Being in elementary school is a lot like being in training to be a monk. You have a highly-regimented schedule through which every minute of the day is accounted for. You learn a few book-style facts as well, but mostly, your learning is about molding your behavior: sit like this, talk like that, value these things, avoid those at all cost, hold your fork this way, position your hair like so, keep your workspace clean, smile only in certain circumstances…
The list goes on, of course, but you get the idea.
What’s really interesting to me is how frequently this sort of behavior-training figures in my memories of childhood–I have the sense that I can look back on these little vignettes of life that we chronicle here and see how they functioned to make us, little by little, into the people we are. It’s true that the salience of some experiences over others is affected by who we are now, obviously–so I don’t pretend to have a clear or neutral view of what our lives were like then–but I still like to think that in remembering our turkey-chase or reading material, we recover something important. Maybe it’s not “who we are,” so much as a piece of our training at “being” anyone at all…but it’s something, all the same. But I digress.
At some point during our time at the Unnamed Religious Private School, our class was given an assignment: read the (children’s level) biography of a famous person you’d hope to be like, and give a report to the class on her or him. Sadly, my Jesse Jackson bio did not make an appearance here. In fact, I don’t remember the specifics of how the books were chosen, but I know that the figure I ended up reading about was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to go to medical school, and consequently, the first woman to become a Doctor in the contemporary age of medicine.
Interestingly, I remember being a bit scandalized by parts of the book: it wasn’t that I was confused or upset about the prospects of Elizabeth Blackwell as a female doctor, on the contrary, it was my discovery that women and girls were (in the same century as me, even!) prohibited from going to real school. I had heard before then that girls didn’t go to school in some places, or–more often–that girls “went to school at home in the old days.” Somehow, I had missed the fact that this arrangement wasn’t just a matter of convenience for someone who didn’t have a carriage, or a matter of preference for ladies who preferred needlepoint to books. No, the book informed me, the men at Elizabeth Blackwell’s medical school hated her, and protested against her even being in the same room as they were.
Needless to say, I was quite troubled. Still, Elizabeth triumphed in the end, a fact that was portrayed rather rosily in this children’s-book version, and I was able to give my presentation (in Victorian dress!) armed with the knowledge that things were totally different now, and that no one would ever discriminate against me because I was a girl. (Until, of course, I started wearing a bra.)
And so, we learned to be proper kids, proper boys and girls with proper life goals, which were laid out well in our library’s kid-section biographies. That way, the next time our teachers would ask “Erin, what do you want to be when you grow up?”, the answer would be something other than “I want to be a sportscaster!!”
The whole prospect of “being” something was always fascinating to me, and I tended to adopt a new answer on a semi-regular basis, which would then become my obsession and adopted identity until a new one came along. In addition to “sportscaster,” my list included (not in order):
Pharmacist/Chemist: I didn’t really have a clear distinction in mind here, though once I found out that they weren’t the same thing, and that this “thing” in neither case consisted entirely of mixing things together that caused fizzing, the dazzle was gone.
Teacher: I really just liked being in charge. Maybe I still do.
Minister: It was very confusing to find out that this was disallowed by my ladybits. What about Elizabeth Blackwell, the glass ceiling breaker??!
Meteorologist: Seriously, those maps were awesome!
Gwen Stefani: I really, really wanted to be her as a teenager. Big pants! Tiny shirts! Gavin Rossdale!
Lawyer: The sad fact is that trials are not Law and Order, which made me realize that what I actually wanted was to be an…
Actress: It was the best of both worlds–you appear intelligent, and all of your lines are scripted.
Artist: This was never going to happen, even if I did do a marginally better job drawing flowers than Sharon.
In retrospect, I think I really, really wanted to be able to say that I was something. Whenever our classes would talk about careers, the teacher would go around the room, asking everyone “and what does your dad do?” The odd thing was that everyone else’s answer was a thing: Alex’s dad is an engineer, Sharon’s dad is a scientist, Melissa*’s dad is a doctor (though I think he was actually a pharmaceutical rep), Scott’s dad is a football coach. And when we learned about working class jobs–because, obviously, there were no such people in our school–it was always “Joe is a farmer; Johnny is a policeman; Fred is a fireman; Frank is a garbage man.”
When the teacher came to me, I had my answer ready: “My parents work for the state.”
Silence fell over the room.
“What’s that mean?” Rachel (whose dad was a missionary) squawked.
“It means they work for the Louisiana Department of–” I began.
“They work for the government,” Ms. Busystreet interjected, eager to get on to the next student.
We moved on, but I was confused. Everyone else was something. My parents worked somewhere, but what were they? That night when I went home, I asked my mom. I don’t remember exactly how I worded it, but I do remember her answer:
“If anyone wants to know, tell ’em your parents are Bureaucrats.”
I didn’t grasp the humor in this for some time, but I did leave with the sense that if I was going to be like anyone, I wanted it to be her–just with a cooler job.