By Shawn Stjean
When is the last time your kid genuinely thanked you for the drive to school/a friend’s house/a social or sporting event/part-time job? Because if he or she is not thanking you now, it sure won’t happen later, when the mini-van trips are all over.
In general, millennials of the so-called “middle class” are deprived of the rituals of youth in America, which toughened previous generations. The school bus stops these days at every house for a pickup, rather having little Dylan make the trek of a block or two to a common bus-stop, where swaggered actual (not cyber-) bullies, cranky at their own failure to get/maintain their own set of wheels, and willing to take it out on whomever looked vulnerable. They were teachers too, in their way–they modeled bad behavior, taught who we didn’t want to be, and the price of admission was their company.
And when the bus actually arrives at school, today’s lads and lasses dismount only to board a vicious cycle dressed up as a merry-go-round, and underneath, the corroding machinery works something like this: the administrators inherit a shrinking budget less-and-less reflective of our society valuing education, which leads to “differentiated learning,” (the semi-literate bully might appear next to you in class now, rather than being tracked into a room with other low-functioning brutes.) They’ve got bigger class sizes, less homework, shorter readings–or maybe no readings at all, because the teacher is reading the book aloud, leaving many free to stare out the window. She’s got challenges of her own, because when the phone on the wall rings, or someone runs the old “I gotta go pee” ploy, or a girl who’s been out for eight weeks with mono needs catching up, or the e-mail light blinks constantly with parents demanding to know why Brittany–a real treat to have around–isn’t getting her “A”. . .well, then, old Teach just has to soak it up. Nothing three glasses of a middling Chardonnay after 4 pm won’t help her repress, until she burns out on weekend grading, while never finding time on Sunday for better lesson plans, meanwhile absorbing pressure to “keep standards high” while somehow not flunking anyone. She doesn’t even have the power to throw Christian a detention anymore, as he whips a pencil and happens to catch Peter (a boy with a diagnosed and legitimate learning disorder, who used to have an IEP, but they’re much harder to get this year) in the ear, drawing extended screams, but no blood. So the flinger gets written up for it, twenty minutes of class time get wasted, and the administrator gets to try another case of “The Lesser of Two Evils.” Will his parents support a suspension, or at least a series of DTs, and ground him during his tenure at home, or will they take his word that he didn’t mean it, and pressure the school to keep him on because he’s already behind? (that trip to Florida between the winter and spring breaks probably didn’t help.) And to give them their due, they’re both working, and ultimately Christian can’t be trusted home by himself–he’s got an undiagnosed case of painkiller addiction, and chronic pain-in-the-ass. So the Big Wheel of administrator-parent-teacher creakily slows down long enough for the lad to jump back on, and keeps on turnin’.
How did this get to be the way we all roll? It’s easy enough for the principal to blame the economy, the parents this generation of poorly trained teachers, and the teachers a non-supportive administration. It’s a Mexican stand-off now, not a carnival ride. So does it really matter–or is the real issue what we’re going to do about it? Start blasting, and hope to be the least-unlucky-hombre in this tepid triumvirate, or lower our weapons long enough to see where the real loser has skulked off to?
The kid doesn’t have the vocabulary, so he doesn’t know the operative word–complicity–but he does know the concept. He understands, deep down, that he’s not exactly doing his best, either–and why should he? Every time he lowers the bar a notch, someone unaccountably offers him a boost to get over it, and it’s not long before he’s looking down at the floor for the standards and expectations everyone’s paying lip-service to. Terms like Excellence, Achievement, Breadth and Depth, Pride–they mean only so much to a fella who can’t remember his girlfriend’s phone number, despite texting her 22 times a day, because it’s saved in his Contacts. Hell, he doesn’t remember his own number.
Oh, the computers play their part, too. Because when you cut three-and-a-half teaching positions, but acquire three hundred touchscreen terminals in the same five-year period (hoping the community won’t notice the former, as they ooh-and-ahh over the latter,) well, you better use the things. The students will need the keyboarding practice, anyway, in an age where “all thumbs” is actually a skill, and half the jobs they’ll be qualified for involve this new form of coal-mining: checking people out as they run up their credit cards for new possessions, big and small, new services, needed and unneeded. Unless there’s a bar-code reader at the counter.
