December 2, 2013
“What do you suppose it means?” he asked. “‘DO WHAT YOU WISH.’ That must mean I can do anything I feel like. Don’t you think so?”
All at once Grograman’s face looked alarmingly grave, and his eyes glowed.
“No,” he said in his deep, rumbling voice. “It means that you must do what you really and truly want. And nothing is more difficult.”
“What I really and truly want? What do you mean by that?”
“It’s your own deepest secret and you yourself don’t know it.”
“How can I find out?”
“By going the way of your wishes, from one to another, from first to last. It will take you to what you really and truly want.”
“That doesn’t sound so hard,” said Bastian.
“It is the most dangerous of journeys.”
-Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
I’ve drawn this comparison before, but I was thinking about it again a few nights ago as I made myself a green bean casserole for dinner, for no better reason than that I wanted it and I could.
Life is like Cats. The Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.
One night when I was nine, my parents were going out to see the touring production of Cats that was in town, and we were getting left with a babysitter. I whined and begged to be allowed to go see the show—cats were one of my principal obsessions at the time.
“No honey, you don’t want to see this,” my parents told me. “It’s not really about cats. You’ll be bored.”
For many years, I tacitly accepted this—that the musical Cats was not really about cats. I never even questioned what Cats was really about. Something for adults, and therefore opaque and boring. Not cats.
Then in my senior year of high school, I took an acting class. And to give us an easy day one class period after a long week, we got to watch the PBS video recording of the musical Cats. “Oh great,” I thought, “I’ll finally see what Cats is really about.”
It was a somewhat mind-blowing moment when those actors, in cat suits and gorgeous cat makeup, started to creep onstage. Because let me tell you something, in case you’re not familiar with the show…
Cats, the musical, is really, literally, about cats.
It isn’t not about cats just because it’s also about life, death, faith, loyalty, and memory. Like Watership Down isn’t not about rabbits, just because it’s also about persecution, oppression, idealism, and hope.
Likewise, I was told a lot that “Adulthood is not about just doing whatever you want.” As if the freedom and autonomy to live and work in a way that was acceptable to me was some trivial, stupid thing that I was just going to have to get over.
I decided I would never be an adult, then. Because if that’s what it meant, that wasn’t something I was capable of.
And then I grew up.
As it turns out? Adulthood actually is about doing what you really want.
Adulthood really means making your own decisions about what kind of life you want to lead, what kind of person you want to be, what kind of mark you want to leave on the world. That doesn’t mean that it’s not work, that there are no consequences or costs to those decisions, or that you never have to do anything you don’t want to do, or face things you don’t want to face. It doesn’t mean that there are no obstacles or hardships.
But the decisions themselves, about what you’re doing on this earth and why—those belong to you.
So that’s how adulthood is like the musical Cats.
For some reason, people tell you that it’s not really about exactly what it is really about. It’s just that the truth is both harder and better than anyone wanted you to know.
May 25, 2013
I was working on a film shoot a couple weeks ago, and standing around on a break one day, somehow I got to talking with our costume designer and the 12-year-old member of our cast about how much better Nickelodeon shows were in my childhood than they are now. While I was a little embarrassed to have almost no idea what is even on Nickelodeon these days, he was a connoisseur of vintage Nickelodeon, and we wound up talking about shows like Clarissa Explains It All, Doug, Rugrats, Salute Your Shorts, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, You Can’t Do That On Television, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
And one of the things we realized, in trying to figure out why those shows were so cool, and felt so good to watch, even though they were in some ways ridiculously wholesome, was that they managed to make you feel like they were always firmly on your side as a kid.
Although almost wholly non-objectionable in any way, they weren’t family shows. They were kids’ shows. They weren’t so much trying to teach any lessons, or make your parents happy, as they were dealing with the world the way that kids actually have to deal with the world, with all of its petty injustice, anxiety, and ludicrousness. There was lightness in the situations, but there wasn’t trivialization or mockery of kids’ problems. Adults were not always ultimately right, or even good or well-intentioned like they were in other network family shows.
And as I thought more about it, I realized something else that day. Those shows weren’t just on the side of kids…they were practically always, as far as I can remember, on the side of vulnerable kids, underdogs, and oddballs.
