To be the founder of the NBT (next big thing).
To win the Superbowl someday.
To fall in love at first site with the man or woman of our dreams.
To work as a high paid international photographer who has breakfast in Shanghai and dinner in L.A.
To live the life of a bohemian writer, possibly in Paris.
As children, we are encouraged to exercise our imaginations, to engage in pretend play. Nothing is impossible, everything is within the realm of how far we can expand our mind’s eye. When we are told to go to our rooms, what is intended as punishment becomes an invitation to enter any world of our choosing, limited only by the size of our capacity to dream.
We wouldn’t have Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are had Max not been sent to his room without any supper.
When the pressure to shift focus — usually around the age of 10 — from engaging with the imagination to memorizing and regurgitating facts and figures in order to perform well on standardized tests becomes the top priority of the educational system, learning that was once a source of joy becomes a source of agony and frustration. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to find cynicism, skepticism, even nihilism lurking just around the corner, arms spread wide for all who are searching for something to latch onto that promises relief.
My 15 year old son attends an art magnet school for grades six through twelve in our local district. Each spring, a committee selects members of the forthcoming fall’s incoming class through a lottery system. I remember sitting next to Ben in the auditorium at an open house the spring of his fifth grade year. As the principal shared stories about what it was like to be a student there, Ben leaned forward, listening intently.
“Can you picture yourself going here?” I asked as we filed out into the cool evening where the smell of new grass and daffodils hung heavy in the air.
He nodded enthusiastically. “This is definitely the school for me.”
His answer wasn’t the quick blush of a passing infatuation: Ben was truly inspired because he knew that school was right for him. He was still four months away from his eleventh birthday.
The next few weeks were tense as we waited to hear if his name had been drawn in the lottery. There was always second consideration as a fallback plan, which would require assembling a portfolio of his work and an interview process. Nothing outside of his capabilities. Of course everyone was praying Ben would be chosen in the first round.
When the letter arrived welcoming him to the class of 2017, we all wept with joy. He’d gotten a spot. He was going to ACMA where he could study and learn about animation and filmmaking, photography and drawing along with the core classes of a well-rounded liberal arts education.
He would spend the next six years engaged with what matters most to him.
While his experience has been positive overall, it hasn’t been without its challenges. District budget cuts have eliminated courses Ben was excited to take. Favorite teachers have been moved to other schools. Core classes like history and math have ballooned to 40, sometimes 50 students crammed tight together in portables without enough textbooks to go around.
Add a hefty dose of adolescent angst into the mix and it’s no wonder Ben has come home some days uninspired, even downright discouraged.
“I hate my English-Spanish-Health-Math teacher,” he laments, dropping his 50-pound backpack with a deliberate thump on the floor.
As a parent, I have several options at this point. I can affirm his frustration. I can dismiss his comment as a knee-jerk reaction to a bad day and redirect his focus onto something positive. Or I can ask a couple of gentle yet probing questions to unearth what’s really going on.
I’ve found the latter approach gets the best results, even if Ben has to squirm a bit in the process. My goal is to guide him toward an even deeper self awareness than what he’s already got, and circle him back around to why he chose to attend ACMA in the first place.
Towards the end of our discussion, I usually arrive at something that goes like the following, to which Ben predictably responds with an “Okay, Mom”:
“The leaders of tomorrow are the ones who can solve problems using both sides of their brains. You are among that new elite, son. You’ve got a good dose of both left and right — stand in your power. Rise above the obstacles that are certain to enter your path. Take advantage of your opportunities and cultivate your creativity. That alone will put you ahead.”
It’s my long-winded version of what Neil Gaiman so succinctly put in his now viral commencement speech to the University of Arts Class of 2012:
“Make good art.”
This advice goes not just for young people like my son on the edge of beginning their adult lives, but for the rest of us, too.
If at the end of it the day that’s all we can do, we’ve triumphed.