One of the most cliched and uninspiring assignments doled out to elementary school students throughout the history of forced writing assignments is the one that asks each child for specifics regarding the proposed trajectory of their perceived profession. "In 200 words or less, describe the job that will define you to others in just a few short years from now. Just a few shorts years from now, when you are wondering if you made the right choice, getting buried under an endless mountain of debt, looking for any sort of happiness in your unfulfilling career, occasionally glancing at the fine print on your life insurance policy for the word 'suicide'. But, no pressure, kids. Just have fun with it."
The problem with making these requests of children is that only 1 in 1000 really have any idea what they want to do. For myself (and many of my friends), ideas of the "ideal career" changed almost week to week and were almost always seeded by television.
One week, for example, I was going to be a budding chef living with two girls, one blond and one brunette. But there'd be a catch; in order for me to stay in what is apparently a strict Puritanical apartment complex, I'll have to pretend to be homosexual. And this would not be a matter of me simply being gay. Oh no. When necessary, I would have to pretend to be uber-gay. "Flame on!" And if our nosy landlord would get suspicious of my possible heterosexuality, I would then sashay about like an 8-year old in a beauty pageant in order to get him out of our hair (this only works because he is so terrified of catching "the gay") Oh, and my best friend lives in an apartment below us. To me, he is just a cool ladies man and I never realize that he's actually sort of creepy and a balding petrie dish for all social diseases.
Then, another week, I was going to be a detective. Homicide, narcotics, it didn't matter because I didn't know what those words meant. And, sure, I'm a detective that has a problem with authority, but I always come through in a crisis and, at the last minute, usually rescue the chief; the same chief that is always looking to throw the book at me for my rogue ways, but who also secretly admires my ability to stop the bad guy at any cost, sometimes at the last minute and occasionally in slow motion. No car chase is too dangerous, no amount of explosions are too big and no amount of shots fired from my revolver are counted. Also, I drive a kick-ass sports car like Starsky and Hutch that the taxpayers graciously pay to repair each and every time I roll it or valiantly crash it into the vehicle of a fleeing suspect. I'm sure they don't mind.
In the 3rd grade in Aloha, Oregon, my 'What do you want to be' essay failed to cause a wave of enthusiasm from the literary community, but it was well-received by my classmates (well, the boys. The stupid girls were too full of stupidness to get it). “When I grow up, I want to be a werewolf. But a nice werewolf and I will only attack bad guys like murderers, fire starting people and drug gangs. I want to have a cool jacket like Fonzie and drive around in a hot rod made out of a coffin. Eventually, I’ll work for the FBI and have a girlfriend.”
Your loss, mysterious literary agent.
Of course, all kids grow up quickly and so by the time I entered 5th grade, I had matured enough, become more contemplative and introspective, to really know what was realistic and what was fantasy.
In my 5th grade class in Tacoma, Washington, our teacher, Miss Dell, prompted us to present our future careers orally. When I was called, I answered, quite earnestly, mind you, “I want to live in a town called Hazard and drive a cool car like the Duke boys. I’ll jump the car over a bunch of stuff, but the cops will crash when they try to do it themselves, too. Oh, but the cops don't get hurt, so it's funny."
Okay, so the line between reality and fantasy for me was sometimes as fine as cheap sewing thread.
“I have a question,” Mrs. Dell said. “How will you earn a living?”
“You mean money for gas an' dynamite an' stuff?"
“Yes. I never understood how the Dukes made a living. Knight Rider, at least, got paid by the government.”
“Um, I dunno. I guess people just give ‘em stuff for free.”
“But, why would people do that, Mike?” Mrs. Dell asked, humored.
“Because they’re cool.” Game. Set. Match.
Mrs. Dell pulled down the Rand-McNally above the chalkboard and pretended to study it. "Now, I know you want to live in Hazard, as you said, but which state will you be living in, exactly?"
By the fifth grade, I was only capable of naming four of the continental states and then only because my family had lived in them. Fortunately, I was a really good BSer. Just watch this: "Um, well, I think it's one of the south states over here somewhere" At this point, I waved my hand in the general area of what was, in actuality, Winnipeg.
As time went on, I hopped from career path to career path the way a party mom jumps from "uncle" to "uncle." A doctor for eleven years of the three year long Korean War, a big rig driver that thumbed my nose at the law by driving through police roadblocks, a man in a suit married to a witch, a counter intelligence spy working undercover in a German POW camp, member of a group of teenagers who solve mysteries, a man in a sweater who had a small trolley in his living room... you get the idea.
For teachers to ask kids, in any sort of seriousness, what it is they want to do with their lives is, well, it's like asking them what names they prefer for hypothetical grandchildren. The future, a seemingly abstract concept, is simply too far off in the distance for most children to grasp. Having been kids all of their lives, they can't seriously be expected to imagine being anything else.