Compare, for instance, the way Sponge is portrayed in Salute Your Shorts compared to Screech in Saved By The Bell. When Sponge is called names and pushed around and valued only for his huge memory for random facts, it is actually wrong. Or Sam the weird neighbor in Clarissa and Skeeter the weird sidekick in Doug compared to Kimmy the weird neighbor in Full House. The bullies and jerks were the bad guys in those shows, and while you’re still supposed to have compassion for those characters in their own way, they are the actual antagonists of those worlds and you are not supposed to approve of their behavior and join in laughing at their victims. There weren’t characters who were there to be ridiculed.
Heroes and protagonists of Nickelodeon shows felt dorky and inferior…and it was okay.
And I was thinking about it some more as I was going through an old journal this week (which I almost never do), and re-reading an entry about realizing that the things I’ve tended to really love–music or books or TV shows–were things that made me feel like a person. Things that I liked okay were things that at least let me feel like a person.
Things that I could never manage to like much at all, even when everyone else around me loved them, tended to leave me feeling like I couldn’t laugh at the characters I was supposed to be laughing at.
Nickelodeon shows never did that. And while I was warned all too often that the amount of TV I watched as a kid was going to rot my brain, I’m starting to suspect that the more subtle lessons of those shows may actually have been among the most quietly but deeply impactful sources of strength to follow me into adulthood.
(And then there was this. How many things in life have you really been more afraid of than that? The top comment reads “This is why we 90′s kids are so intact”…and I think she may not be wrong.)
September 9, 2012
So apparently school started again this past week, and (in)appropriately, I ran across this article on Salon.com (Americans Want Sex Ed), summarizing a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The report presents the seemingly paradoxical findings that while a solid majority of both adults and teens in the United States believe that teenagers should be taught about birth control, and also that anti-abortion leaders should support the availability of birth control, and also that they (teens) themselves have the information they need to avoid unplanned pregnancy…a somewhat scarily large percentage of teens then go on to report knowing little to nothing of contraception methods.
But I suspect that the discrepancy obscures, at least in part, a disconnect between the fairly binary way in which we conceive of what “sex education” can and should be–either abstinence only or abstinence plus safety and contraception–and the nuances of students’ real lives, or how well what students are taught about contraception does or doesn’t match up with how they really need or want to be educated about sexual relationships.
If, for instance, you’re a 15-year-old lesbian, it may be true that you know what you need to about contraception at the moment even if that isn’t very much. Or if you’ve genuinely decided to wait for sex–till marriage or just till you’re older–you might not be wrong that you don’t need to know everything about possible contraception methods right this minute. Or if you’re on the asexuality spectrum and not seeking a sexual relationship…this information might not be taking up space on your hard drive, but you know where to find it if or when you want it…or if, like some students taking this survey, you’re 12 years old.
Or imagine how profoundly unhelpful a group role-playing game full of scare tactics about the dangers of promiscuity is to someone desperately trying to figure out how to have one good, safe, physical relationship.
It’s also easy to mistakenly think you know everything it’s possible to know, when what you don’t know is what you aren’t being taught.
I was, probably unsurprisingly, one of the kids who thought that I knew what I needed to know. I’d been through fairly decent classes on what to expect from puberty. I’d been given information on available contraception. (In a totally brilliant move on my mother’s part, one day she had picked me up Seventeen magazine’s Environment Special Issue, which she said she thought I’d enjoy, environmental activism being my primary obsession at the time. It also had Your Complete Guide to Contraception in the back of the issue. It was years before I realized that handing that over had probably been deliberate and not an oversight on her part.) I was a biology wonk and already knew more about disease transmission and risk than what was in the health class videos and graphic slide shows.
And, for reasons that turned out to be a good deal more complicated than I even thought they were at the time, I’d taken a stance that I was delaying sex…pretty much indefinitely.
In this state of affairs, I wound up, despite my protestations that the requirement was insulting, in my school’s “Health and Family Wellness” class. In which I somehow managed to be continuously stigmatized for the very choices that the class purported to be encouraging, because the ways in which I’d made them did not comport with the core presumptions of What Teenagers Are Like or How Dating Works. At the same time that I did indeed think I knew what I needed to, as far as what I saw available, I felt this gaping absence of anyone anywhere accurately describing how I actually experienced myself or my desires, and how to build a life or be safe and respected in those things.
