What, then, when you grow up? CHANGES

William M. Waters

May 29, 1991|By William M. Waters

IT'S graduation season, when every smiling congratulation is followed by a more serious, concerned inquiry: "So what is it you plan to do with your life?"

The truth is that question is a resumption of the ubiquitous adult-to-child small talk we've heard since the days when faceless grown-ups mussed our hair and said, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It is a curious fascination we have with the destinies of young people, and half of the time that is all it really is -- a pleasant curiosity.

But I don't think these are questions. Rather, they are expressions of anxious hope that the generations ahead will reply in the encoded messages of myriad career choices with this assurance: "Don't worry. We're going to take care of things."

And aren't children ready to do exactly that? Almost instinctively they aspire to fight fires and crime, cure disease and social ills. They want to grow crops and grow strong, pilot jets and navigate ships, build bridges and climb mountains. Somewhere along the way it becomes more complicated and less appealing as the adult mutterings about "work" and "jobs" begin to encapsulate the aspirations of innocence in a shell of caution, even suspicion.

At some point during the years which measure the distance between childhood and adolescence, the hopeful questions are replaced by an eerie silence and grim expressions at the dinner table. Mom and Dad talk about tough days "at work" and "on the job," and sometimes their eyes glaze over and they mention "the boss" -- a little known operative in the youngster's world of fire engines and rocket ships.

It's about this time when teen-agers start to get the idea that adulthood is not all it was racked up to be, and the adults start resenting the young for precisely the same reason. A gap opens, and the friendly curiosity about childhood dreams is replaced with a desperate demand, "Why don't you grow up!" and answered with what now is a perfectly logical blurt of facetiousness (a lovely adult convention): "Yea, man, right." The cycle gets pretty vicious at this point and years go by -- or it would seem -- during which the two generations simply refuse to talk about anything except the most basic utterances of warden and inmate -- "Can I go out?" and, "If you're not home by ----, you're grounded!"

Schools solve some of the problem by absorbing masses of the misunderstood for six hours a day. The young are annually paraded into our halls of education with the hope of somehow restoring the connection between youthful ambitions and an often badly tarnished sense of the future. Often this becomes a 12-year sentence; enthusiasm and curiosity are replaced by an institutional dread of autumn and a worshipful anticipation of summer.

And yet, it is just about the time teen-agers all across the land are waiting out temporary incarceration in school (and at home) that something astounding happens. It may be a teacher's twist of an idea or a parent's unexpected pat on the back, but a feeling from the past sets in -- a sense of wonder at once frightening and exciting.

And this time the question comes from within -- "What am I going to do with my life?" But, again, it isn't really a question at all. It is an acknowledgment of readiness for tomorrow, and therefore an expression of great hope.

William M. Waters teaches at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson.

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