Thoughts on What We Say to Young Adults about the Future

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 3.19.17 PMYou can accomplish great things in this life.

That’s it. Now you just have to believe it. Unfortunately, it seems that our media and our educational system is hell bent on convincing you otherwise. And so many of you are taking that to heart. I want to say “Stop that.”

I’d been a college professor (with a brief stint of teaching middle school thrown in for fun) for 25 years when I quit last year. I am not sure if I will ever go back. I’m not sure I want to. But I know academia. It’s my niche. I lived it, and I follow academic news stories in the media somewhat obsessively. One of the reasons I am so interested is that much of what is occurring on a national scale at colleges and universities today are things that already happened at a small community college in Los Angeles, where I was a tenured English professor. I taught there for a total of 16 years, back in the nineties and in the first decade of the 2000s. So what I am witnessing is not all that surprising.

One of the great heartbreaks of that school was the prevalence of teachers telling the mostly Latino student body that the world is full of racism and that the white man will forever hold them down. They required protest attendance in their classes. They required political activism. I will concede that there might be academic justification in having students exposed to protests and politics. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to convince these students, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college, many of whom had little children at home, many of whom had been laid off and were looking for an opportunity to become educated in a new field, that their efforts here were fruitless because of widespread racism.

Of course, I had these same students in my classes as well. And many were confused. They couldn’t understand what their teachers were so angry about all of the time. They had more hope for their future. That was why they were there. They had white friends and white teachers and white neighbors who didn’t seem determined to keep them down.

Are there injustices in this country? Obviously. Do we need people fighting against them? Absolutely. My beef was the constant message that the world, this country in particular, is a terrible racist place, and as a result, you will not be allowed to become that doctor or lawyer. Yes. Students were told this in the classroom. And this was 10-15 years ago. I can’t even imagine what they are being told now. You may not want to believe it. After all, I did not sit in classrooms and hear this talk. But as a white teacher, I was subject to attacks by other faculty on campus for the sin of being white. And I listened to confused students, Latino students, who trusted me and talked to me about what was going on in their classes. So if you don’t believe this, then I guess you believe those students are liars. There’s nothing I can do about that.

I have a 22-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. And yes, they are white, with all the inherent “privileges” people hatefully accuse them of. And I know the messages they get from the world.

First, a word about those privileges. Of course they are privileged. Every single person in the United States today, in 2018, is privileged in ways unimaginable even 100 years ago, let alone throughout history and throughout the world. Let’s be grateful for that. That doesn’t mean everyone has the same level of privilege. My children went to a private Catholic school where they had access to superior facilities and amenities and the ability to choose between a wide range of AP and honors classes. I couldn’t afford the school. I was on financial aid. Catholic schools are pretty generous with helping students get an education. And I’m not Catholic. Both of my children are aware of that privilege and incredibly grateful for it. I wish every child had the same experience.

But dismissing them as having white privilege isn’t fair either. It misses their individual stories. But as a society, I guess that is where we have decided to reside. In a collectivist world where people are defined by their race and gender. And then all of the ills ever perpetuated by a member of the same race and/or gender may be heaped on every individual who cares those characteristics. It is beyond shocking to me that so much of the country, so many of my friends, practice this broad brush thinking. Individualism is dead. Nuance is dead.

How else is it possible for students at Yale to protest about their oppression when they are arguably attending the most prestigious university in the country, or even the world? Isn’t this privilege at its finest? An opportunity that only a minuscule fraction of people are awarded?

Privilege means opportunity. It doesn’t mean lack of suffering. It doesn’t mean things are easy. It doesn’t mean free from heartbreak. It doesn’t mean every dream will be fulfilled. It simply means opportunity. And plenty of people squander opportunities that fall at their feet while others have to scratch and claw to find just one opportunity. Or at least they are taught to feel like they do.

The fact is that opportunities abound. Why aren’t are kids taught this? In fact, why have adults, who should know better, bought into the narrative that there are no opportunities, unless you are “privileged”? The narrative that also tells young people that thanks to their group identity, whether it be related to race, sexual partner, religion, country of origin, weight, gender, or any other number of groups, they do not have the privilege that others do that is necessary to succeed in the US.

Some learn to see opportunity all around them. While others see nothing. Why don’t we teach kids that they are surrounded by opportunity, and that they actually have the power to create opportunity out of thin air? That they do not have to depend on others, the privileged, to hand them opportunities? Unless that is the point. To create dependence and despondence.

Instead, we have Alexandria Ocasio Cortez proclaiming that the world will end in 12 years if we don’t do something about climate change. How does she get media coverage? The discussion is as old as time: “the end of the world is nigh.” I thought we as a society pretty much roundly dismissed these apocalyptic warnings as the ramblings of crazy people.