Now I look back and know that I cannot have been the only one experiencing this, because people who were not represented as having sexual or romantic relationships worth talking about included gay people, queer people, trans people, disabled people…so also disabled queer people…any kind of gender fluid or gender variant people, people on the asexuality spectrum, or now that I try to think of it, very many people of color or of cultures other than Normal American Teenager. Let alone any of those people having relationships with each other.
What worked for other people was clearly not going to work out for me, but there were no examples of what would. Or of how to talk about what was true for you, if that wasn’t what was presumed to be the default.
There’s a quote from Adrienne Rich that I think of more and more often: “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”
So…not getting pregnant was actually not my biggest problem. The ways in which our school’s sex ed didn’t have much to offer me went way deeper than “I already know all about contraception, this is a waste of my time, and I’d rather be taking art.” But that was all I was able to express—in no small part because of the poverty of education or language available about relationships, sex, and gender that went beyond the very superficial. And so I sat in class day after day, feeling more and more alienated from my peers and from how adults presumed I should be treated based on the fact that I was 15 and not much else, being told by unqualified teachers “I’m sorry you think you’re too good to be here,” rolling my eyes at badly produced educational videos, and learning most of what I really knew about love and respect from Mulder and Scully at home alone on Friday nights. (And I’m not the only person I know who says that I learned what love was supposed to be from those characters.)
How would I have answered a survey question “Do you feel that you have all the information you need to prevent an unplanned pregnancy at this time?” Yes. But it would’ve been a stand-in answer for the fact that the question didn’t address anything real in my life.
I can well imagine that if you go to a school in which the name of your sexual identity is literally a bad word (“Don’t say gay” bills have been introduced in both Missouri and Tennessee), or a subject that faculty feel forbidden to address, up to and including when you’re being violently victimized for it, that you might reasonably feel that your ability to name risks and benefits of five different kinds of contraception is a little bit beside the point.
It isn’t that we shouldn’t teach comprehensive information about birth control, obviously, or work to ascertain whether kids feel they have the information they need about it, but I think in the common conception of what sex education is, this is widely thought of as the ultimate question: whether to teach abstinence only, or whether to teach risk management methods. But even the seemingly right answer to that question is misleading and even counterproductive when contraception as risk management is taught without a bedrock of positive and healthy attitudes about sex, real-life examples of all types of healthy sexual and romantic relationships, a vocabulary to describe what’s true and desirable for yourself individually, and knowledge and respect for your own sexual identity and those different from you.
Without that kind of knowledge, which should be basic and not controversial, I suspect it may be hard for students to draw easy conclusions about whether the health information they have matches up to the realities of their lives.
January 29, 2012
“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe despite the callow protestations of certain adults that books–especially the dark and dangerous ones–will save them.” –Sherman Alexie
So I got a Kindle for Christmas. I hadn’t previously thought that I wanted one, but agreed to give it a whirl…and now that I have it, I really can’t deny its usefulness, even as some features irk me.
I had the prospect of a long bus ride back home in front of me, and had learned the hard way on my trip out to Kansas City that Greyhound’s advertised free wi-fi is actually a deeply unreliable prospect. A friend had recommended Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the conclusion to the series that began with Wicked. Though tempted to make that my first download and jump right in, it had been a long time since I’d read Son of a Witch and I barely remembered its plot, I hadn’t even gotten to A Lion Among Men yet, and I was feeling pretty rusty and unmoored in my Oz lore in general, so I figured maybe I’d better start back at the beginning…and read the original, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which, somewhat embarrassingly for a book-loving girl born in Kansas, I never had.
I got the complete original 14-volume Oz series for something like $4.50. Okay…I started to admit that this Kindle thing could be pretty great.
So, rolling through the desolate wintery hills of Missouri and Indiana, I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum includes a note at the start of the book:
Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today [“today” being the year 1900]. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
My heart sank; I was sure to be in for a fatally boring read, and I had 28 hours ahead of me. Compelling stories require real threats and real stakes; this was, like, the very first lesson of my college dramatic writing class…in which the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was Exhibit A.
