Sunday, March 06, 2011

In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown...

You know, there's a pretty good incentive to get that current turgid blob of a post off of the top of the queue and try to write something which, at least for me, passes as entertaining. Well, better luck next post. That I'm feeling somewhat less than entertaining is obviously part of the problem, and my mood these last few weeks has been anchored by the disheartening realization of the mutually exclusive financial realities of cultivating my own damn garden and giving my children future opportunities to do the same. If only...blah blah blah, it's not like I haven't been over it before. And anyway, gardening has its own share of commitment and frustration. Even in an ideal world of unfettered self-actualization, there it's hard to figure out what your passions and skills are, and in this bizarre world where livings have to be made, then good luck on that passion, if you have one, keeping you fed. At thirteen years old? Did you know what you wanted to do at thirteen?

I'm not unaware that I'm talking about problems of relative privilege. What I'm really doing is pissing and moaning about the governing social paradigm (handy concept, that) which for all of its papered-over inequity, evil, structural inequality, and destructiveness has in this country at least managed to foster a middle class full of crackers like me for almost 80 years now. Lots of different treadmills, many of them decently upholstered, and even those of us without connections have some options about which one we hop on, and the sooner we decide the sooner we can put in a down payment.

Okay, at thirteen I did have a vague idea, if not a passion. I'm thinking that I must have seemed like a promising kid, and god knows that my parents tried to keep doors open and encourage things. When I was little, I alternatively wanted to be an astronomer or a chef (I was joking to a friend last month that I split the difference and went into chemistry). Mom cooked a lot at home, so that makes sense, but I don't where the science bug came from. And all these years later, I am acutely aware that there's something that keeps me apart from passionate scientists too, and that I'm a mediocre performer, and I have reservations about role of the field and its future, but I don't know what the hell else I'd do (although doing honest work with a science hobby seems like it could be more rewarding than the current arrangement). That general orientation helped my parents do what they could to get things started in my life. Strange to think of it that way, but I was pretty lucky for that.

My daughter will be entering high school next year. She's already presented with a choice between technical and academic programs, and these too are mutually exclusive. The tech ed seems like a good program, but it definitely takes her off the academic path. If she takes the culinary arts training, there aren't, at a minimum, any advanced placement courses available (I think AP is a scam, but as a synonym for "more challenging classes", this is annoying), and by junior or senior year, it's special alternative tech courses, a recent innovation, thanks to Massachusetts' graduation requirements. The kids, the instructor told me, tend to go on to culinary college, which seems to me like a strange metric. While I'm happy that cooking is taken as a serious vocation in this country now, it's disappointing to be reminded how far we're down the Player Piano timeline. I mean, that's what sets trades apart, right? Learning by doing, and a tradition of apprenticeship? Do you need that cooking doctorate before you take the $4/hr dishwasher job to get started in the actual industry? (I bet the chemistry requirements would be pretty cool though.) On the other hand, assuming the normal vocational path is still available, then I'd be happy to support that route too (with the fortune I save an added bonus). Adding to it all, there is my opinion that general high-level education is good for humans, and the way we tend to squander it when we're young, well, that can be too. (Good times.) But if she's got a real passion there, then she's ahead of the game.

And speaking of paradigms, I wish I could shake the sense that this is all about picking teams for the next generation's class structure. There are lots of ways to live even within the system, and since my town offers so few examples of them, we (by which I mean my wife) have doing a lot of research for enrichment programs for young people. We've just enrolled Junior for what is basically an educational summer camp, which, at least as far as I can gather from the brochure and the orientation seminar, is totally awesome, with not only classes and workshops, but also optional cruises and outings and all kinds of genuinely fun activities—stuff I wish I had some excuse to do as an adult. It's not exactly the Bohemian Grove, but there's a strong networking component here, and there's much they're encouraged to do together in a variety of overlapping groups: let's forge bonds among the kids labeled up-and-comers, build up those intra-class intangibles. A stronger experience is expected with those that supply more cash, and I expect my little girl might find a small cultural divide between her and the residential students.

The administrator of the program gave us parents a short presentation last week, talking how much more satisfying (and easier) this job is for him than actually teaching middle school. Well, sure, when you run a word-of-mouth sort of program among the helicopter set, and when you keep the riffraff out with a stiff $2500 minimum requirement for enrollment, no credit cards, thanks, then it probably makes it all a little easier. The imagination and enthusiasm is impressive so far, don't get me wrong, but as for the kids without these opportunities or motivations, then they're left to the same devices as before.

And for all this, the course themes, all these new opportunities, they're are all targeting the petit-bourgeoisie. They have cooking, woodwork, art and music, production, sports, along with some business- and law-themed classes, and a smattering of medical industry sorts of enrichment. Some themed chemistry too, I note approvingly. Not a lot of financial analysis or "leadership" training. And it's fine, I guess, from one point of view, as these are all things that people do in the part of working America that doesn't have it too easy or too hard. And it's a fuller set of ideas than we've been able to showcase so far. Welcome to the middle class, kiddo. I'll do my part and start getting used to the crippling payments that go along with your indoctrination.

