Rejected: Lessons from the Drive-Thru

Today, I got my first ever rejection letter.

I’d forgotten that I’d ever sent a query.

The piece I queried?

Lessons from the Drive-Thru, a personal feature I wrote for my Magazine and Feature Writing class last fall.

Family Fun wasn’t interested, but in case you are, here’s the piece:


 Lessons from the Drive-Thru

“You work here, too?” she asked, her nose crinkled in a look of unmistakable disgust.

I didn’t know how to respond. The answer was obvious from the golden arches across the visor on my forehead. But her face—her sneer—put me on the defensive. How could an adult, the mother of a childhood friend, look down on me for working at McDonald’s?

I forced a smile as I took her money. Then, silently, I bagged her order and held it out the drive-thru window. “Have a nice day.”

I worked at McDonald’s for a year and a half in high school. I’d never wanted to—my older brothers were both shift managers, and I wanted to pave my own way in the workforce—but it was the only place I could work year-round, so I swallowed my pride and applied.

This past summer saw a significant rise in the employment of youth 16- to 24-years-old. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50.2 percent of young people were employed in July—14.2 percent more than last year and, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the most employed since 2007.

With numbers like this, today’s youth have more than McDonald’s as employment options, and for some, it may be easy to rule out fast food completely and judge those who “settle” for serving fries.

Not everyone sees the value of working at a place known for calories and cholesterol. I didn’t always. But looking back, I realize McDonald’s gave me more than discounted fries and a stack of checks.

McDonald’s Gave Me Confidence: Personal Value Doesn’t Come From People.

It was a November weeknight. The sun had set, and the evening school sports rush was in full force.

As I brought sundaes to the drive-thru station, I saw the bearded man I’d just served storm through the doors.

“You never get anything right!” he yelled, waving a bag of burgers in the air. “Every time I come here, you screw it up. You’re all idiots! Give me my order!”

“Can I help you?” I asked, my voice level.

“You gave me ten burgers,” he said, voice piercing my eardrums like the car horn of an angry driver. “I wanted six plain and ten regular. How is that so hard? You always screw it up!”

I breathed deeply. “What do you need?”

“My order!”

By the time I figured out he wanted six more regular cheeseburgers, tears were welling up. Back in the drive-thru, taking orders and money, I fought back sobs and did my best to greet customers with a smile. The rest of the staff tread quietly, giving me extra help and treating me gently. Eventually, my smile became real.

I learned about value that night: the value of words, the value of me. I learned that words are powerful and can have great impact whether they’re true or not. I also learned that my value is inherent and has nothing to do with what people call me or tell me I am.

Being brought to tears by a total stranger on a November weeknight in McDonald’s made me stronger and more confident.

McDonald’s Gave Me Humility: Agreeing to Disagree.

Andrea: early thirties, with thick dreadlocks, a friendly smile and the scratched-up voice of a smoker. I’d seen her before—at the library down the street from my house, usually rifling through movies or picking out weird pieces of fiction. She seemed nice, but in an unexpected way, a person I wasn’t sure whether to be open with or somewhat guarded. When I worked with her, I figured it out.

Working at McDonald’s was a lot like playing on a sports team. Swap balls for fries and points for happy customers, and the dynamics were pretty much the same. There was purpose, camaraderie and, during down time, laughs and discussions. We’d sing and dance to the background music, joke with regulars and talk politics, religion and—Andrea’s hot topic—drugs.

“Marijuana isn’t harmful,” Andrea said, smile gone.

“If you can get addicted to it, it isn’t good for you,” I said, pulling the box of barbecue sauce packets off the shelf.

She took it from me. “Coffee’s addictive. So is chocolate.”

I shrugged and reached for another box. “I wouldn’t call those healthy.”

“Have you ever heard of someone dying from marijuana use?”

I didn’t answer.

“Well?” She stared me down.

“No, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.” My headset beeped, announcing a car in the drive-thru.

“Find proof and I’ll believe you,” Andrea said, happy to get the last word.

I nodded and put a smile on, arranging my headset’s microphone. “Welcome to McDonald’s. What can I get for you?”

Andrea wasn’t the only one I had serious discussions with. I talked about politics and economics with the guys working the grill, and one afternoon on my lunch break, I explained the difference between Christianity and Mormonism to a fellow crew member.

Through all these instances, I learned that, with tact and a tone of respect, I could share my exact thoughts and beliefs without upsetting people. As long as I presented things humbly, people listened. Even if the reason they argued for marijuana was because that’s what they smoked on break.

McDonald’s Gave Me Patience: You’re Kidding Me, Right?

Seven months after my first day, I was a 16-year-old crew trainer, training a woman in her thirties at the first drive-thru window.

It was my fourth day showing her how to use the register. By now, she should have mastered it, but nothing had stuck. She was as lost ringing in orders as she’d been on her first day.

“What do they want?” I asked, stepping away from the cart of Happy Meal bags I was filling with toys and cookies.

“A double cheeseburger,” she said, leaning against the windowsill.

“It’s on the dollar menu page,” I said, grabbing another handful of toys.

She watched me, not moving toward the register.

I dropped the toys and joined her at the window. “Here,” I said, punching buttons on the screen. “Hit this, and double cheeseburger is down here.”

“Okay,” she said, watching distractedly. “How do you find the total?”

I gritted my teeth. This had to be the thirtieth time I’d explained it to her. “See this?”

She nodded.

“That’s what you hit. Got it?”

She nodded again.

A few minutes later, it was the same thing over again. And a little later, she asked again. It wasn’t sticking, she wasn’t learning, and my only way to vent frustration was to hit the screen with all the force my fingers could manage.

Working with people like this—people I never would have willfully associated with—was one of the most challenging and beneficial parts of my job at McDonald’s. It took me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to be patient and kind when my preference was to throw a fit like an angry customer. It caused me to humble myself and respect those I normally wouldn’t.

And when, as a 16-year-old, I was asked by the untrainable trainee whether or not I was married, it taught me to handle the unexpected and accept the compliment that she thought I had the maturity of an adult.

Published by meredithsell

Freelance writer and editor. Nerding out over health & fitness, women's history, and untold stories.

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