Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Her Own Private World

So yesterday my fourteen-month-old decided it was time to help with the laundry. He grabbed up a pile of his sister’s clean and neatly folded laundry and made off with it, cackling like the inconsiderate little dirtbag he is. I yelled to him to stop, but these days there’s nothing that makes him accelerate from T-Rex Stomp to Ass Afire like someone frantically yelling “Stop!” in his general direction. He made it all the way to the pee-soaked dirty diaper bin, where he gleefully tossed the laundry. The bin has a swinging top to it, a fierce Object of Desire for him; on a given day I’m fishing any number of my possessions out of it, which is probably why I smell a little funny when I go out in public, something I try not to do if I can help it.

I texted my daughter the details of her latest victimization, because I thought it would provide some amusement in her day. “Your baby brother is a douche,” I said in signing off. Her new friend Simone was reading over her shoulder.

“Your mom used douche in a text to you?!” she said. “Wow, your mom is cool.”

My daughter cocked a skeptical brow. “Not really, trust me.”

“Well, this summer I was grounded two weeks because I put my yogurt cup in the trash instead of the recyclables. My parents think recycling is very important.”

At this point I’m sure my daughter looked at her like she was an alien. Not that we don’t recycle, I hasten to point out; why, just the other day the toddler decided to recycle all the pots and pans, and dumped the entire contents of my cabinets into the bin. But the idea that somebody in our house would be punished for putting something in the wrong place is kind of amusing, for anyone who has ever visited our house. My friend Maureen claims it's my house's only rule, that somehow or somewhere, a pair of underwear must be scattered within twenty feet of the front door. 

The truth is, my daughter is the one who’s an alien, in her new high school. Most of her friends there have parents every bit as tightly-wound as Simone’s. Not only are her parents much more loosely-wrapped than your average private school family, but she’s also a faculty kid—the child of two teachers, in fact. The halls of her public middle school looked quite a bit different from her current school; her frames of reference, her views on the world, and most importantly, her budget, are all more or less alien to her new friends.

For now, this makes her an exotic, and one whose company is sought-after. But we don’t kid ourselves that all social differences will be ironed out smoothly. There will be plenty of difficult times ahead for our daughter, as she navigates this strange new world. Putting her in a competitive private school was not an easy decision, and we wrestled with it. Being private school teachers ourselves made us less inclined, I think, to put her in a private school – we know the seamy underbelly of private education in this country, and it’s unlovely. Private schools siphon off incalculable amounts of financial and intellectual resources from our nation’s public schools. The idea that a better education, like better medical care, can be had for more money is personally repugnant. The quality of your education, and the opportunities that flow from it, should not be dependent on your zip code. Consumer-driven curriculum models are equally distasteful, and the kind of pandering private schools have to engage in should sicken anyone who studies them. I can tell you horror stories about our mission to kids being impeded time and again by our mission to coax checks out of their parents’ pockets. I will only say that every ugly stereotype you have in your head about private education has some basis in reality, and many private schools remain hotbeds of racial, gender, and sexual identity discrimination.

So why would we choose that for our daughter? For one thing, we wanted her exposed to the quality of teaching you find almost exclusively in independent schools these days. That’s not because public school teachers are underqualified, but because they’re overworked (see “drain of resources,” above.) We wanted her to forge strong personal connections with her teachers, in smaller classes. We wanted to widen her exposure to the world through travel abroad (frequently subsidized by this school) and through knowledge of a socio-economic culture different from her own. And as the product of a competitive private school myself, I wanted her to experience how varsity-level teaching and intensely high expectations can rewrite your hard drive, and inspire you for life.

When I was teaching at the school my daughter is now enrolled in, I helped out with admissions by doing student interviews, and I watched groups of parents being led through on tours. They always asked lots of questions, and a lot of those questions were about colleges. Ivy League Anxiety loomed behind their eyes, and implicit (and frequently explicit) in the parent-school compact of a place like that is the idea that private school will help your son or daughter get into their dream school – or at least, their parents’ dream school.

The truth is, that’s not really true. The reality is that if you really want your gifted kid to go to Princeton, send her to the local public high school. Not only will her grades probably be higher (and her teacher recommendations  therefore more glowing) but she is more likely to stand out in her class. And when it comes down to it, most highly competitive colleges would rather take the bright public school kid than the bright private school kid, because of their assumption (whether true or not) that the public school kid is more well-rounded and has had to work harder for intellectual achievement, rather than having her meat cut for her.

But like I said, college admission is not the reason we’re sending our daughter down that road. We know it will be a rocky one, and for every advantage, there will be a disadvantage lurking around the corner. My main fear looks something like this:

 It’s a slight variant on my fears for her at public school:

Few of us want the life of the Lamborghini for our kid, just like few of us want the life of the flat-bed pick-up. Most of us, when we imagine our kids’ futures, envision something nice and safe and dependable, like a five-year-old Honda Accord with low mileage, working AC, and side curtain airbags. We fear the extremes, because our adult experience knows that danger – as well as, yes, adventure – lurks at the margins.

“May she be granted beauty,” wrote the poet William Butler Yeats in his Prayer For My Daughter, “and yet not beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught, or hers before a looking-glass.” What parent hasn’t prayed that prayer? Make her pretty, Lord . . . but not too pretty. But Yeats’s fear wasn’t, finally, the outside world. He didn’t ultimately worry about the drug-dealers or bounders or skanks whose eye might be drawn to his daughter’s beauty. He worried about the effect of inordinate beauty on the inner life. He worried that beauty existed in inverse relationship to kindness, and even to the capacity for intimacy. And he prayed for her privacy, her integrity, and her stability:

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place. 

