Monday, August 20, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 21 ("Here we go again" edition)

[nb: Of course the following is overstated; of course it makes generalizations. Despite the impression, this is not written out of anger, but out of an intense conviction that this is a hard, valuable job, and out of a racehorse-at-the-gate desire to get started. Those parents who get that effective child-rearing mandates time and teaching, rather than buying and outsourcing, are invaluable; there are just too few of them. ETA: Dharmonia presents a counterpoint, below.]

The move-in (parents moving kids into dorms) weekends have begun: good weekends to avoid campus by a wide berth. Roads are blocked, drivers are confused and prone to stupid decisions, offices and systems are jammed, the Student Union is off the hook. On this weekend every year, we are overrun with parents who look stunned as they pull up to campus in their oversized obese gas-guzzling American cars, offspring carefully ignoring them while they talk to some generic peer-group member on the cell phone.

I feel sorry for them: the parents who have mistaken prosperity for happiness, possessions for fulfillment; the kids who don’t know who they are and whose upbringing hasn’t helped them find meaning and value in their lives.

Gary Snyder wrote a poem about raising his sons in the “old ways” and the irreparable damage done when these old ways are lost. When you teach a child the way that children have been taught for 40,000 years (less the last 100 years of stupid assembly-line pedagogy) you not only convey information, you convey a way of being; a way of understanding who you are in the world: how to plant a field, use an axe, fix a transmission, diaper a baby, cook a meal, write a poem, play an instrument, defend your loved ones. In the framework of teaching skills, you also model a way to be. As Natalie Goldberg said, “A great teacher teaches with his or her whole life and being.” This is the antithesis of “Do as I say, not as I do”; it is rather more like “Watch what I do and learn how to be.” Fail to convey this, and you wind up with an object-oriented “buy shit for the kid” child-rearing approach that leaves us in 21st Century America where we are: with a perpetual adolescence that yields thumb-sucking media-saturated celebrity-worshipping possessions-fetishizing infants of all ages—not adult humans who can make choices, choose goals, and realize a life-path.

They don’t know how to do this—how could they know how to do this?—yet many of them are actually crying out for models to believe in: models for functional adult humanity, models for how to feel inspired about your life, models for how to feel clean and impassioned about how you spend your time. I know this because I know how they respond when they find such role models (other people, not me). I see it: even the bored, alienated, posturing, sighing, eye-rolling, slump-shouldered, cell-phoning, text-messaging, wardrobe-copying worst of the lot sit up, light up, become animated, and respond when they are presented, even if only for a few 50-minute periods per week, with the possibility of themselves creating a vision of who to become, rather than trying to trade in the counterfeit coin of American mass-media role-models.

American standardized education is nearly completely contradictory—particularly in the wake of the noxious class-based “fuck the poor, my kids don’t go to public school anyway” standardized-testing penny-pinching obscenity of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (another in a long line of market-tested slogans like “Compassionate Conservatism” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” which the jumped-up direct marketers and public-relations experts who took over the White House substituted for any actual policy, expertise, or effort). In the American 21st century, primary- and (especially) secondary-level public school administrators put unconscionable pressure upon teachers to demonstrate acceptable “results” to standardized testing methods, in turn forcing those teachers—some of the most appallingly exploited and abused public servants in our nation—to abandon teaching in favor of preparation. “Preparation” for essential nothing but the short-term regurgitation of meaningless data. No skills, no values, no critical thinking, no sense of individual self—just “teach to the test,” and later for learning. No wonder the little darlings come to think of education as nothing but a big shuck, yet another time-waster like TV or cell-phones or videogames, for which you pay out your (or your daddy’s) money in order to “get” what you’re “entitled” to. That is not true education, it is not true teaching, and it does not create true, functional, valuable, fulfilled, contributing adults. It creates arrested adolescents, only now with all the additional money, hormones, and unaddressed anger of an overgrown child.