Young people believe crime is rampant, racism is flourishing, the jobs are nonexistent. And they believe this because people my age are telling them so. I forgive young people for being so short sighted having been on this earth for such a short time. But people my age? I’m in my fifties, and just in my lifetime I have a broader perspective that should diminish the over-the-top reactions to such things. I more and more often say to myself, “I’ve seen this before.”

Crime is down. In fact, crime was much worse when I was a teenager. I had no idea at the time. I’m listening to a podcast right now about a child abduction. And one of the things discussed is that there was a huge child abduction problem in the 70s and 80s. That’s when I was a kid. When I and my friends were roaming freely the neighborhood and down by the railroad tracks, only coming home when the front porch light went on. But today, parents won’t let their children play in the front yard unsupervised.

When I was only three years old, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. So I did not live through the conditions of forced segregation, of white and black drinking fountains, of lynchings. Things are far from where we should be as a people today, but people today are dramatically different in their attitudes when it comes to race. They’ve improved in my lifetime. But now politicians want to paint half the population as deplorable racists. Teaching kids who were born at the turn of the 21st century that half the people they come in contact with are deplorable racists does nothing to empower young people to believe they have control over their destiny. It shuts them down, makes them suspicious, and generates anger. Please don’t ignore the statement I made a few sentences ago: “Things are far from where we should be as a people today.”

It’s impossible to get a job. This is a complaint I have heard quite a bit recently, mostly because my daughter just graduated from college, so all of her friends have been looking for jobs. But the popular narrative is that kids get themselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt through student loans, and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of dollars. And then they end up working at Starbucks. How often has this narrative been repeated in the media?

If true, I would have two suggestions. One, stop encouraging students to go into tremendous debt for a degree that is virtually worthless, or is certainly wildly overvalued. I won’t expand on that because I am still trying to figure out how I can participate in the collapse of the educational system as we know it. Something is seriously wrong with the entire system. And that’s a subject for another time.

My second suggestion would be to work at Starbucks and continue looking for a job in your desired field. Stick it out. Keep dreaming. It seems like young people have a complete misunderstanding of life for previous generations. For example, I graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in Journalism, arguably the most prestigious journalism degree being handed out. Of course, today, I refuse to support the school with my children or with my money. And guess what? I couldn’t find a job in my desired field. I worked at Famous Darr for a year, selling hosiery (which, my God, makes me sound like I worked in a department store in the 1890s!). But I constantly sent out resumes. I showed up for countless interviews in my only suit, complete with shoulder pads and a bow tied around the collar of the white starched shirt. I finally landed a job, only to calculate my pay and realize it added up to less than minimum wage. But I worked that job, never complained, asked for extra work during down times, and within a year was on my way to moving up to more and more money.

I remember when I bought my first house. I was 33 years old. Many of my friends not only had houses by then, but they had children and two cars in the garage. I felt woefully behind. And then I talked to my dad, who told me he was 34 when he bought his first house when I was a baby. Turned out, I wasn’t behind at all.

My daughter had the privilege of attending the University of Michigan. I say that to signal that I understand the advantages afforded her by attending that particular university. But I also bristle at stating it that way. It implies that it was handed to her. It was easy. And that couldn’t be father from the truth. And to claim that going there was a result of white privilege or because she went to a private Catholic school or because she was raised by a mom with a graduate degree who highly valued education, while all true, is to completely dismiss the role she played in getting there. Because I know people with the exact same privileges whose children ended up addicted to drugs, who committed suicide, who turned to porn, who would rather play video games than attend college, who committed crimes.

And my daughter did not have the privilege of growing up with a two parent household. I became a single mom when she was six years old. The short story is her father abandoned her and actually at times sabotaged her – again, a story for another time. Suffice it to say, she was incredibly hurt and has a hole inner heart that she carries everywhere. She had a mom who at times worked five jobs in an effort to keep our house and keep her in private school. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was only 20 months old, a life-altering chronic condition I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And she has had to endure the judgement of those who don’t know the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and who think she can fix it with lifestyle changes. If you are one of these people, just so you know, she can’t. It’s a life sentence.  She has plenty of reason to feel sorry for herself, despite her privilege.

My daughter transferred to UM as a junior, with merit scholarships, financial aid, student loans, and work study. She overcame incredible odds and two years of personal disappointment to get there. It was a remarkable achievement, one I never would have guessed could have occurred twelve months before I dropped her off.