But I was not to be disappointed, because let me just say, for a fairy tale supposedly stripped of nightmare and malice…The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains a whole lot of death, dismemberment, and treachery. Most prominent is the origin story of the Tin Woodman, who was once a flesh and blood human being, a poor woodcutter, whose love for a Munchkin girl was resented by the old woman she worked for. The old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, who enchanted the woodman’s axe to kill him off one piece at a time…until having lost all of his original parts and thus lacking a heart, he didn’t die but simply became indifferent to the girl he’d loved.
There’s also the Wizard’s frankly admitted tyranny over the Emerald City and enslavement of its population, the complicity of the “good” witches with this, their rather transparent use of Dorothy as a pawn to regain the power of the silver shoes from the Witch of the West, that witch’s enslavement and abuse of the Winkies and flying monkeys…the field of poisoned poppies is still there, and some other nasty stuff, too…it’s a dark tale.
Even trying to write a children’s story without menace, morals, or survival lessons (if we believe that that’s what he was sincerely trying to do; I’m not actually sure that I do), Baum couldn’t do it.
It’s as if violence and hidden evil are things that must, one way or another, always be addressed in stories for children. Because children know they exist even as well-intentioned adults attempt to deny them; they live in constant knowledge of their own vulnerability, and so a children’s story that attempts to deny or obscure their reality will always fall flat.
When we believed, as Baum did in his time, that morals and character were being explicitly and consistently taught to children in school, church, extended families and communities (whether they were or not, or what we might think of what kind of morals were being taught, is another story entirely), did writers for children feel less of a need to write explicitly or realistically about these things? And now that, I think it’s arguable, we feel a widespread anxiety that these things are not being taught to children very well or consistently or at all, do children’s writers again feel an obligation to address them more openly and honestly, even in ways that are graphically, horribly violent?
Ironically, when our culture and educational system overwhelmingly address youth as shallow, technology-obsessed, and morally ungrounded, more compelling writing for children and teenagers addresses them seriously and respectfully as thinking, competent people, capable of astonishing empathy and courage. Adults who lack regard for children as whole people who think and suffer and deserve to have their suffering taken seriously, can’t give them what worthwhile literature does: examples of real strength, intelligence, and hope from characters their age.
I think particularly of the heroes of two series that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict will wind up as the defining examples of children’s literature of our time: Harry Potter, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.
And when I say “teaching morals and character,” I don’t mean talking down to children about these things, but addressing real problems of existence, conflict (including war and murder), conscience, and ethics in the serious way that children actually crave and are capable of handling, which is far greater than we as a society typically give them credit for.
The Wizard of Oz succeeds as children’s literature, not to the extent that it denies or obscures the reality of violence, evil, fear, and loneliness, but to the extent that it utterly fails to.
In her New York Times op-ed from October, “No More Adventures in Wonderland,” Maria Tatar says that we shouldn’t oppose the current dark and serious trajectory of children’s literature, “it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie….No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
But I disagree that there ever was childhood fantasy untainted by adult anxieties. Enchantment isn’t a balance to danger; it’s bound inextricably with danger. Great children’s stories are safe zones precisely because they deal with very real adult danger in a safe medium, not because they make it zany or ludicrous. There is no escapism here. Good children’s stories are still almost always survival lessons, because there is no need for fantasy or enchantment without the reality of evil and heartache. Hook may be ultimately contemptible, but he’s not an interesting character unless he’s a truly mortal enemy.
If I look back to the books of my own childhood (rather than the children’s stories I discovered as an adult), of course I’m fond of Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Caretakers of Wonder; but the book that hands down meant the most to me then and still does now, is Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’ adaptation for children of an episode from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which spares no gory detail of Saint George’s three battles against a nightmarish dragon terrorizing the medieval English countryside. It’s an enchanting tale, gorgeously illustrated with watercolors of whimsical fairies and English sunsets. And everyone involved—George, Una’s people, the dragon—are fighting horrifically for their very lives and there’s no pretending otherwise. (And I tended to identify with the dragon above either of the human protagonists, but that’s another story entirely.)
When Tatar writes that “It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote. In 1856, Carroll purchased a camera with the hope of freezing time through his portraits of little girls. By capturing them in photographs, he made sure they never grew up,” she reveals that the style of children’s literature she mourns says more about the prejudices towards children of its authors, rather than the actual needs or character of children or anything about their world.
