Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The “Real World”

I was one of the lucky ones. I was born into a family that loved and supported me. It wasn’t always perfect, of course, we’re all human, but my experience growing up  as a member of a family was overwhelmingly a positive one, a circumstance from which I, by all rights, should have never sought to escape.

But I did. Sometimes I would read a book or see a movie that made me imagine that life might be a little better if I could only break away, say to a desert island like the Swiss Family Robinson or a pirate ship like in Treasure Island or  some other adventure, anywhere, in fact, beyond the humdrum of my life of family, friends and school. Not that I didn’t generally  like those things, but sometimes, even when I was very young, it would occur to me that maybe that wasn’t enough. I think it had to do with my emerging notions of freedom, of wanting to no longer belong to the class of people we call children, but rather join the world as a fully-formed human, to test myself, to test my theories about the “real  world,” to see just how far I could make it on my own.

They weren’t serious thoughts, of course, I never tried to run away, for instance (although I sometimes pretended to), but I had these thoughts  nevertheless, despite living what most would have considered an idyllic life; one without particular dangers, where my physical and emotional needs were getting met, where I wasn’t subjected to the stresses of having to earn a living. As I got older, those feelings grew stronger until I found myself beating against what I’d come to see as a kind of  cage. By the time I was a middle schooler, I’d figured out that adults didn’t necessarily know more than I did: they had more experience, sure, but despite that they continued to live their lives in irrational ways, slaving away in a cycle of work-home-work that seemed devoid of meaning. But even worse, “they” (and by now I was starting to conflate “adults” with “society” or “the man”) were forcing us kids to live just as irrationally as they were. What was the point of school? We were never going to need most of this crap in our “real lives.” 

By any measure, we were a “happy family,” a classic nuclear unit, living in a series of suburbs. If we had financial or other difficulties, I was blissfully unaware of them, yet still the feeling grew, this urge to break away. In high school, it took the form of fleeing to my friends, a teenage hothouse, no less artificial than the one in which I’d been raised, but tasting like freedom. We imagined we did “real world” things together, sneaking out of the house, going places we’d been forbidden to go, experimenting with drink and sex, trying desperately to find what we imagined to be our adult selves in these hideouts where teenagers ruled. We thought it was the “real world.”

And then I went to the university. Here, we thought, we were finally free, only to discover after the initial rush of pirate ship excitement, that it was not much more than an extension of childhood. From my perspective today as a man approaching 60, I see that I spent the first third of my life in a kind of holding tank of family and school called childhood, waiting, waiting, waiting until the day I could finally, on my own terms, engage with the “real world.” Then once there, I see now that I continued to be crippled by the experience to the point that it was another decade, at least, before I finally felt like a full-fledged adult.

This notion of walling children off from the “real world” is really a rather new phenomenon. Even our modern concept of the nuclear family is one that didn’t really exist only a few generations ago as young humans were more likely to grow up in extended families, with lives full of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins of all ages. Children  were much more free, even from the very earliest, to roam their neighborhoods, towns, and villages on their own, to engage the “real world” on their own terms, to make their own friends, which often included adults, even adults our own parents didn’t know. Historically, the age of seven was widely considered to be the age of reason, and it wasn’t uncommon for children this young to have jobs (and yes, some were exploited,, but most joined the workforce, on their own terms, willingly) or apprenticeships, school was not mandatory, and children sometimes even emerged as leaders of men: scholars believe, for instance, that Lief Eriksson, the Viking discoverer of the North American continent, was likely a teenager when he set sail. That’s not far off my Treasure Island dreams.

Over the course of the last century, for better or worse, the traditional manner of raising children together, as a village, has faded away: most American children are growing up  thousands of miles from their grandparents, they are no longer free to roam, it’s incredibly rare for them to have adult friends of their own,  even their teachers are expected to maintain a professional distance as they become  increasingly walled-off from the real world. These hothouses of nuclear family and school are anomalies in the context of human existence. Yet we now consider an extended, protected, childhood to be normal, even as the children themselves know, even from within their idyllic lives,  that this new normal  has come at the cost of their freedom.

 I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you! 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: