship was less significant in my life) were “My People”.  My favorite teenage memories are of the fun and silly things that we experienced together – like my entire crew calling in sick from a pay phone in the employee parking lot because we decided to go to a water park instead of going to work.

This is not the period of time when I learned or practiced the value of a good work ethic, that came later.  But through these significant friendships I learned a lot about myself, other people, and the complexity of circumstances.  They taught me how to listen, learn, and love well with people who’s life perspective and experiences differ greatly from mine.

These friendships taught me the value of inclusivity, and the worthwhile effort of getting to know a whole person rather than just a part.  These lessons that I learned through my friendships at Magic Mountain are a significant part of the foundation upon which I develop my community now.

Forming opinions of others based on limited information, or only gravitating towards friendships with alike people is not just a teenage issue.  Grown-ups do it too.  And as a result we miss out on meaningful connections that can shape our lives and our perspectives in really wonderful ways.

I was discussing this topic with a girlfriend recently and she suggested an intriguing idea – the next time one of us hosts a party with new people we should make it a theme party where everyone has to come wearing a white t-shirt and jeans.  A gathering where everyone looks as similar as possible, to see what surprising connections and friendships form as a result.

It’s a wonderful idea.  I think all of us have likely missed out on engaging in a special friendship because we decided someone was too different than us before we ever got to know them.  If I ever try hosting a white t-shirt & blue jeans party, there will be sure to be pictures on this blog.  And if you ever try it please tell us about it here…

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