What happens in a book can’t hurt you. What happens in real life certainly will, if you have no prior example for how to cope with it. People who actually respect children and teenagers as people, trust them to use books to learn what they need to. Abuse, sex, violence, alienation, homophobia, hatred, etc., are things that happen to children and teenagers, and the fact that we think they shouldn’t isn’t enough of an excuse to deny them the emotional resources for helping themselves, and letting them do so privately and in their own time. That is what good stories, especially the darkest stories, provide: precedent in a safe context for dealing with cruelty, the difference of others, and emotional complexity, rage, fear, and confusion.
“Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive,” Tatar writes of our most successful children’s literature. But it was never really otherwise, except in the fantasies of adults.
September 5, 2011
I so, so wanted to like this article from the Times, about what some recent graduates of prestigious universities are doing with their lives during the economic downturn instead of the stable, decently-paying jobs in their career field that just aren’t available. (Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out) I so, so almost did like it a lot. Obviously, we didn’t get past the headline without another cute moniker for the latest crop of highly-educated youth left aimless and adrift by the recession (how many names have we had? Gen Y, Gen Why?, The Millennials, the Peter Pan generation…I’ve had a couple of ciders and I’m losing track. What are we now?), but it came so close to hitting a mark of sorts concerning how young adults are coping with this economy, without a heavy dose of the condescension and belittlement that so often accompanies Times articles about the generation that supposedly just won’t grow up.
It’s not the subject matter of this article that I find objectionable, because I’m very interested in what young adults and especially the newest graduates are finding to do right now.
It’s the slight tone of amazement and false levity that’s a little annoying. A summary of the article could almost have read “Some graduates without corporate jobs decide to not be miserable, live lives anyway, do something creative.”
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
Some of the subjects profiled are Stephanie Kelly, who has two underwhelming part-time jobs, but sort of enjoys the spare time she has to cook and write; Amy Klein, who took up a friend’s offer to join a punk band when it was clear that a career in publishing wasn’t going to be forthcoming anytime soon; and Sarah Weinstein, who manages a bar while doing media relations for an animal shelter as a volunteer.
“No career? No prospects? No worries!” chirps the author in summation of the outlook of these graduates who are taking their situation in stride, or doing something unconventional instead. But this is simplistic and patronizing. No, there are plenty of worries associated with having no job stability, an irregular income, little affordable housing, no health insurance, and no idea when the economy might really turn around or how long you might be jerry-rigging a life this way. But you can let them terrify you into paralysis and submission and mope around your parents’ house sending out resumés that may get looked at sometime around 2015, or you can go out and do something–anything–anyway.
“They are thinking more in terms of creating their own kinds of life that interests them, rather than following a conventional idea of success and job security,” says Klein.
This is sort of how it’s always been for people who, for many reasons, can’t find a place in the mainstream or corporate job market. And I feel for the younger grads who are finding themselves not able to have the kinds of lives they were brought up to believe they should. And there are definitely bigger problems of economic justice when a significant portion of a highly educated generation just can’t make money. But that so many are relearning what they can and can’t do without, and what really matters to them, and questioning what kind of life they really want as opposed to what they once just assumed they’d have, I believe has the potential to be a great thing for America in the long run.
“They are a postponed generation,” intones Cliff Zukin, author of a study from Rutgers on the economic situation of recent graduates. But people profiled in the article like Kelly and Klein…well…they’re not. Just because they’re not doing what they might’ve been in a different economic climate doesn’t mean they’re waiting around with their lives on hold, as if the only life worth working for is comprised of traditional job stability, marriage, kids and home ownership.
Life doesn’t get postponed, though certain goals might; life gets lived, one way or another. Bad economies don’t stop time.
Why should writing, cooking, taking a punk band on the road or doing whatever paid job you can stand to do while you work as a volunteer or activist for another cause be considered stalling on the life path? Just because it’s a life path that doesn’t take for granted what the upper middle class used to, in the same time frame? Why is this necessarily considered being stuck in neutral rather than just in uncharted territory?
I’d be willing to bet, for instance, that the day will come when Ms. Klein, whatever she ultimately ends up doing, will be glad for the creative and organizational lessons that she learns on the road with her band, as well as feeling artistically fulfilled. Because life is funny and resonant and meaningful like that if you’re paying attention.