And then comes the day when Mom ‘n’ Dad have to drop Junior off at college, when they can’t any longer run Junior’s life, wash his clothes, pay his parking tickets, wipe his ass, and otherwise generally keep him (or her) a perpetual early-adolescent, because the college says No, your child has to act like an adult now. And Mom ‘n’ Dad realize—appalled—that they’ve done nothing to create someone who can function this way. That’s why Junior sits in the back of the Escalade, cell phone glued to ear, completely disengaged from whatever conversations Mom ‘n’ Dad are trying to have with the administrators and advisors and teachers who, they belatedly realize, are going to be tasked with turning their Little Darling into the functional adult Mom ‘n’ Dad have failed to create. That’s why Grandma strides obliviously through the Union, yelling into her cell phone “Can you believe it? We weren’t even allowed to go into the ‘Students Only’ orientation with him!” Betcher ass, Grandma: we need to get these kids away from you, and more importantly get you away from these kids, so we can begin the (belated) process of growing them up.

And then Junior walks into class that first day or week, after Mom ‘n’ Dad ‘n’ Grandma have finally gone home, and the professor says “What do you think?”

And Junior freezes like a deer in the headlights, because too few prior adults—not the overstressed public school teachers or the overworked and absent parents or the jock-minded military-modeling coaching staffs or the by-the-book youth ministers—have ever had the time or inclination to simply say “Hey kid…what do you think?” Out of the kid’s fear of this unfamiliar question comes silence, or avoidance, or an attempt to regurgitate as they’ve done in high school—or, if they’re really intimidated, plagiarism, group cheating, or absenteeism. And so then we have to begin from Square One: conveying that, in fact, their individual critical opinions are not irrelevant, but central, and in fact essential—that, in contrast to too much of their prior experience and indoctrination, the principal goal of their college years will be to teach them to form their own opinions. To quote Chris Rock “anybody who says they’re all one thing or another is a fuckin’ asshole. Listen for a minute! Let it all swirl aroun’ in you mind for a while. Then form an opinion.”

These parents are my generation--even the generation of my younger siblings. They grew up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, offspring of the '50s and early '60s Baby Boomers who thought they could transform the world by taking drugs and having a lot of sex, and who, when they realized such activities just burned their brain cells and gave them diseases, went back home, joined (genetic or big-government) Daddy’s business and tried to bury their lostness in a mind-numbing cloud of possessions.

But in order to sustain that cloud, they had to buy more and more shit, acquire more and more yuppie toys, feed the addictions of their offspring, and work 60- and 70- and 80-hour weeks to stay ahead of the resultant debts. And that meant that both parents worked, or that dad was never home--that there was enough money, but never enough time to actually pay attention to the full-time job that parenting represents.

So they out-sourced parenting, just the way they outsourced jobs to save money: they hired nannies or after-school programs or used TV or videos or saturation in “youth sports” or more and more laws that tried to legislate behavior or public school systems which they tried to run using a budget-for-results model they borrowed, imbecilically, from their CEO world, and they hardly saw, never mind taught, their children. Of course their children are bored and disgusted with them: their children don’t know them, their children only know about getting more stuff, their children have been kept infantile, acquisitive, and passive, and THEN they have to cart them off in the last two weeks of August and leave them at university. Of course the parents looked shocked, and out of their element, and (behind it all) scared--because deep down, some of those parents are saying to themselves “shit, did I make the wrong parenting choices? What makes me think this kid can handle this? I’ve done her laundry/paid his traffic tickets/bought her cars/given him shit/figured her checkbook/bootlegged his homework for her/his whole life. What are they (what am I) gonna do now?”

I can’t help parents with that: they’re the victims of their own ill-informed, unexamined, bad and wrong choices in child-raising. All I can really do is wait for them to be gone, so I can get to work at the teaching and mentoring and child-raising that’s still left over.

It makes me cherish all these kids, and cherish those parents who have understood the importance of teaching as part of child-rearing. And it makes me want to say to the others, the ones who haven’t so understood, “look, it’s too fucking late. The kid will survive, because we’re good at our jobs. But you parents need to just leave, and let the kids, and us their teachers, get on with it.”

[ETA: Dharmonia responds:

It’s 1975, and you’ve spent the last 10 years believing, perhaps naively, that there is more to life than the “Leave it to Beaver” model that you were presented with in your formative years. You joined anti-war protests, you took TM, you went to coffeehouses, you smoked too much pot to do well on your chem final, but you sincerely believed that you and your peers could actually change the world, if you tried hard enough.

