This is not a diatribe or dissertation, and it is certainly not a disrespect. It’s noting and then wondering, how has it all come to this?
As I type, I am aware that what I am attempting to do is not even registered in the consciousness of anyone younger than my own generation. Few individuals younger than I, even by a few years, possess the attention span or conceptualization to even read something longer than a ‘tweet’. This is going to take a while, so the majority of people out there have already given up, because I’m still in the intro and there are top-40 songs shorter than this. I want to take a moment to recognize something that is at the core of so many problems, in education and beyond, with the youth and beyond, with pop culture and self-respect: reverence.
My dad moved to Canada before the rest of us so that he could establish employment for himself, get the enormous Immigration ball rolling, and start scouting out the living scene before his partner and four children arrived. Being young then and old now, my recollections are not trustworthy in the details, but the overall remembrances have stayed with me.
My dad, being far away from us long before the internet and MSN and iChat video, reestablished the most ancient of cultural development media, the oral tradition. He wrote us letters, instead of sitting around a fire and telling us where we came from, but his letters, at least the parts that my mom read to us, were entirely composed of stories. Like any good oral tradition, the stories were most true, muchly exaggerated, and entirely engrossing. Best of all, they were inclusive and expressive, and we felt involved in hearing about where he was and where we would soon be and who was doing what. I haven’t heard these letters then, but I remember them.
The letters were well-written. The stories were cohesive, entertaining, enlightening, and simply great. Importantly, the stories were about the people with whom my dad was working, and they became characters beyond ordinary men and women. They were true, they were real, and through words and paper and stamps back when they were cheap, they became awesome. I eventually met many of these people from my dad’s letters. They were no less important. They weren’t disappointing. Reality didn’t reveal an undesirable truth. They were people from stories I revered.
My dad wasn’t the only one who told me stories. The letters weren’t the only stories I remember. My uncle chip used to tell us stories long into the night, not for any reason other than his stories were great, and we adored them and him. My dad taught me about the beauty of bikes and horses and nature and landscapes and good people. I revered my dad. If he admired or respected someone else, mentioned why s/he was ‘classy’ or ‘a good man’ or ‘an amazing _______’, then I did too. I would nod, file the thought for later, and remember what made someone great. Greg Lemond. Omar the mechanic. Willard the potato farmer. Tony the logger. Mike the paddler. Paul Mason and his son. I revered my family elders. They were like superheroes with specific strengths and powers. People weren’t just people; they were amazing and could do certain things really well. They took time. There was respect.
As I grew up, I wanted to do things well. I wanted to go out with the most athletic, intelligent, beautiful girl I could, and even better if she was older than I. (Later I figured out that it was more about the girl than the external qualities that could be listed to approving nods by my grandmother, and it became about challenge and heartbreak and the more challenging and heartbreaking, the better.) I wanted to ride my bike well, or at least maintain it well and buy the best one I could after a summer of sweating buckets digging holes on ozone red-alert days in Virginia. I wanted to jump high, get big muscles, write poetry worth reading (still working on that one), get good grades, make good dinners, be a good brother. Doing these things wouldn’t pay me or get me something else I wanted or keep me from going somewhere I didn’t want to go. Doing these things was necessary; they were done for the sake of doing, and doing the best I could.
Of the adults I knew, I probably couldn’t think of one that didn’t do at least one thing to the best of his/her ability. Plowing snow or plowing fields or cutting wood or teaching physics or running a mile or running a school or running an engine, these adults did things, and did them well, maybe beyond what their best was once upon a time. They tried. They succeeded. They built on success. They failed. They built on failure.
Maybe it was the lack of desperation in my life that allowed me to do things for the sake of doing them. I didn’t have to work to get fed so I worked to buy the best bike I could, even though I wasn’t the best rider. I didn’t have to milk cows when I got home so I jumped my snowboard over the driveway instead, then studied or did art homework or talked on the phone. Life was easy. I never thought about the roof over my head beyond an abstract consciousness of the fact that I was lucky to have one.
This could go on and on and it already has and shouldn’t anymore. The youth have no dignity today. (yes, this is a generalization.) Because they have no dignity, they have no sense of purpose or pride, and therefore cannot conceptualize respect. They don’t respect themselves; they cannot respect others. They go through the days, insulated from consequences, eating and sleeping and mostly sleeping some more. Nothing has happened to them. There is nothing that will happen to them. The best rhetorical question for the youth: ‘So what?’
Without dignity and purpose, shame has no meaning. Shame can be a crippling tool of oppression, but avoiding it can also translate into motivation. It used to be shameful to ‘fail’ a grade. Now it’s okay to be 18 in grade nine and that’s only if you can manage to actually fail. That was also back when there was failure, when there wasn’t a trophy for everyone, when friendship wasn’t the winner, when something was someone’s own damn fault. Now, without shame, it’s everyone else’s fault, and it’s okay to be a failure anyway because hobos can make almost as much as garbage collectors who make twice as much as teachers who make less than half as much as doctors who are distant second citizens to professional hockey players. At least we have our societal priorities…
What happens now? Johnny grows old, leaves school because he can finally sign himself out of grade nine at age 18, lives in his parents’ house. That’s it. There is no resolution, none required, and the story ends. No one is ashamed because we don’t have shame or pride anymore, as dignity will die with my generation. Everybody wins. Friendship is the winner. We’re all individuals. There is no bell curve.
to be continued.