'Accepting The Messes': A High School Valedictorian's Lessons From Plumbing

May 24, 2019

Today is graduation day for many high school students around the region, including Kelley Schlise, who graduates at the top of her class at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee. At today’s ceremony, she’ll share her thoughts about the last four years with her classmates, and her hopes for the future.  

But people around the country already have some insight into life lessons Schlise has learned in her relatively young life. Schlise was one of five high school seniors with essays included in a New York Times feature on money, work, or social class. She wrote about what she took from her summer work as an assistant to a plumber, her dad.

Schlise first started working with her dad and going on plumbing trips in the summer during middle school. Looking back, she says she learned a lot about grit and the grind of a hard day’s work by being a young woman working in what she observed to be a largely male-dominated profession.

Schlise says she gained the physical strength to carry massive toolboxes up and down multiple flights of stairs, as well as the mental strength to try to problem solve in a chaotic environment when she found herself craving order. And when it came time to write a college essay that would set her apart from peers who may have worked as nannies or baristas over the summers, this is what she chose to reflect on.

“I started thinking, what aspect of plumbing do I have the most to say about? And it ended up being: plumbing is hard because I like things to be really neat,” Schlise explains. “I have a very orderly assignment notebook. I make a lot of lists. My room is very clean, and plumbing is messy. You’re sweaty. There’s dirt everywhere. There’s dust everywhere… This conflict started rising in me between the order that I like to maintain and the chaos I see in plumbing.”

She used this observation as a metaphor, and in her essay, Schlise explains its significance for her broader life and how she sees herself within the context of the wider world.

“As much as I despise the mess of plumbing, I despise myself for becoming affected by such trivial qualms, and for being so easily aggravated by disorder,” she wrote in the essay. “After all, the world was built by people willing to get their hands dirty. And when I think about it, I cope with messes all the time. The uncertainties and contradictions of my teenage brain are far more tangled than any extension cord, but I keep trying to sort them out. Life is a process of accepting the messes and learning to clean them up, and plumbing work is no different.”

Despite gaining insights learned from the grime that comes with working with pipes, Schlise says that as she prepares to start college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she thinks the memories she has of spending quality time with her dad those summers are what will truly leave a lasting impression.

You can read Kelley Schlise's full essay about working as a plumber's helper, published in The New York Times here.