Sunday, May 21, 2006

College in six years...and counting

There is a peanut butter TV commercial running where a Dad and his daughter are making sandwiches and he folds his single slice of bread over; she asks why and he says it's because his Dad did it that way and when he was a kid, he wanted to be just like his Dad. Someone mentioned this at lunch today and both my boys -- 8 and 12 -- chirp that they want to be like their Dad, too. Except...."I want to go to college," the 12 year old says. "Me too," his little brother agrees. My husband agreed too. (See, although he didn't go to college, he is a very wise father.)

I am kind of relieved that they realize the importance of their future education, and at the same time it's rather sad that they see something so elemental about their father's history -- that he did not go to college -- as something undesirable. His lack of a degree is something we have always talked about openly and on more than one occasion, we have discussed with the boys that it was a missed opportunity for him; that although he has worked incredibly hard for 30+ years, owns a small business and keeps us all in groceries and seashore vacations, he could have -- certainly he would have -- chosen a different, more satisfying path had he had the chance.

Last summer, we were in CVS, my two sons and I, on the first truly glorious day since school ended for the summer, headed to Grandpa's pool, wanting to stock up on chips, drinks and new water blasters. The chip selection looked sparse, but as we are about to walk away, along comes a man in matching blue workday pants and shirt, with Dave embroidered over the left breast pocket and hauling along rolling racks of Gatorade bottles and Lays chips bags. He is sweating.

"Oh good, look guys, here comes the guy with chips and drinks," I say.

"Boy, are we glad to see you," my 12 year old adds.

The chips and soda delivery guy frowns, begins stocking shelves. "See what I'm doing boys?," he asks. "Remember this. Do good in school and go to college or you'll end up doing this someday too," he grunts.

I was taken aback. Sure, I want my boys to go to college, pick jobs and work that is satisfying; of course I do not aspire for them to drive a truck and lob chips bags onto shelves for 30 years. But I also have never want them to look down upon anyone who does. My husband and I have always tried to emphasized the value of all human beings and the dignity of all honest work, done with pride-- that the man who pumps our gas is as vital to our ability to drive our minivan as the engineer who developed passenger side air bags.

My boys looked puzzled and were silent. But I felt something must be said and so I fumbled and eventually blurted out, "Well if you were't here with the chips, what would we do?" I smiled and tried to make eye contact, but he was having none of it.

"Never mind. You boys listen to me, you don't want to sweat like a pig and have a bad back by the time you're 30. Stay in school, study hard, get a good job." He ruffled both their heads and turned away.

Sure on the one hand, he is right. Just a few weeks before, on a steamy humid day, stopped at a traffic light beside a strip mall, we encountered a man pacing back and forth on the small cement median, wearing a sandwich board proclaiming blockbuster sale at the nearby discount furniture store.

"Is it that man's job to stand there all day wearing that sign?" my 12-year-old asked.

"Yup," I said. "That's the kind of job you get if you don't have any education or skills," I had said, perhaps a bit too glibly I now realize.

It is not a small task -- teaching our children to have respect for others' choices, appreciation for honest work done by others, particularly those in the service trades, and at the same time encouraging them to aspire beyond, to plan and dream and do the work that will catapult them into careers and opportunities and lives in which they can wear something other than sandwich boards and delivery uniforms. I know my husband will be the first one to write those college application checks -- and never hint at how much of his paycheck those penstrokes will require.

1 comment:

Rene said...

That is difficult. My dh doesn't have a bachelor's degree. He finished community college and applied to law school. Through a loophole he got into law school. When I was growing up, it was just assumed I'd go to college and I've pushed my kids that way too. But it is a fine line to tread. As you said, you want to teach respect. My stepson never bothered graduating from high school. At 24 he doesn't seem to realize how tough the road will be. I wonder how he will feel about it when he is 40. At age 10 my son is already shopping for colleges. He has it narrowed down to Cal Tech and Harvey Mudd.