Just before her 16th birthday, Cara Rothrock got her first job working at a 1950s roadside restaurant and ice cream stand, only a few miles from her parents’ house in a small town in Floyd County, Indiana.
She poured soft serve. She cooked burgers and fries. She cleaned counters and took orders and ran food out to customers seated at picnic tables. All behind the glow of a bright, neon-lit parrot and a sign that read, “Polly’s Freeze.”
That was 1994. A few years later, Rothrock went off to college in Bloomington, Indiana. And because her parents—both teachers—couldn’t afford to help out much with her expenses, she held onto her job at Polly’s, commuting two hours home on weekends to pick up shifts. She spent the money as she earned it, investing in her education so that she could pursue her dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, just like her mom and dad before her.
After graduation, she landed a teaching position close to home. But with a starting salary of $29,000 and nearly that much in student loans, she didn’t feel comfortable enough financially to leave Polly’s. Not yet.
“As I tried to get a house of my own, a car, I found that, as a teacher, there was really no choice. I kind of needed to work a second job,” she explained in January from her third grade classroom at a public school near her hometown.
And anyway, it was a great job for young people, Rothrock said of Polly’s. Nearly everyone who worked there back then was in high school or college, padding their pockets with a bit of spending money before launching their careers. The same is true today, decades later. Rothrock’s oldest child, a sophomore in high school, now works at Polly’s herself. In fact, she and her mom sometimes carpool to work when their shifts overlap.
Twenty-eight years later, now 43, Rothrock still works at Polly’s. She never quit. She never could.