Friday, September 08, 2017

Doubt, As Far As Possible, All Things

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life, you doubt, as far as possible, all things. ~Rene Descartes

I've seen the photos popping up on my Facebook feed this week, those first day of school pictures featuring freshly scrubbed children wearing expressions of nervous excitement. Of course, I'm delighted by those of the more recent graduates, alumni entering kindergarten or first grade, children I still know intimately. I will get first hand reports from many of them over the coming months as they drop by for visits. But I have especially enjoyed seeing the older kids, those heading off to middle and high school, and even college. I still occasionally see one or two of them in real life, so I've actually observed them become who they are today, but these photos is all I get from most of these adolescents and young adults who have grown beyond their memories of me.

There are those who will insist that this is the purpose of preschool, to begin preparing children for the "careers" that lie ahead. For most of the children I teach, that means public school followed by college followed by a professional career of some kind, steps along a well-trodden path. That's the future tense story the children are told, not by me, never by me, and probably not even by most of their parents, but it's one they've nevertheless heard told around them and about them to the point that most, at least sometimes, see themselves in it.

But I know without knowing, that this is not the story they are living. No one ever has. And if by some chance there are those who have lived that tedious fairytale, I fear that they are to wind up like the protagonist from Henry James' short story The Beast in the Jungle "to whom nothing on earth was to have happened."

Several years ago, I found myself in a one-on-one conversation with a middle schooler, a former student who last week moved across the country to attend university. When I asked her about school, I was treated to a full-on venting. School was stupid. They were making her learn irrelevant crap. It was a hollow, soulless, hoop jumping game, one foisted upon them by people who obviously hated children. It was just an assembly line, pressing out children like manufactured products, meaningless and hypocritical. No one, I think, is better at doubting all things than a 12-year-old, which is why I always like to have one or two in my life.

She was right, of course: that story we tell children is really a kind of Stepford-like dystopia and to try to live it a nightmare. Fortunately, despite the telling and re-telling of the story few humans I've ever met have actually lived it, except perhaps in the broadest of terms. Perhaps these children brimming and beaming at me in their first day of school poses don't know it yet, but they will: they will come to doubt and it's in those doubts that their real life takes shape.

People talk about life as a journey, a useful metaphor that I've often employed myself, but this morning as I think about all those children out there in the midst of it, I'm rejecting it. No, right now it looks more like a puzzle or a woodworking project or a piece of performance art. As school wrapped up last spring, parents thanked me for giving their children a "great start," but I was just playing with them, keeping them safe, and listening. And the kids were living, day-after-day, not starting anything at all. If they were getting ready for anything it was to wrestle this day into shape, to laugh or cry or stew about it, then come back tomorrow and wrestle the new one into shape.

That's what I've found life to be, after all, when well-lived. A story or journey, at one level, always becomes a kind race to the end and who wants that? We all know how it ends. Our individual lives can only be shaped into a proper narrative in hindsight: in this moment it demands to be lived and truly living means to frequently doubt all things, especially those things are the expectations of others. It's for this that I hope I'm preparing them.

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