Mike is small. He’s 13, but could just as well be 8. He has a cartoonish look about him, the kind that says he will always look like a 2nd grader, no matter how old he is. He’s one of the more popular kids in my 6-2 class. He likes to dance while I lecture. I was messing around on my computer, and Mike came over, inquisitively. He sat across from me and we started chatting. Simple things, “How is school lately?” “What’s the past tense for go?” “What’s your favorite Justin Bieber song?” I like talking to kids, because there is no conversational ebb and flow. There isn’t going to be one topic that we talk about for ten minutes. I’m just going to rapid fire random inquiries at them that I think will yield amusing answers. Kids ask questions, but kids generally, at 13 years of age do not have the willingness to lead a conversation with an “adult,” especially if they are alone.
I like to ask the questions that they would ask me. Louis CK has this bit where he complains that his five-year-old daughter has never said anything important in her life. Kids like to ask fluffy things: “Do you have a girlfriend?” “What your favorite animal?” “Do you like hamburgers?” I can’t really remember being a kid, not much of it at least. I don’t recall my impetus for asking those types of things. Was it completely unmotivated? Was I just working into my linguistic capacity, honing my skills? Was I calculatingly judging those who said their favorite animal was “dog” or those who didn’t quite prefer hamburgers? Did I archive the information? “Ah yes, the kid down the street is crazy about the color blue and the girl next door likes chicken nuggets, I’ll certainly remember that next time we play house.” Frankly, it’s nice to not have to think about what I’m going to say. I could follow “What month is your favorite?” with “Do you like clouds?” and it would seem like a totally rational segue.
So, when I hit a lull in conversation with Mike, I went for the surefire winner, the classic adult-kid conversation topic. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask any child this question, and you will never receive an “I don’t know,” in return. It’s funny, the types of questions older people respond with “not sure” to are the ones for which kids always have an answer. “Have you ever been in love?” “Yes!” “What’s your favorite color?” “Blue, duh! “Who’s your idol?” “Justin Bieber.” No pause, ever. Adults have to ponder these things, and if they don’t, I believe that means they’re young at heart.
Adults like to ask kids what they want to do when they grow up for a few reasons. They want to give them advice. They want to tell them, no matter how absurd their answer—I want to be king of Uranus—to follow their dreams and never let anyone stand in their way. They think its good for kids to start thinking about this stuff at age 12.
I ask this when there is a lull in conversation. So I said to Mike:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to raise animals and grow some plants.”
“You don’t want to be a policem—“I stop myself.
“I want to grow beautiful flowers in my courtyard. All kinds of flowers.”
“That is… I think that is a wonderful idea, Mike. I like flowers too.”
Mike is 13 years old, so he knows what jobs are. Not only that, but he’s a sharp kid, the kind you might expect “doctor” or (gulp) “lawyer” or even if he was a little adventurous “dancer” from. You might expect a five year old to say they want to plant flowers when they grow up. Children are conditioned to have answers for this question. In fact, adults (I do not oblige to be one) are conditioned to expect answers to this question. Most of my male students want to be in the army or drive a car. Most of my female students want to be doctors or singers. I wanted to be a policeman at age five, now the police are the last people I want to associate with, professionally or otherwise. These persuasions stem from the fact that we delineate what is “good” and “bad” work. Whenever a student is behaving poorly, a teacher may take them outside and have this type of exchange:
“Why did you do such and such?”
“I don’t know.”
“You need to work harder. You laugh today, you cry tomorrow. You cry today, you laugh tomorrow.” Meaning that, you goof off today, you’ll pay in the long run.
“Do you want to be like your parents, working with your hands all day?”
“No, I don’t.”
I am not arguing for an agrarian revolution. Further, I am not disagreeing with this type of treatment. Being a subsistence farmer is surely not fun. It’s arduous, unpredictable, and obviously, not entirely profitable either. It’s generally not a chosen line of work. But, I would never argue against it either.
Mike is 13. He’s a bright kid. No, he’s not the top of his class, but he’s personable and curious. By the time he’s 22 and ready to work, the opportunities in his hometown will be much greater than they are today. They will indubitably be much greater than they were when his parents were 22. His most likely line of work will still be farming, but it won’t be as likely as it is now. Mike is 13. He’s bright. He didn’t say he wanted to raise animals and plant flowers because he truly thinks that is his realistic endpoint. Thirteen year olds are idealistic, from the top to the bottom of the class. They haven’t been compelled to decide their own fate yet. He said that because he is a happy kid. He doesn’t see his parents’ careers as a burden. He doesn’t see farming as “falling short.” And I don’t think he really cares if anyone else does.
“What do you think?” He said.
“I think you should do whatever you want. But, Mike, if you’re going to plant flowers when you grow up, I expect you to plant the best flowers you can.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”