23 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (x)

I gave away my copy of Gladwell's Outliers after I finished it, so I'm writing from memory here, but the chapter about why poor kids given the same educational opportunities as rich kids still fail to find the same real-world success has stuck with me. MG cites the impact of "concerted cultivation" to explain this: the rich kids are conditioned by their parents to be pushy, demanding, and outspoken while the poor kids are conditioned not to rock the achievement boat vis-a-vis their family and friends.

My mother, who has done more for me than I could ever repay, raised me in a rather curious way. I certainly was expected to excel at whatever task was put in front of me, but mom also never missed any opportunity to express her contempt for such "pushy parents" whose little terrors wielded their concertedly cultivated self-interest as a bludgeon against anything and anyone who stood in their way. I recall the terms "manipulative" and "hell-on-wheels" entering my atmosphere, if not my vocabulary, at quite the early age indeed. Swear words were never off limits, but "Bourgeois" and "Reagan" were definitely the two dirtiest such words in our household. And now that I stand post five days a week at Goutwood School for the Fabulous, I'm only more appreciative of the accuracy with which Mom diagnosed the situation and less inclined than ever to sympathize with the objects of her ire. Indeed, one of the first things I noticed there was a very different conception of physical/personal space: if you are a blue collar worker, students will virtually walk right into you, expecting, just as they have been raised to believe, that you will simply accommodate them at all times. It goes deeper than that, though. Many of the older students display "adult" mannerisms, but only superficially. I am qualified to diagnose this having worked for years with two homeschooled students who, for better or worse, had to "grow up quickly" due to an unstable and itinerant family situation. These girls had real, substantive, hard-won adult skills that were striking upon first encountering them; Goutwood kids, conversely, seem to come armed mostly with studied affect and purple hair.

In pop-culture compatible terms, we might say that Mom raised me to aim high for myself without stepping on other people to get there. It occurred to me for the first time upon reading Gladwell that, while I of course continue to believe quite strongly in this mode of operation, it may well be a death sentence for someone in my particular metier. I come from privilege but was "raised" like a poor kid, and very much on purpose. It's something I've always been thankful for, or at least wanted to be. But truthfully, it undoubtedly has held me back career-wise, and it has taken me a long time to be able to understand and admit this. Doing anything about it is going to be harder yet: it once got back to me that a guy who booked a certain music series in Minneapolis had referred to me as being "like a stalker." That was my first taste of what a damned-if-you-do/don't situation this all can be. Can any of you reading this who know me and my reluctance to self-promote believe that I actually elicited this kind of response from someone just by going about things the way I normally do? Perhaps, then, there's no way out but to have thick skin, something which I also don't always bring with me when I leave the house. Have you noticed, readers?

My final takeaway from the Gladwellian worldview is more global and ever more frequently on my mind as lately I've been moving amongst the real poor for the first time since mid-childhood. It has been found, for example, that rich and poor adolescents are all having sex, but that the former take great precautions and the latter very few; in other words, that having been "cultivated" to have dreams and goals leads people to safeguard themselves against being derailed while being constantly torn down leads them to say "fuck it all" and self-destruct as a ritual protest gesture. More broadly, it seems to me that certain messages about the ill-effects of smoking, of meat consumption, of cars, of Wal-Mart, and so on are actually making it out to the masses in impressively comprehensive fashion. People seem to have at least "heard about all that stuff" and many of them will, between defensive wisecracks, blurt out an example from their own lives that bears it all out. And yet...lacking a sufficient "booksmarts" education, they fail to see how their actions effect people other than them, and at that point they are, as we hear so often, "only hurting themselves." No one has ever managed to convince them that this is not okay either.

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