01 July 2010


In the past two days, I've experienced two very interesting "cameos," if you will, with two very different people.  Although they have practically nothing in common, the time I spent with was satisfying for much the same reasons.

The other day, I sold a rug I've had rolled up and propped in the corner of my foyer.  I sold it for the same reason I sold another rug I had:  I've kept them stored away because my allergist recommended that I not have any carpets or drapes, as I am allergic to dust mites.  

Well, I tell myself, at least I'm not allergic to my cats or chocolate!

The young woman who bought the rug has been living in Flushing for a few months.  She's from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but she has lived in Istanbul, California and a couple of other places.   At age seventeen, she left home and now she's twenty-five.  Now she speaks five languages and has done every kind of work from landscaping to tutoring.  And she spent time with Americorps, which is like a domestic version of the Peace Corps.

I tried, for a moment, to imagine her in college--not just the one in which I teach, or any in which I've taught, but any college at all.  I couldn't.  Well, maybe I could have imagined her in college during the late '60's or early '70's, but not just any college.  Even so, the thought of her on a campus taxed my imagination.

Maybe she'll go one day.  If she does, I'm sure she'll know why and what she's doing there.  I never brought up the idea:  It just didn't enter into the conversation, except for once--when she brought it up.  However, a part of me hopes that she doesn't go.

These days, when I talk to almost anyone I encounter from the academic world, I find myself disappointed, if not frustrated or sad.   Maybe I'm getting old and cranky and less tolerant of claptrap.  I'm realizing, I think, how few truly educated people I met among those who have been anointed by some institution or another, or by their peers or themselves, as intellectuals and authorities on something or another.  

You will never see so many insecure and pretentious people as you will among university faculty, or those students who aspire to be one of them.  English departments are the worst of all; next might be sociology or education departments.  In those departments, you find exactly the sorts of people who've spent their entire lives in school so they wouldn't have to actually learn anything--not about the world, or other people--or, most of all, about themselves.

The young woman--Larissa--said, "I simply couldn't imagine going to college at that age.  It never made any sense to me:  A kid who's  been in school all his life is told, 'OK, pick what you want to do for the rest of your life and study it.' What eighteen-year-old knows enough to make that choice?  And who wants his parents or anyone else to decide for him?"

Thank you, Larissa.  I want to say something like that to the parents (or whoever's in charge of) at least half of the freshmen I've ever taught, and a good number of upperclassmen.  I'm against the draft and the military, but sometimes I think they might actually do some new high school graduates more good than going to school, at least for the time being.  Or they might be better off by simply to going and working somewhere, whether in a store or as an apprentice to a carpenter or beautician or whatever.   Maybe the young person will find him or herself in the work.  Then again, he or she might become bored or frustrated. But I think that young person will learn lessons about work and him or her self.  College would then become a much more relevant and interesting experience for those who choose it.

And, really, that's the only way I can see escaping from the worst thing schooling does to young people:  It keeps them in a state of suspended adolescence in which they learn little more than how to obtain more schooling.  If that isn't the antithesis of learning from experience and learning how to think, I don't know what is.  That is because to remain in school, at any level, you have to do what you're told when you're told in the way you're told.  And you get approval--which, as often as not, translates into higher grades--by showing some kind of enthusiasm as you choke off your thought centers.

On the other hand, I don't think there is any way to learn anything save through experience.  You learn by doing; there is no other way.  Larissa has done quite a bit, which is why she understands so much--and, most of all, has confidence in herself.  That's the first thing some teachers and professors would try to destroy.  Have you ever noticed that so many educators talk so condescendingly, not only to their students, but to almost anyone who isn't an educator of some sort.  Education administrators are the worst offenders.  If you're a parent and tried to explain to an assistant principal that you simply can't take time off from work to meet with him or her, you know what I mean.

Larissa has escaped everything I've described.   My cousin has escaped from other things, I think.  He apologizes to me for his "lack" of "education" even though I insist that he has no reason to defer to me.  

We went out to dinner last night.   Back in August, I saw him for the first time since I was ten years old.  He'd heard about my transition and surgery, and the people who weren't talking to me because of them, and offered to be a friend.  He hasn't tried to "study" me or, thankfully, tried to fit me into some gender-studies category.   

I am happy that we've reunited after the decades we've been apart.  And he's been very kind to me.  But last night, I started to believe that he wanted my friendship as much as he wanted to give me his.  I don't mind that at all.  As we talked, he described some rejections he has experienced from people who were related, or simply close, to him.  While he lost those relationships for entirely different reasons than I've lost mine, I do understand, at least somewhat, how he feels about them.  So, while he may not need me (which is also fine), I realized that, perhaps, he felt that I have something to offer him besides our familial (if peripherally so) relationship.

And, as with Larissa, it's nice to have a conversation with him because I can sense real efforts at, rather than mere gestures of, thought and feeling.  It's really nice not to listen to received opinions conveyed through rehearsed lines--or simply to feel smugness practically  oozing out of someone who's never met the kinds of people he or she is talking about.  

Oh well.  Two nice encounters in two days.  I am fortunate indeed.