That’s all any of us are trying to do, no matter what educational choices we make for our kids. We want their minds rooted in one dear perpetual place, and we want to help them build an inner sanctum of peace they can retreat to when the going gets rough, so that maybe when the meth junkie or the coke-snorter or the abusive boyfriend or the seven-figure dickwad pulls up beside them, our kids will know what to do.

Which is, of course, CALL MOM.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Modern Martyrdom of Chris McCandless

 In 1990, a young college student named Chris McCandless turned his back on his considerable prosperity, his family, and his own education, and walked off into the wilds of America. By 1992, sixteen weeks after he decided to take on the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a 22-caliber rifle and a ten-pound bag of rice, he was dead.

McCandless starved to death out in the wastes of Alaska, presumably weakened from an infection. He chronicled much of his journey, as well as much of his eventual death. But his death at age 24 was the beginning of his journey; he has since turned into a cult figure of gargantuan proportions. The old bus that he had turned into his home in the Alaskan wilderness has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of people. Today the bus is crammed full of hundreds of yellowing, crumbling composition books signed by the thousands of visitors. He has achieved all the fame and notoriety, all the white-hot attention of our celebrity-obsessed culture, that he would surely have found revolting, what with Jon Krakauer’s book making it to the top of many high school summer reading lists, and Sean Penn's 2007 movie starring William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. To an equal number of people he is a narcissistic, arrogant, self-obsessed, ungrateful little whacko who brought his fool death on himself.

Whatever you end up thinking about McCandless – and his story is an intriguing one that deserves some thought – I can’t help but think about another young man who incurred his family’s wrath by a radical ascetic renunciation of wealth, position, and prospects: Francis of Assisi.

There's nothing like a little public nudity to get your point across. I love how Dad is being restrained from bitchslapping his son by the guy behind him, and how the abbot charged with holding the towel around Francis's booty looks like he's about to die of embarrassment. Or, Francis just farted.

Like Chris McCandless, Francis had a fraught relationship with his father. Like McCandless, he made a very public (and for his father, very embarrassing) disavowal of material goods. But unlike the unlucky McCandless, Francis had a framework in which to fit his asceticism: the medieval Church, which affirmed the sanctity of the ascetic life in monasticism. The young boy pursuing his history and anthropology degree at Emory University had no such outlets readily available, and no cultural context into which he could pack all that ascetic longing – a longing as intense, as profound, and as particular as a sexual orientation.

Medieval Christianity was a culture that failed to provide safe places for lots of people, but by God, it sure knew what to do with ascetics. In fact, the monasteries and convents were not the holy prisons or warehouses for the inconvenient we tend to envision, but really a sort of parallel society in which lesbians and gay men, ascetics and educated women, artists and philosophers and musicians and the mentally ill could all find a more amenable cultural context than the ordinary medieval world. In other words, they looked pretty much like the campus of your average liberal arts college.

So, Matins at 5, yeah?
Francis’s ascetic orientation was so deep that the monasteries themselves couldn’t satisfy him. Like McCandless, he needed to wander, to carry his message of radical asceticism to the people of medieval Italy, the smallfolk who had little access to the world of the monasteries. Besides, Francis found the monasteries corrupt – hierarchical, shot through with greed and materialism and worldliness, all the things they were meant to reject. So he encouraged his companions to wander and preach and live amongst the people, and to encounter what McCandless called “the raw throb of existence.”

Judaism does not have the developed ascetic tradition of Christianity and many other religions, and in fact sees the body’s continual self-denial as a hindrance to prayer. Rejection of marriage, in particular, is alien to the mainstream Jewish tradition, though of course outlying groups like the Qumran community have at various times lived their Judaism differently. More often, Jewish asceticism found its outlet in movements like the early Hasids. The Hasids of 18th century central Europe reordered their lives around their rebbe, a Francis-like figure who called them to radical holiness and the stripping away of all distraction from immersion in the word and presence of God. This might also involve some material self-denial, as previously wealthy Jews gave up more lucrative professions in order to live near their rebbe, or donated huge sums to the poor of their community.

One of my favorite Hasidic stories is about the young disciple of a rebbe, who when he was in the House of Study, was never able to get beyond the opening words, “And God said.” Whenever he heard these words read aloud at the beginning of a passage, he had to rush outside and lean against the wall, hugging himself and laughing, repeating over and over and over: va y’omer! va y’omer! And He said, and He said. At its root, asceticism is what the young Hasid experienced—that radical opening to the unnoticed, that sense that we stand on the crust of the earth above molten magma, and we have only to break through the crust of material preoccupation to stand in fire.

No society does a great job of taking care of all of its outliers. There will always be people for whom society provides no place. We might think we do a better job of it than medieval Europe did, but probably we don’t; our answers, and the groups of outliers we can help, are just different, not better. It was Chris McCandless’s misfortune that there was no Francis standing on the quad at Emory, no presence of an alternative existence to tell him he was not alone, that he did not have to forge this path all by himself, that there were others who thought and felt as he did.

But things did not Get Better for Chris, and we lost an ascetic we should have been able to keep. Lux perpetua luceat ei. May light perpetual shine upon him.