Facebook is everyone’s favorite example of the derivative nature of experience in the post-industrial age. It’s “virtual,” and not a “real” community that tries to take the place of what is lost now that we in our families and communities hold together like loose sand. It going to be the undoing of us because we lose our muscle for the real thing. I have a bone to pick with that jeremiad, so here’s my own personal jeremiad:
Lately, on facebook, there’s been this rather amazing outpouring of concern for kids that usually few who don’t happen to live in inner-city projects and areas of blight care about. As a result, for the next ten years the kids of one New York City school will take a trip to Harvard when they enter sixth grade and there will be summer school. Plus, there’s a scholarship fund for kids who graduate from the school. If you are interested and want to follow it, or see any one of the thousands of instructive and moving comments and opinions that are part of this outpouring, you’ll probably have to enter that community on facebook. Or, you can go directly go to the fundraising page and, contributing or not, see that almost 38,000 people have given money — which in itself is close to a record, apparently.
I’m not here to raise money for this cause, though if that were to happen it wouldn’t hurt. I am writing this because of what one of the teachers of the school said when she was put in the spotlight as part of this, umm, happening. She’s from Nigeria. She said, “most of my students in Nigeria had no shoes, no clothes, no food. Nothing, nothing. But they wanted to learn. They showed up every day wanting to learn. When I told my colleagues that I was going to teach in America, they said: ‘Don’t do it. The students there don’t want to learn. They will scream all during class.’ . . . In a way, they were right. . . . There were fewer students, and more resources, but there was not the same desire to learn. I’ve had to learn to teach motivation.”
How do you teach motivation? I wonder. I am here to talk about the idea of wanting to learn, about the issue of curiosity, the internal need to find out and to master a skill. For the kids at this school [I am 56; they are kids], it is desperately necessary to want to learn, to work, to achieve, to be resolved to excel, because education is the only halfway reliable way out of the ghetto of violence and neglect they find themselves in. It shouldn’t be, but it is. However, their condition of ennui is, despite being immeasurably more desperate and damning than for suburban kids from two job two car families with a college savings account, not that different from that of many other American teens. Or so it seems to me.
Clearly, it is going to be pretty tough to think well of yourself if everyone around you seems to feel you don’t have the capacity because of your skin color or the place you come from or your parents, or if you feel that the odds are so stacked against you that you might as well be an asshole. Still, though I am an ignoramus in this field, my sense is that curiosity is a normal human condition that only disappears under great stress or serious neglect. Two-year olds ask why about everything. At four they want to help and to make things. By the time seven rolls around, they want to find out for themselves. Parents under stress shut them down and Bob’s your uncle, there’s one passive or resistant or bullying kid. And those kids we find all the way across the land — to such a degree that teachers in Nigeria know that American kids are unnatural: They don’t want to achieve! They don’t want to know! They just want to be a pain in the ass….
I want to let these kids discover the joy of getting wet and dirty. I want to take them with me to a place far from the city and wade through the water at the sea shore and play in tide pools. I want them all to come to our bog and roam through the woods and climb under and over and crash through the ice and get their shoes and their feet wet and stinky with beaver-scented mud. And then fall on their ass because they didn’t see that stick while they were catching frogs to see how they jump. That’s what is the most immediate experience of myself and the world is to me. I want them to have a non pre-processed experience in which they get to touch the real world made of sticks and stones and stink and wet without having it be a threat. Or whatever it translates to for them — though I can take the world away, I can’t decide what is real for them and give it to them.
There’s a vast difference between the life experience of kids in Brownsville and kids in Suburbia. You can’t say the former do not have experiences with the physical world: they see violence and dirt and the worst of humankind’s afflictions and they have to hide inside all summer because it is too dangerous to go to the park. They are vastly more experienced than kids who have everything ready for them to play with and horses and the sea shore and get everything they yell for in a Faustian bargain in which they can have what they want so long as they do not make beeline out the door.
But they have this in common with each other: they are not free to come and go, they do not feel safe, they don’t get to hear the frogs that announce spring and smell the balsams in the summer because they are diverting the stream to see whether they can or for some other purpose without any adults nearby. They do not experience their own power to discover and learn. They can’t bike around and have a conversation with the old guy who always sits in his front yard talking to his dog three streets over. They don’t get to build their own forts and go discover the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and be safe at the same time. We want them to be pilgrims but we’ve taken away Tinker Creek. They are all shut down before they get to be human: they are abused and neglected. They are treated like nineteenth-century girls: the only answer is to obey. And we wonder they end up passive and impossible?
I don’t pretend to know the answer here. I myself was despite playing in mud with frogs as a child a teenager who drank and talked back to my mother. Who flunked twice in high school and had sex when I shouldn’t have and paid dearly for it with my reputation because I was expected to make decisions about these things before I was ready to. Who never did a thing in two years of “studying” in Amsterdam, not only because she was scared to look dumb, but because she in fact was a lazy dumb ditz. Likely, these are luxuries no one needs. But — at least I was on my own bike on my way to school by myself when I ran into a tree because I was still drunk from the night before. Right then and there, it taught me that I perhaps should not go quite that far and perhaps that saved my ass in the end.
I’m not advocating what my parents did with me, which is to let me live with few rules (this against my mother’s wishes but she lost the fight and by the time she was the boss, I was 16 and it was a little late).
These teachers are on to something with their wish to take the scholars to Harvard to see that it is indeed a real place where people like themselves not only study but end up professors — and to have summer school so they can maybe take them to the beach or read a book or whatever. They can’t free them to bike around, but they can at least give them a taste of the real world and hope that they will be motivated to throw off the chains and leave the cave.
But by Jove, what the hell is wrong with us here in this country that we are able to raise generations of kids who can only live derivatively with the help of pre-processed experience — and then whine that the facebook website where a community manages to come together and raise funds for kids who desperately need it — is merely a virtual place that isn’t part of the real world?
PS For the past four years, almost exactly, I have been accompanied on my wanderings by a foxhound named Buddy who teaches me how to live in the moment. He “is” with all his might all the time, he gets wet, he falls on his ass. And he likes to explore. Hence a gallery with far too many exploration pics with captions in the dog-voice of the besotted human. What of it?