The future looks vast from far away, and has a habit of shrinking as you meet it. You find the wide open road gets narrower as you walk , and its direction depends on many more people than you. It's great to be young, to be starting out on the journey. I hope my daughter can find more paths than I've been able to show, wish I were better at pointing them out.


Cindy said...

They actually DO find more paths. It's kind of miraculous to watch them unfold.

I think it must be hard in a small, concentrated part of the US where there is a huge imperative on a particular path. But the rewards for individuality and some kind of paradigm shift are great.

AP Classes (which I believe are a major scam to appease helicopter parents) are available online and can be taken at any time, and are considered roughly equivalent with in-school classes.

I only know this because my sister-in-law doesn't think my high-school-freshman niece is taking enough this year (4 AP classes IN NINTH GRADE!!) and so has her taking an online AP World History class.

Encouragement to take risks, to enjoy themselves, to work hard -- these are things we can keep doing. Also, we can show them that these are not mutually exclusive - working hard and enjoying yourself.

Our kids have a way of surprising us.

Aaron said...

"The future looks vast from far away, and has a habit of shrinking as you meet it."

That's a spectacular quote. I'm so stealing that.

Penal-Colony said...

I enjoy your 'turgid' posts, thank you very much. I think you sell yourself short, but you've been doing that for a while. I bet you're the coolest dad any girl could hope to have. And therein lies the soundest measure of you, Keith.

Keifus said...

John, that's the one thing in my life that I feel I've (so far) done really well. Glad it's also the most important thing.

The problem with more philosophical topics like that, is that I feel I'm fumbling my way (upward, I hope) through the known. It's a good thing to work through, to wrestle my way to hopeful clarity, but it feels like a messy (thought) process for me, and I seriously doubt I'm breaking new ground. I'm thrilled you enjoyed it though, and I really did appreciate your comments. Bet you're an outstanding educator.

Aaron, have at it. I had to wrap it up in a hurry--I was in serious danger of Friedman-ing that final metaphor.

Cindy, it's a small industrial city, and it feels very insular and uncultured to me. These thoughts, as you see however, come with some real scrutiny, because who the hell am I to judge, and ain't I a special guy, and so on. (And this program we just signed up for is very precious.) But I have lived in much dumpier environments (eg., Troy NY or Waterbury CT) and found redeeming aspects of greatness as well as more diversity. I've lived in more midway-upscale suburban places (Woodbridge VA) and found them far more soulless. I just want her to see more things, get more perspectives, before she has to go and make up her mind.

My small-town school never had AP. And somehow I remember being better prepared than many of the kids who did (although that was 20 years ago).

Penal-Colony said...

I should think that very method qualifies you as philosopher, eminently so, in fact. Seems even Sartre never got beyond the search for a method, and all my reading of Husserl has led me to the same conclusion regarding his inquiries. He proposed that philosophy be accorded science status, but his proscriptions never advanced much beyond descriptions. Heidegger had a goodly method but little substance, so it seems the twain might be incompatible ... and scientific paradigms are casts to be broken and thrown away.

Two of my grand-uncles emigrated to Waterbury.

Keifus said...

There aren't many details, and I get very confused on the specifics--I swear my dad has given me different answers different times I asked--but I believe it was either my grandfather (as a little boy) or his parents that arrived there. Who knows, maybe they knew each other.

Penal-Colony said...

Tom & John Corbett were their names.

Keifus said...

I was finally able to talk to my dad about that one. My grandfather was born in Waterbury (in the area of Baldwin St., a prominent Irish neighborhood of the time), and it was his parents (a Higginson and a Burke) who were the immigrants. Details are very hard to come by, since my grandfather kept himself apart from his family and never mentioned them, not until shortly before he died, according to my Dad. I guess a lot of lost cousins made contact at the time of his funeral, to everyone's surprise. I know that my great-grandparents died when he was young and that he went to live with relatives, so maybe that's why, but he was also a sort of disagreeable old hermit by character.

My great-grandparents were from the northeast of the country somewhere, he of Protestant faith and she Catholic. Sadly, that's all of the story I know. It sounds like it could be a real Romeo-and-Juliet deal, this one with a happier ending. Dad has always said they emigrated during the famine, but that timing seems a stretch, even assuming they started a family late.

Penal-Colony said...

Interesting story. The Famine was from 1845-1849. My great-grandfather was born in 1848, and we're roughly the same age. Your grandparents were born when? in the 1880's or '90's?

My grand-uncles went to Waterbury after the war. They were waked even then and my mom's dad never saw his two brothers again. One of them married a Native American and their children visited here. They wanted to see an Irish dawn, so my dad stayed up with them. At daybreak they make their way to a hillside only to see a drunken lout reeling up the road towards them. The man's nickname was 'Laramee'. There's your Irish dawn, my dad said.

ps. I liked what you said about the fray. I too found it no longer made me happy to post there, so I've quit. The whole anonymity-trust thing still bothers me. I think it shades many of my interacts online. I'm still guarded about the things I will say and certain topics will always remain off-limits.