So godspeed to the young graduates who don’t see a reason to give up and stop living just because their expectations have been knocked around. I prefer their attitude to that of the experts telling us how stalled and postponed they are.
August 25, 2011
Last summer, I wrote a post rather emotionally detailing my issues with the thinking behind a new reality show, NERD GIRLS, which was then in the casting process. That post (Real nerd girls; June 2, 2010) has by far and away generated the most page views to my blog of anything that I’ve written…though not always in the way I might’ve imagined or intended.
See, WordPress has this nifty feature whereby you can see which search engine terms are bringing readers to your blog. The following are some of the actual phrases that internet surfers have entered into search engines which brought them to my post “Real nerd girls.”
“real nerd girls” (Okay, fair enough.)
“actual nerdy girls”
“real pretty nerd ladies”
“hot nerd girl not real nerd” (Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint you.)
“sexy girl in renaissance dress fuck” (I admit to being particularly impressed by this searcher’s ability to spell “renaissance” correctly.)
“hot actual nerd girls?” (The tone of that question mark is just so forlorn….)
“nerd girls in short skirts”
“live nerd girls looking for me” (Uh, no.)
“romantic girls girls hot sexy just engineers real” (Dude… )
“fetish pics from women in waders” (……. )
But then there was one that actually broke my heart.
“I don’t want to be a nerd anymore.”
I have no way of knowing who the searcher was who made this request, and I rather doubt that he or she is still reading, obviously having not found the solution here. But, I don’t know, just in case…or in case anyone else comes looking…
At risk of sounding patronizing, which is not my intention…I know how hard it is. I really do. I won’t try to minimize what you’re going through, because I’m sure you’ve got enough people trying to do that. I remember only too well what it’s like to feel awkward, ugly, left out, and like no one gives a damn about you.
But I can’t tell you how not to be a nerd, because I don’t know…and I’m not sure I’d tell you even if I knew. Because here’s what I do know:
High school (or, god forbid, middle school?) is not the best time of your life. Do not believe anyone who tells you it is, or that it should be. Life gets far better for nerds after high school in most cases. The adult world is much, much kinder to nerds than the adolescent world is.
Nerds are not superficial beings. What makes you a nerd isn’t on the surface, so there’s nothing you can do to yourself cosmetically that will make you not a nerd. Not makeup or prettier hair. Not better clothes, cuter shoes, or any amount of waxing or plucking. Not mani/pedicures, piercings or tattoos. Some of the most sexy and attractive people I know are still nerds. If you’re a nerd, you’re a nerd all the way through.
Nerds believe that knowledge matters, that information matters, and that truth matters. You might manage to hide or suppress that belief for social convenience, for a limited amount of time, but I doubt you can make yourself unbelieve it.
Nerds are passionate. Nerds are intensely interested in how the world works. Nerds thrive in places where bottomless passion is valued rather than scorned. Nerds care about the world around them.
Nerds tend to be very, very good at what they do, and doing something they love, because they do it for its own sake and not for what other people think. (And we don’t just do science or technology, but also all the arts and humanities, teaching, politics…anything that takes passion and attention to detail. Don’t let anyone try to push you into science or math just because you’re smart if that’s not what you want. I know dancers and actors who are Ivy League grads with higher SAT scores than me. You don’t owe anyone whatever use of your intelligence they happen to want from you.)
Nerds are in touch with their own inner lives.
Nerds never lose the ability to be amazed.
Nerds are genuine. Nerds aren’t ashamed to be sincere.
Nerds aren’t embarrassed to take things seriously, but also know how not to take themselves too seriously.
Because nerds aren’t addicted to popularity or social approval, they’re better at standing up for what’s right, and standing up for other people, even when it’s unpopular.
And in my experience with people, because nerds remember how hard it was to be young, they make nicer adults.
So to not be a nerd anymore, you’d have to somehow smother your curiosity, your sense of wonder, your joy for whatever it is that you love, your empathy, sincerity, and inclination to think for yourself. Now, you MIGHT be able to accomplish that–again, I wouldn’t know how–but my strong suspicion is that, much like the making of a Horcrux, it might seem like a cool idea from the outset, but the actual process would do such violence to the integrity of your soul that it would be soooo not worth it in the end.
Please reconsider? At least just give it some time. Because all the happiest people I know are the ones who have figured out how to accept themselves for who they truly are. And most of the very most wonderful people I know are nerds.
