Spent the past two days talking to a wide array of school-aged kids as part of various festivals, conferences and fairs. Once this post is over, I’ll pack a bag and head off to the Daily Cardinal’s 120th anniversary celebration, for what is likely to be even more of the same.
I spend a lot of time with college students who are forced to take my classes. This is one of the downsides of teaching a class that is a prerequisite for pretty much everything else in the major. Some students come through and actually care about the material while most try to find a seat that is as close to the back wall as possible and the only question they ask is, “So, is this going to be on the test?” I tend to expect this, and when you add those factors into an 8 a.m. class, I understand that I’m unlikely to get a lot of enthusiastic engagement.
However, this week, I got the chance to work with student journalists at various high schools who were heading to our campus. They paid good money to hear me help them improve their papers and sit in a one-on-one environment. Since they came to me and actually paid to do so, I offered to answer any questions, deal with any issues or address any concerns they had or wanted to talk about first. In other words, let’s make this about you and what you want.
They all looked like they were about to get “the rat treatment” from Game of Thrones if they were noticed. Their advisers, meanwhile, were prodding and poking them to say something/do something/breathe.
I figured it was because I was and old guy and talking to old guys is uncool for high school students. However, when I checked with my newspaper staff, I found out they had a similar experience in leading the newsroom session. In fact, it was worse, as the visitors sat around and kept checking their watches/phones/personal digital devices.
“One interesting thing happened,” a kid told me in my class that next day, as she pointed at the girl next to her. “There was some 15-year-old kid who was totally hot for her. It was cute.”
Pondering that for a moment… 22-year-old college woman + 15-year-old high school boy = cute. 22-year-old college man + 15-year-old high school girl = criminal charges. Ah… to be young again.
Speaking of young, the last event of the week was Career Day at The Midget’s school. I’d kind of kept trying to blow this off so I didn’t have to go. The reasons were valid, at least in my mind:
1) I teach. They see that every day. That’s like telling people I’m a professional shoelace tie guy.
2) This would be the end of a week from hell, as the Missus was out of town at a knitting camp (don’t laugh… OK, laugh) and I had a list of stuff to do before I could head to Mad-Town for some fun.
3) I’m always afraid I’m going to not notice and say “fuck” or something in front of the kids. If you know me, you know that fear is logical.
Still, the Midget begged me, so I acquiesced. However, I decided to try a different strategy: I’d talk about the newspaper and the newsroom.
I got copies of the paper for them, after furiously reading them over for anything that might merit a call from the principal. What’s acceptable for college students isn’t necessarily acceptable for first-graders. Fortunately, they decided against running the story about the woman who assaulted the cop with a pink dildo, so I was set.
I got some reporter’s notebooks and pens for them and I even printed up “official” press passes that I put into clear plastic holders so they could wear them and be honorary members of our staff.
I packed all this crap into a box and headed over to the school for my 10-minute chat. In, out, on with life.
However, what I found made me smile all day.
As I was waiting for the kids to come back in from lunch recess, a boy about 7 years old, walked to the bubbler, took a drink and then noticed me.
“What’s in the box?” he asked with absolutely no pretense.
“Some stuff for my Career Day talk.”
“Hmm. Like what?”
“Some newspapers and… Do I know you?” I asked.
“Nope.” He walked away.
As the kids started coming in from recess, a good number of them passed me, with at least half of them stopping and asking, “What’s in the box?”
It got to the point that I half expected Brad Pitt to pop up with a handgun and start screaming, “What’s in the box? WHAT’S IN THE BOX?”
Once I got started telling them about life in the newsroom (the sanitized version), things went well. They found out what was in the box and appeared to be thrilled at getting paper, pens and something to wear around the neck.
I did my 10 minutes and left the requisite two minutes for the “Does anyone have any questions?” precursor to silence that would allow me to leave and go get lunch.
Instead, the kids were raising their hands and yelling out questions:
“Can we write stories?”
“What happens if the machine that makes the newspaper breaks?”
“How do you make the pictures get into the paper?”
“Why do you have to write about sad things?”
“Why doesn’t the newspaper paper feel like paper paper?”
On and on it went. About 15 minutes later, the teacher had to cut them off. They all kept their hands up, just in case she relented.
It was a stunning turn of events for me. I found myself wondering where was that unperceivable pivot in life in which we went from asking all the questions to questioning nothing? When did that unbridled joy of finding stuff out stop for us? What age was it that we stopped being forthright and nosy and started being shy or reticent? If my unscientific analysis is anything to go by, it’s somewhere between first and ninth grade and in my book, that’s way too soon.
We got this far as a country, a people and a planet by asking questions. Who says the world is flat? Why can’t we build a flying machine? What if we made people wear too much hair gel and call themselves disparaging pseudo-Italian names on the air? Some answers came quickly, others took time, but they all found a way to the surface because someone decided it was worth it to ask about something.
In social situations, too often we hear people say something that makes no sense and rather than challenge the assumption, ask the question or in some other way make it known that we’re not “with you” on that, we do the “Yeah, I know, right?” thing. I honestly think this is how Scott Walker is able to run ads about how shitty Milwaukee has been without ever being called on the fact he was the COUNTY EXECUTIVE for that area as well as the GOVERNOR for the state in which Milwaukee exists. Instead of saying, “Wait a minute, if Tom Barrett lost all those “Milwaukee jobs,” what were you doing for the county at that point to stop him/restore lost work? Was the county not losing anything?” we mutter and move on or do the “Yeah, I know, right?” thing.
Little kids aren’t afraid of telling you where the bear shit in the buckwheat. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it and they’ll tell you as much. If they don’t eating something, they’re not eating it politely with a “Mmm… Wow… What IS this?” smile. They’re shuddering and coughing like a shitty lawnmower and saying, “I no like this!”
And they’ll remind you of that each time you make it.
And they’ll tell their grandparents what kind of shitbag cook you are as well.
Most of all, they question things because they know they don’t know everything. Somewhere along the way, we figure we’d better know everything or at least not let on that we don’t.
At that point, we allow others who know less to talk more and do horrible things.
Why is that?