Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Telling the Future

The Boy's school recently had Back to School night, so the four of us went to see what there was to see. TB actually had 'greeter' duty at the front door, which taxed his patience a bit, but was a source of pride anyway. We wandered the hallways looking at various displays the kids had prepared, and talking with TB's and TG's teachers.

In TB's class – he's in the fourth grade – the kids had done essays on what they want to be in fifty years. The essays were left out on the tables for parents to read. As an exercise in shoe-leather sociology, it was striking.

Out of a class of a little over twenty, only two kids mentioned college, and only one – TB – had any recognizable professional aspiration. (He declared that he will get his doctorate in civil engineering at MIT, so he can build bridges and highways. About a year ago he asked me what the best place was to study civil engineering, so with my layman's knowledge of engineering, I suggested MIT, and that was that.) One other boy mentioned the state university, though he seemed more interested in the sports than in anything else. Every other kid wrote some variation on “I will finish high school, get a job, and get rich.” The teacher mentioned that she had to push some of them to mention finishing high school.

None of the boys – TB included – mentioned anything about getting married and/or having kids, though all of the girls did. (My favorite: “After graduating high school I will get married and have kids. The way I will accomplish this is by meeting a cute boy and falling in love.” It's phrased like a mission statement.) Several kids mentioned getting rich, though only one of them had any idea how. (She declared that she would become a celebrity, though it wasn't entirely clear what she would be celebrated for.)

I was proud of TB, of course, but also quietly horrified at how early and how cleanly class divisions are reproducing themselves. The gender split surprised me a bit in 2010; if nothing else, I would have expected at least a couple of the girls to mention college. The vagueness of the aspirations was striking, too. I expected to see prospective astronauts, baseball players, doctors, presidents, inventors, whatever; there was none of that. For all of the mentions of getting rich, none of them had the foggiest idea that money was somehow connected to a job. (I don't count 'celebrity' as a job, Kardashians or no Kardashians.)

TB's school is public, in a working class/middle class suburb. It's not tony, by any stretch, but it's hardly a disaster. If you were doing a documentary on failing schools, it wouldn't occur to you to look here. TB is thriving, and so is his sister. The class divisions weren't so apparent in her class, though to be fair, she's in first grade. The divide seems to occur somewhere between first and fourth grades.

I’m not sure where that kind of vision is supposed to come from, other than parents. I know the schools shouldn’t teach that college is somehow mandatory; it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. But it should seem like a realistic aspiration, especially in the fourth grade. And even for those who don’t choose the college route, some kind of “I want to be a...” sentiment should be there somewhere. (This being the Northeast, none of the kids mentioned the military, either.) If nothing else, I’d expect some sort of method to the “getting rich” goal.

I’m glad that TB has us to fill in some of the blanks, and to help him see beyond the confines of his town. I just worry about the ones who don’t have anyone to do that.

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