June 20, 2011
I feel like responding to a post by another WordPress blogger friend which I like a great deal, although I don’t agree with it in every particular. In Letter to All You Old People, soozling asks what’s so wrong with not growing up, when grownups are just as petty and insecure as high-schoolers, unhappy and condescending, and screw things up just as badly as kids.
I wonder why we have to define growing up to be such a terrible thing.
I’ve enjoyed growing up. I like being in control of my own life. I was led to believe as a child that growing up would mean accepting a life revolving around drudgery, conforming and submitting to other people’s arbitrary and stupid rules, and coping without complaint with a job that would probably make me miserable. And so at one point, I swore that I would never grow up. Adults as far as I could see were shallow, unreliable, untrustworthy control freaks, and I would never be one.
Thankfully, I figured out that it was a big lie. We do have a say in how we live, how we approach the world, and how we treat people, no matter what age we are. Thankfully, I know both old people and young people who are wise and compassionate (and both old and young people who are mean and incompetent). I do think that (most) people gain depth and insight with age. Adulthood does not consist of unquestioning submission to petty cruelty, daily humiliation, and the whim and insecurity of authority figures.
Growing up truly isn’t so bad. But we tell kids all the wrong things about it. When we tell them that their needs, desires and dreams don’t matter; that they just shouldn’t try because they won’t be allowed to succeed; that passion, creativity and joy are unrealistic; that they should expect and accept being made miserable by their job and constantly humiliated by other people, that sensitivity is weak, that hatred of injustice is immature…we actually don’t prepare them well for the real world, where there is nothing but possibility; change is the only constant; where there are not two or three academic tracks but a hundred thousand ways to succeed at life, and finding the right one for you is not a matter of passively following dictates or scoring the right way on some test, but of being honest with yourself…of thinking the way you think, not how someone else wants you to think; and where very often the people who win are the ones who just don’t ever give up.
There’s no reason why growing up needs to mean losing one’s sense of openness, wonder, and hope. I pity the people who choose to live as if it does.
Furthermore, the people who teach kids to disbelieve in themselves, that indifference and conformity are easier, that cruelty and humiliation of the vulnerable are normal, that other people’s prejudices count more than their own hearts, that this is what maturity means…these people are not disinterested or objective. They have a huge stake in keeping things the way they are. They are dangerous, we should not listen to them, and we should not teach children to listen to or respect them.
I don’t want to unfairly malign all old people, but I’ll say this: Dear everyone who tells my generation to “grow up…” If you didn’t make it look miserable, maybe we would. But we’re interested in a different kind of life and a different kind of world.
May 6, 2011
The New York Times Economix blog reports this week (Dimming Optimism for Today’s Youth) that, for the first time in a long time, a majority of Americans are not optimistic that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents, as they answered the question:
In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education, and so on. How likely do you think it is that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents–very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?
This isn’t exactly the post that I thought it was going to be. I was going to argue against the implicit assumption of the way the question is phrased–the conflation of greater and greater achievement of material wealth with being qualitatively “better”–as being economically unsustainable, and in the manner of a Red Queen’s Race, actually a recipe for ever-diminishing quality of life. But I wondered then if I was trying to read more into the question than was actually intended for the sake of having an argument, and a blog post.
What if we start instead by questioning what a “good” life is, before we try to quantify likelihood of whatever a “better” one is? What would I include as requisites for a good life?
To love, and be loved in return.
To leave the world a better place than you found it–kinder, safer, more beautiful.
To be able to do work you know is meaningful.
To have a rich internal life, in addition to external relationships to keep you strong.
To serve something higher than yourself.
To be fed, and to be sheltered.
To be known.
To know joy, loyalty, and faith.
To live through grief.
To be content with who you are on some basic level.
To know what it is to be alone, and what it is not to be.
To know your own history, your own narrative.
To be needed.
I can’t fathom a complete life without reading, writing, and music.
And I don’t know that happiness or comfort have much to do with it, so much as satisfaction in their pursuit.
As I look at my list, of course I hope the next generation, and my children if I ever have them, will have a better life, in terms of having more of all of these things. But I couldn’t care less about whether they’ll have more stuff or a bigger house or another advanced degree.