Oh, not my Chelsea!, I can hear some of you declaring. She’s going straight to college to become a professional! What kind, I’m wondering? Well, we haven’t figured that out yet. But she’s going–this Fall. No break. Of course she hasn’t thought up a major to declare, because she’s had enough of school–she really has–and instead of wasting her parents’ second mortgage or retirement funds, she ought to be out there–in a crummy apartment with leaky pipes, taking public transportation to work, eating substandard food, yet still living life here in America with free speech to complain, fresh water to drink, and rights many people in the world can only dream of. It’s those years of deprivation, out from under one’s guardians, that make young folks appreciate the rest of it. And it shouldn’t take a war that decimates both their generation, and the population of another nation with a different skin color, religion, or economic ideology from our own, to evoke that appreciation.
Now in the old days, she could work her way through a series of jobs, eventually gain a toehold and some maturity through making her own mistakes and creating her own triumphs, meet a partner, start a family of her own. Not anymore, and again, you can only take the “blame the economy” game so far.
See, instead, she’s persuaded to take a different path, to endure 4-6 more years of “higher education,” with ample Spring, Summer, and Winter Breaks, but no real relief. She changes majors three times and the actual college twice, meanwhile signing over student loans–in addition to Mom and Dad’s contribution–that will keep her in payments until she’s 55. And those payments, depending on where she went to school, will take a lot of choices out of her hands along the way. Now she has to take work as somebody’s “administrative assistant,” (Heaven forbid we call a secretary a secretary!,) even though she’s come a long way in the Brains department, and she’s pushing 30 now. Because the Bachelor’s degree she cobbled together in between partying is about worthless in the job market of 2020, and the Master’s she’d like to earn at night will cast 100 grand, and she’s not sure about the gamble.
Somewhere in here, in between dropping her divorce papers in the e-slot (lawyers are still doing well, but the USPS is defunct) and feedings of her three-year-old, Chelsea gets upset. Really upset. And by now, she’s self-aware enough to realize she’s not just sad, or lonely, or menstruating–she’s angry. Pissed.
Why? She’s had every advantage. So many, in fact, that she never had to go to summer school to make up that gym class she blew off nine times in tenth grade, never had to repeat the eighth grade even though the “D”s she got in three classes were as munificent as the gifts of the Magi, never got suspended for calling her sixth grade teacher a “bitch” right to her face–Mom got her counseling instead. Never got called on showing up in class high, never did most of what little reading and homework was asked of her, never had to walk home after school. Never had to count cell-phone minutes or texts (or pay the bill for them,) never had her allowance withheld, never had to stay home from a prom, never picked up a check (eating out-food 2-3 times a week).
So, again, why the anger? Because, plain and simple, everything she was supposed to learn before she was twenty, under relatively easy and supervised conditions–from how to track a bank account, to how to sew, write a business letter, read a tax rule, do a real job interview, and apologize sincerely when she’s wrong–she’s now having to learn herself, a decade late, the hard way. It’s always the hard way, now, because if she can’t do it, someone else with more degrees, fewer recent scars, and who is still young enough to live with her parents (28 or so,) will do it instead.
She missed out on the one advantage that can’t be bought, substituted, calculated, synthesized, or replicated: she never had to choose. Because choosing always means losing something, leaving something behind, and valuing the other thing enough to sacrifice for it. Instead, she was fed fat on the absurd idea that every previous generation of human beings on the planet was weaned off, in childhood: that you can’t have everything.
Forgive us, kids, we felt guilty. ‘Cuz we f—–d things up for you, and we knew it. We knew the coming world was tough, tougher than we’d ever had to survive ourselves, and in meaning well we hoped to insulate you from the worst. And somehow the worst just became the bad, and the bad the uncomfortable, and the uncomfortable the inconvenient.
Too bad–ol’ Chelsea could’ve done alright for herself. A few bumps and bruises aside. They would have saved deeper cuts, later on.
So if your youngster is thanking you for that ride now, (you’ve raised her to at least be polite,) enjoy it–it won’t last. We knew it back when we were young (there was a T-shirt, remember?) No one rides for free.