She had two goals while there. She wanted to move to New York, and she wanted to have a job before graduation. Pretty much everyone told her this was impossible, a fact that angers me to this day. I am not sure what benefit such people think it brings to a 22 year old to discourage them by telling them something as basic as moving to New York and getting a job are so difficult. Common remarks: New York is too expensive; you’ll never find a place to live. You’ll never be able to afford it. You have a degree in psychology; you can’t get a job without a higher degree. The best gift I could give her was to tell her that of course she could do it. Repeatedly. Fortunately, she believed me. So a week before graduation, she had a job offer in New York. A week after graduation, she found an apartment in the West Village. It was unimaginably small, and she shared the third floor walkup with two roommates, two strangers. She did have her own room, one without a closet but that could fit a bed and a few boxes of her belongings. Oh. And she did this without the benefit of one of those brokers who charge thousands of dollars to find her an apartment, as everyone insisted was a requirement to move to New York. All she needed was a deposit, money she made sure she saved while she worked for dining services while attending school.

Many of the doubters expressed shock when I was able to brag that she was settled with an apartment and job in NYC. Some of them had their own kids who had just graduated and were struggling inter search for work; some of whom also had dreamed of going to New York. To a person, the response was, “Wow, she’s so lucky.”

I didn’t let people get away with that. To be lucky ignores the role she is playing in her own life. Besides, what is that definition of luck? When preparation and opportunity meet.

I wasn’t involved in her job search at all, other than listening to her frustration, fears, and stories. But soon she had graduating friends complaining about not being able to find a job. That was when she revealed to me that she had applied for between 200 and 300 jobs in her last few months senior year. Isn’t this something all of us adults know? It’s a numbers game. She probably didn’t hear back from 90%. Some wanted to do phone interviews. Many of them ghosted her. A few invited her to New York for a personal interview. Two offered her jobs.

It was a story I repeated to anyone who wanted to tell me how lucky she was or who wanted to complain about how their graduate couldn’t find a job. Often their graduates had only applied for  three or four jobs in the same time period. I remember looking for jobs. Putting together a resume, taking it to a printing company to have it copied onto expensive ivory paper, typing out individual cover letters on my old typewriter, buying a roll of stamps, stuffing envelopes, folding in a self addressed stamped envelope, and making a trip to the post office. It was work, it cost money, but we did it. Today, anyone has access to the internet, especially on a college campus, and for free apply to countless jobs, easily personalizing both the resume and cover letter to each one.

Did my daughter land her dream job? No. She landed her first “real” job.

Between her junior and senior years, we took a short trip between dropping her brother off in Indiana and when I needed to drop her off at Michigan. The trip included a stop in St. Louis, where I grew up. One of her good friends from high school was in college there and joined us for a dinner at the house of a friend of mine who I have known since fifth grade. Halfway through dinner, my friend had tears in her eyes and turned to the two girls, both about 21 years old, and apologized for our generation ruining the world for them. She went on to explain how the world is a horrible place: we will never see a woman as president on our lifetimes, climate change will cause catastrophic damage (although thankfully she didn’t go so far as to say the world will end in 12 years), the racism. Who knows what else she had planned on sharing. I had to stop her.

I calmly turned to my daughter and her friend and told them that, No. The world is good. They will have amazing live and do amazing things. They have every reason to be excited about the future. My friend turned to me, nearly in horror.

“You mean to tell me you don’t believe…” I stopped her in her tracks with a look. She stopped. I as not going to have her preach hopelessness to my child. A hopelessness unjustified and debilitating.

My mom told a story of my first summer home from college. It’s an incident I don’t remember, but I have no doubt it’s true. It was 1981. Mortgage interest rates for a 30 year fixed home loan were 17%. Think about that for a second. Could you buy a house today if you were facing a 17% rate? Today’s rates are between 4 and 5%. Plus the world was coming off the 1979 energy crises that doubled the price of oil, caused oil shortages, and lines at gas stations.

I took a business class, and my professor filled my head with the belief that the previous generation had ruined the world for us. We would never own a house. Never. We would never have financial security. Never. And with all the arrogance of a 19-year-old who actually thinks she knows what she’s talking about yet with the breadth and depth of experience and knowledge of, well, a 19-year-old, I came home and let my parents have it. As my mother told the story, I was furious that I would never have a house or as good of a life as my parents. I blamed them, yelled at them, and probably went to my room and slammed the door so that I could mourn my fate in privacy.

So apparently the squashing of hope and optimism by one generation on the next is not a new thing.

My message is resist. Resist those who always see the bad. Who always attribute evil intention. Who insist you others’ view of you dictate who you are. Who see you through the lens of group identity and not as an individual, a complicated individual filled with dreams and hopes and desires.

Seek those who have achieved despite their hardships. Find those who embrace life. Find those who find direction from within and not from power-seeking outsiders.

And finally, believe. Believe in yourself. Believe you are powerful. Believe you can create the life you want. Because guess what? You can.

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