Now it’s 1975, and there is a recession. Your English / Philosophy / Creative writing degree is not helping you. Tired of flipping burgers, you go back to school and get an degree in computer science. Perhaps you get an MBA. Slowly, you begin to be able to pay back your debts.

By the 1980s, you’re thinking that maybe you can finally buy a house, maybe get married. The world is completely changed. It’s very, very difficult to hold onto any of the beliefs that you had in 1975. War did not end. The “war” on poverty was lost in a dramatic way. Drugs (and drug cartels and the Americans who enable them) have won the “war on drugs.” By 1985, or maybe even 1990, you give birth to one of the kids that Coyotebanjo is observing in his post.

The 80s were lucrative. However, this came at a serious expense. You and your partner – if you’re lucky enough to have one – both work between 40 and 45 hours a week, not just to “buy stuff,” but because the house that cost 45,000 bucks in 1975 now costs $345,000. You have almost no time to spend with the kid. If you want him / her to have arts, sports, music, etc., you have to provide them for the kid yourself because everything that has anything to do with quality of life has been yanked out of your public schools. This means not only spending more time carting him around, but also more money, and the circle goes on. The kid gets a lot of confusing messages, including the message that “quality of life things cost a lot of money.” The kid also gets the following conflicting message: “I have to make a lot of money in order to have any quality of life” and “I don’t want to have to work 80 hours a week like my parents.” In the end, none of this shit has given the poor kid that much better a quality of life – but he/she wants it, and has absolutely no freaking idea where to get it.

I am not angry at these parents. I missed *being* one of these parents by a fluke of fate. I can’t imagine the conflict and the frustration and the love that they must simultaneously feel. I also can imagine how the kids feels as they look for meaning in life – just like we did – as they take drugs and make bad friends and come to stupid conclusions about how to find that meaning – just like we did.

I want to help them. But I also want to turn to their parents, who were my colleagues and my cohorts and my friends, and say, It’s all right to stop worrying about them. They will find their way, and if it’s any consolation to you, I will do my damndest to sit there and listen to both their brilliant ideas AND their crap, and if I can, help them find their way. The best message I can think of to send to these parents is not exactly “butt the f--- out” – it’s *you don’t have to keep worrying* -- there are other people out here in the world who are looking out for your kids. You can leave them here, and they will be OK.

Meanwhile, the best thing you can do to make your kids ok is to *remember* the shit you believed in back in 1975, and either keep fighting the good fight, or at least help some people, do something for the environment, do SOMETHING. It’s not too late to try to do whatever we need to do to ensure that these confused, lost kids will have a prayer of having a planet to live on when they are 55.

[To which I respond:

Fair enough, and your response is a lot less mean-spirited than my original post. But I don't think I intended (I know it was unclear) to be speaking of those who "came back" from the '60s and scuffled through the '70s and into the '80s, finally getting their psychological and/or financial heads above water by the term this year's Freshmen were born in '89. I'm speaking, above, of those who never scuffled, who probably never marched on a picket line or wrote a poem, but just bought into the '80s "Greed is good" mindset, promulgated it to and used it to spoil their kids, and only now are discovering that greed is not "good", but that their kids haven't gotten anything to value other than materialism and pretentious ennui. I feel sorry for the parents, Dharmonia is right, but I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for the kids (and I'll even reserve some of that sorrow for those of us who have to cope with educating these kids in the aftermath of dumbass '80s/'90s values).

Now playing: Bainito Muyanda - Nang'weye Khunzaga


Kim Pineda said...

This was a timely post. My child has been bugging all three of her parents for over a year about something. She wants to learn how to be a mom. Her mother was stunned into inertia by the request. Her stepmom and I tell her the first step is to learn to take care of herself. When she can take care of herself, then we'll move on to the other things. So we started with the bath and dental and hand hygiene. Now we're on to using the santoku knife, the tortilla press, composting, recycling, and cleaning up after pets. It seems to be going well.

CJS said...

No shit. Fuck me--if these late '70s and '80s parents had gotten as far, by the time their kids were 18, as "using the santoku knife, the tortilla press, composting, recycling, and cleaning up after pets", we'd be in much better shape. Keep at it!