My grandfather who named me after Christ and who survived the depression, multiple wars, the house, car, and college loans of my bankrupted father, used to tell me do what you love and that’s all that matters. He was a logger at first, but then landed a job at Concord Lumber after proving to his boss that he could do what his supervisor couldn’t, and there he remained for thirty-eight years, working humbly with his wood, alongside a volunteer side gig of teaching Sunday school at a nearby church, until he retired.
“There’s nobody better, he told me once after I brought home a report card with all A’s on it. “They won’t see you coming,” he’d say, “I know someone who thinks the world of you,” he said referring to God’s making me one of his favorites. “You should be teaching all of them,” he said, referring to my ability to not only create art objects, but talk about them in complex and imaginative ways he couldn’t.
He thought opportunity came from not only working harder than everybody else, but becoming more skilled as a result of that work and proving that. As a young child it was my job and my work to be a student, and I know if he’d been alive while I was at university, he’d have kept his Puritan underpinnings intact when referring to me in his usual biased way as the most gifted there ever was and will be.
Then fast forward 20 years to my father who while I was in grad school for poetry used to say pretty much the same things as my grandfather about my achievements, only with the added pessimism that went something to the effect of “Just be aware that you may not make a living on that,” as if living in poverty all your life was somehow okay, and even admirable, if that’s what you wanted, and if you thought you could be one of God’s children like that, indefinitely.
To him, I was something Gothic Victorian to look up to and be in awe of, but not something you could direct into a conventional mode of flocking. I just wasn’t going to turn out practical, that’s all. I was going to suffer as a result of my artistic priorities, and yes, I made the choices to do and be that, but not because I was flawed. I would suffer because some of us have to be better examples for the rest of us who won’t endure being unpopular for the sake of a thing of beauty. Most of us don’t have the attention span to focus so keenly on one thing for so long anyway, is usually how it went. He thought why not live vicariously through my artist son if it meant I got to keep my job and status and admire him, as if he were something from above. Fast forward approximately another twenty years, and now students just know now that education doesn’t guarantee success.
With roughly half of America underemployed, the old sell of working hard in school and creating opportunities that will safeguard you from a life of poverty no longer divinely holds any gold. For students whose over-educated parents have trouble putting food on the table, the lie made by some teachers that success is made by students achieving at high levels is about as silly and tragically unbelievable as the memes those students watch on their cell phones.
Today, there’s no guarantee that the student who chooses to study for the “real world” will be any more successful that the student who chooses to ignore the “real world” entirely and studies instead for a vacation of writing non-sequitur like poems on the couch.
Even now I can hear my father, who was an educator all his life, and his Sunday school teaching father saying to me “You’re too good for this place. God wants you up here, writing poems for him.” But if I’m being honest, that to me just sounds like hurry up and die so we can remake the world and finally get things right this time,
a sentiment I’m sure at least half of the students I see every day also feel, each time a big, fatherly teacher tells them how important getting a higher education is, but doesn’t have the courage to tell them why he believes that that prayer is only halfway true, and would rather remain an example of patriarchal, adult cowardice than acknowledge we corrupt our education system and push back our own children with false promises to protect the ones we’ve already made to ourselves and are terrified we might not be able to keep.