We deal with children in such bad faith. Even when we are kind to them, we tend to treat them more or less as pets who can be expected to bask in our mere attention and the solicitousness overenunciated in our tone, without any requirement that they understand us. We are constantly using children for our own amusement, asking them questions to entertain ourselves rather than for any actual intention of conversation.
Daily, kids in the building come into our office to drink water from the magically cold cooler with the wax-paper cones, or just to explore, slipping out of the grip of their parents or older siblings on the way from the front door to the elevators. I like kids, they tend to like me, and I try to return the favor by speaking to them as persons, though I don't always succeed.
My coworker would also say that she likes children if asked, but when faced with them she is every overbearing distant aunt a child has ever had, speaking too loud, underestimating their age and level of comprehension. And she asks the questions children are doomed to answer over and over until adulthood with polite boredom, like celebs on a fifteen-year-long interview circuit. What's your favorite color? What's your favorite class in school? Do you get good grades? What's your teacher's name? What do you want to be when you grow up?
This last one is interesting, I think: from the time they can speak, we begin demanding that children justify their childhood by envisioning their place in the adult world. This isn't unnatural, of course -- adulthood is a favorite game for any child. Overhearing such exchanges got me thinking about the shadow career that has preceded and run parallel to my actual work life, the trajectory of my responses to the question, posed or tacit, of what I would like to be.
Olympic Figure Skater, ages 5 to 11
The only athletic pursuit at which I ever truly excelled was figure skating. It relies on lower body strength and a good sense of balance, which are about the only physical powers I possess in more than trace amounts. I took group lessons at the local city rink and moved through the levels. There were skill sets you had to learn to pass each level. Much like Girl Scouts and Awana, which I also adored at the time, progress was measured and rewarded through workbooks, stickers and badges. I loved my teachers and, as I got older, wondered how they had come to be skating here at a little arena in Grand Rapids rather than on my television screen. (I liked Surya Bonaly, who never placed in the Olympics, best -- the huge strength that overpowered her grace, her smile that was fierce rather than ingratiating, her pride and temper. By contrast, Nancy Kerrigan couldn't really hold my attention, but I still wrote her a fan letter when I was about eight; they printed an address for her somewhere.) I wondered how they felt about that.
As I got older I stopped getting better as quickly; it was around the time I was working on my single axle, the hardest of the single jumps. I never quite got there. I had reached the highest level the Park District offered, and my family didn't have the money to pay for private lessons. I'd also sprained my ankle badly in the spring of fifth grade, keeping me off the ice for almost a quarter of a crucial year. So it all stopped -- the crispness of the early Saturday mornings at the rink followed by cheeseburgers at the diner on the way home, impressing friends at school skating parties, performing in the ice shows (think dance recitals on ice).
I don't skate much these days; it depresses me to feel all the skill I've lost and won't ever get back. Realistically, I know I could not have come within shouting distance of the Olympics anyway: professional figure skaters tend to come from rich families or to be so prodigiously talented that it doesn't much matter. But the ability to sail along the ice and alight into the air is a freedom I have lost and still miss dearly.
Police Officer, ages 9 to 10
Given my subsequent adolescent rebellion and general anti-authoritarian outlook, this one's funny. But at the time, the idea of being a cop played into two of my most deeply held values: being good and being tough. I liked stories about tough women. I had an inflated sense of my own moral superiority. And I thought it would be neat to carry a gun. All of these things are still true to some extent. (Please don't worry: I doubt I will ever actually own a gun.)
Stage Actor, ages 10 to 16
In fourth grade I wrote, directed and cast myself in a class play about a yellow submarine full of schoolchildren that ventured under the ocean to learn things about marine life. It was a blatant (if unconscious) ripoff of The Magic Schoolbus, and I'm not sure why my teacher let me take charge of the whole project in this way; my casting decisions and audition process especially caused some dissension among my classmates. It's a natural slide from games of pretend to the theater. My two best friends and I thought we were so good at pretending that, taking advantage of our costumes on Halloween, we advertised and staged during recess poorly-attended productions whose concepts were dictated by the need to incorporate such casts of characters as, for instance, a ninja, a vampire and a robot.
When I was ten I transferred to a performing-arts magnet school. It was in the inner city where kids knew more about being cool; I'd been on the low end of the coolness curve even in the neighborhood where I lived. I was teased more that year than in the rest of my childhood combined, but I loved going to theater class twice a week. I tried to take charge of my group's skits, but sometimes I was stuck with boys who just wanted to shoot at each other. Too scared of being called a snitch and a goody-goody, I didn't stand up for my own vision, and sat there with tears welling up behind my glasses when, inevitably, the teacher chastised us for the formless violence I'd been roped into acting out.
I didn't win a major role in the school play that year because I looked too young. This was a problem throughout my first two years of high school theater, too: still asked regularly if I would like a kiddie menu at restaurants, I couldn't even convincingly play a teenager. I kept at it, though, competing and often placing in statewide competitions.
Theater was a big part of my life in high school. I met one of my best friends -- the first kid I knew who was as queer and as radical as me -- at a competition, though socially I didn't totally fit in with most of the theater kids. I was too quiet, too internal, not positive enough, and I think that's why eventually I turned out to be not completely cut out for the stage.
I'm good at pretending to feel things, at imagining myself into other situations. I can Method it up any day of the week. But I have always been accused of emotional illegibility; ultimately I couldn't project myself far enough for an audience to see clearly. For a while I had thought I'd try to go to college and major in theater, but I'd decided against it by my senior year. I think I was a pretty good actor. I wouldn't have been great, though. It wasn't worth pursuing. There are plenty of other ways to play pretend.
Eco-Terrorist, ages 15-17
I've never been more idealistic and more disenchanted than I was then. I didn't think I was going to go to college at all. I thought I was going to go live in the Pacific Northwest and spike trees and live from dumpsters. I was reading a lot of CrimethInc lit and Edward Abbey.
Astronaut, age 17
In my senior year, my teacher for statistics and homeroom decided for his own obscure reasons that I ought to become an astronaut. I was pretty good at statistics, despite my previously lackluster career in mathematics, and I think I had really liked a Nova documentary that we had watched in class. His advocacy of this path for me was confusing, flattering and deeply weird.
Librarian, age 18 to the present (intermittently)
I first thought I might go to library school when I began working at the college library my freshman year. My friend Kevin laughed at me when I mentioned it -- he said it sounded like the most boring, uninspiring civil service job he could think of. And it didn't hit me as a divine calling, true. Between then and now I variously considered publishing, linguistics and typeface design. But librarianship seemed, and seems again now, like work for which I am very well suited. My vocation always be art-stuff. But this feels like less of a compromise than any other avenue I could pursue.
(I've left out lots of things, of course. And if anyone will please correct my Latin in the above, I would be delighted.)