Am I optimistic for them? I’m not sure yet. If they’re able to start exercising some common sense when it comes to environmental protection, if they’ll abandon the suburbs and exurbs for liveable communities again, if they’re more creative, resourceful, skeptical, literate, compassionate, committed to justice and equality, less interested in war and domination, more able to teach themselves, less able, willing or entitled to take any level of material wealth or comfort for granted.
I’m not sure yet.
April 18, 2011
I’ve sort of been looking out for an excuse to write about this topic, and lo and behold, I got a request (thank you bbsmum!).
One day in college I was sick in bed, and asked a friend to bring me over some tea and books. One of the books she brought me from her personal stack of library books was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life & Education. As evidence of how much she said she’d loved it herself, it was already weeks overdue.
I’d never heard of unschooling before, but I was a convert. I mean, I sort of understood, with that book, how people become religious zealots. It so succinctly and vividly captured everything that I felt was Wrong with the public education system.
At its most basic, the concept of “unschooling” contests the premise of the traditional school system that children best learn what they need to know by being forcibly confined to a classroom for 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, for 13 years, and mandated to learn all the same things at the same time in the same way as everyone else for most of those years. I’ve come to think of it as “factory-style schooling.”
Rather, the premise of the unschooling movement is that children come as they are desperate to learn, they don’t much have to be coerced or threatened into it, that people learn best by doing first-hand what they’re truly interested in. That the wide world is full of educational opportunities free for the asking and people should be able to use whatever resources work best for their own purposes. And that, intrinsically, children deserve no less than adults to be taken seriously as people worthy of respect and of having a say in the conduct of their own lives.
Some caveats: I’m speaking of the American compulsory public school system in its predominant form. I’m not against the idea of any schools ever, at all. I have no personal experience of charter schools, specialty schools like Montessori or Waldorf or schools designed to accommodate specific disabilities or special interests, so I don’t have any basis on which to make generalizations or criticisms of them. I know that people choose those educational options for a whole variety of reasons (the operative word being choose). And I know that some public schools are doing really wonderful things (one of the coolest in my opinion being the New York Harbor School) to give their students greater opportunity for self-direction and creativity.
I’ll try to be brief (ha), as there are many good books on this subject, about some of the reasons I think unschooling is worthy of consideration as an alternative to how we currently educate most of our kids:
1. The school system does not have students’ best interests at heart. It can’t. It’s incapable of having any respect for individual learning needs, life needs, passions or ambitions that fall outside the narrow parameters it’s designed to allow. Because the system isn’t designed to give impassioned minds as free a reign in their own highest development as possible, but to keep as many young people under control in as small a space as possible. The convenience of the system will always take precedence over individual well-being.
2. The school system is dishonest. It lies to students about what life is really like and what will be required of them. The traits most required for success in school are obedience and credulity, whereas the traits most required for success in life are creative problem solving, courage and critical thinking. Rather than discouraging immaturity, ignorance and short-sightedness, it exploits those traits to keep students under control with fear of the future. Adults with any self-regard wouldn’t put up with a fraction of the disrespect, humiliation and absurdity that school kids do every day only because they don’t know that they have a choice. By isolating students from working adults and from the world as it really is, schools create the impression that the knowledge they offer is all there is, and the way they require learning is the only valid way. The system calls people failures who simply can’t do things the way it demands. It says that education is something separate from real life by cutting students off from the world around them and from genuine experience. It says that life is something you’re preparing for, that you’ll be qualified for upon graduation, not something that you are living.
3. Age grading reinforces immaturity. It deprives kids of older classmates to be role models and mentors, younger classmates to be models and mentors for, and pathologizes healthy and helpful relationships between students of all ages as developmentally inappropriate or undesirable. It demands that there’s a right or a wrong age to learn any given subject or skill.
4. I’ve made this argument before, so I’ll truly keep it short here: the main values instilled by the school system are obedience, conformity, and fear of authority. Those are not the traits we most need citizens to have to fix our democracy, our economy, and our environment.
5. The real world is so much better, so beautiful, wondrous, strange, astonishing and so full of things to learn to do. Thirteen years is too long to spend locked up.
Though I’m tempted to try to anticipate and preemptively answer some of the more common objections to the unschooling movement, I’m curious to see what will naturally come up in discussion. So comments section, take it away!