Thursday, June 02, 2005

Graduation and Upper-Middle-Class Guilt

My daughter Emily is graduating from high school in a couple days, and I’m reading about the future plans of her classmates, as published by The Westerville North Warrior Memories Book, circa the class of 2005. Alicia is planning to double major in biology and chemistry, on her way to becoming a doctor. Neil wants to pursue a career in theater, and will study at NYU prior to his Broadway debut. Sarah will continue her studies in cello at Oberlin College. She’s been playing the cello since she was three, and has been a member of the Columbus Youth Orchestra for the past six years, with whom she has toured China and Europe.

It’s like that for page after page. I know these kids, and many others like them. I’ve watched them grow up, have seen them at countless elementary school and middle school and high school orchestra and band concerts, and now they’re ready to fly their respective upper-middle-class nests and strike out on their own. They are the children of relative wealth and undisputed privilege. They are bright, high-achieving students, and they have the means, thanks to mom and dad, to pursue esoteric, highly impractical careers in acting and symphonic music. God bless them.

Reality will slap some of them down, as it has a way of doing. Some of them will end up selling insurance in much more prosaic lives than they can now imagine. But for right now they are on top of the world, dreaming big dreams, ready to go out and take their rightful places among the elite of our society. And Emily is right there with them.

I live in that world, but I see glimpses of other worlds. Twelve miles from my house, where we go to church, there is some kid named D’Juan or Chantelle who looks at the future and sees a bright career as a crack dealer or an unwed mother. And half a world away, in Thailand, there are kids named Nongrat or Kitipong who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, who own no more than the tattered clothes on their backs.

Emily’s good friend Sunny is the youngest of her family. She is headed off to the University of Dayton. That will leave her parents as empty nesters in one hell of a nest – a 5,000+ square foot house with six bedrooms overlooking Hoover Reservoir. Sunny’s family moved there a couple years ago. Everybody leaves, then it’s time to upsize. And I’ve seen that pattern again and again here in my corner of suburbia. There are always reasons, and they always sound good for all of about three seconds. It’s an investment. You want to make sure there’s plenty of room for the grandkids. My friend John is already preparing boats for his grandkids. He now owns nine of them, collects them in the same way that he collected Matchbox cars when he was a little kid, apparently expecting a big multi-generational sailing brood.

My judgmental side is easily roused. I want to shake them out of their lethargy, tell them to wake up, realize that there is a big world out there that they can help to change in positive ways. But in truth, I can’t hold on to that attitude for long. Sunny’s parents and my friend John are good people – kind, friendly, often generous. They write their checks, often big ones, to their favorite charities. Just like me. And there are days when I wonder just how the hell I got here.

I lived in the ghetto -- or at least what passes for one in Columbus, Ohio – for eight years. I did it with my eyes wide open, quite intentionally, committed to the silly, romantic, idealistic notion that a bunch of highly educated white Christian kids from the suburbs could help transform a neighborhood rife with crime and drugs and dead-end lives. We organized neighborhood tutoring programs for the kids. We sponsored neighborhood cleanups and beautification projects. We held neighborhood cookouts, and gave away free food in the hopes that a bunch of isolated people could experience some sense of interconnectedness. And the crime went on. And the women were raped. And the silly, romantic white kids got married and had kids, and figured out that they didn’t want to raise their families in the middle of a war zone. And so they moved away, often to the suburbs, and I was right there with them. Why did I move? Because I could. And I did.

But to this day I live uneasily with that choice. There are tradeoffs everywhere. I’ve gained a stable, safe, well-manicured environment where my kids have more than a fighting chance to do something worthwhile with their lives. And I’ve also raised my kids in an environment of entitlement, where they assume that 5,000+ square foot houses and nine boats are the norm, where the limo ride to the prom is a given, and where kids like D’Juan and Chantelle are nowhere in sight. Nobody smokes cocaine in the northern reaches of Westerville, Ohio. How gauche. They strictly snort it.

Come what may, Emily is graduating at 10:15 Saturday morning. She’ll receive her diploma, and I’ll be right there in the midst of the camcorders, preserving the magic moment for posterity. At some point this weekend I’ll probably mow the lawn. I won’t mow it in neat, diagonal swaths. I’ll do freeform mowing, my own little act of rebellion. Strike a blow for freedom and creativity, and all that. It’s as dangerous and subversive as I get these days. But I’ll hope and I’ll pray, all evidence to the contrary, that something of D’Juan and Chantelle and Nongrat and Kitipong will resonate deep inside, will remind her, and remind me, that it’s a big ol’ world, full of hurting people. I can never seem to graduate from the School of Me, but I’d at least like to keep showing up for class, and look around at the other people in the room.


Deb B. said...

I hear you here. I lived in a Catholic Worker house my first six months out of college and now I live a very comfy life out here in the burbs. Because I can. :)

jlee said...

it seems to be an age old thing you can know for sure, no matter where you've planted your family...if love is the core value of what you revolve around, jesus is pleased & your ARE making a difference.

Anonymous said...

This is so good. It makes me hopeful. I want to print it off and show it to some people I've been struggling with lately. I feel like you just read my journal. I too grew up in what passes for the ghetto in Columbus Ohio and can't tell you how affected I have been because of what I've seen or been through. This is so needed. It's good to see that subversive lawn keepers live in suburbia.
Three cheers!

Anonymous said...

i cannot even begin to tell you how much this post spoke to me, but it is so much at the core of how i want my life. as a mother of 2 girls, all i can hope is that in some way i convey to them that suburbia doesn't offer all the correct answers. i was moved by this posting and hope to read more.