Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Late night raps

I've just about finished Studs Terkel's "Division Street: America," which is one of the finest non-fiction books I've read. It's a collection of transcribed interviews done in 1965 with people from Chicagoland. Terkel devotes the last 25 pages of the book to interviews with young people, aged 18-21 — a kind of "voices of the next generation." I find this very interesting because my parents at that time, both aged 20, were a part of that group. It's a little strange to think of your parents as untapped human fonts of potential, yet to truly begin living their lives.

Terkel shows us young people preoccupied with fitting in, with being independent, with separating themselves from their parents — many of the usual concerns for people of this age group. They, of course, were also concerned with having to go to Vietnam, though it seems to be only a distant drumbeat to them. What permeates these final interviews, from what Terkel chose to include from his transcripts, is a sense of both hope for a new, untainted generation and fear of these young people with beliefs and ideas a few shades apart from their parents and grandparents.

More than 40 years later and my dad, as a career counselor, grapples with how his office can better communicate with the newest generation of young adults — the people who now are in the position he once was at the time of "Division Street." Perhaps a little like Terkel, he sees confusion, laziness, vapidity and self-indulgence in them. But I'd like to think he sees the positive, too. He often mentions some of his favorite counseling sessions with students.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, with my daughter close to being born, I realize tonight that my own time as the next unsullied generation is coming to a close. At 32, perhaps it already had passed me and this merely makes it official. But if I may, I would like to shed a tear for my generation's time as the next crop of untapped talent, before we had to leave school and get jobs and generally confront how the world often conspires to frustrate our dreams. We place new generations — my parents in the '60s, me in the '90s — on these sacrificial altars, symbols of what could be better than what came before. I understand this in part because preceding generations like to remember when they were young. But in part I don't agree with it. I think our culture — maybe human culture — does a poor job in assisting its subsequent generations through transition periods: adolescence and young adulthood. In childhood, we indulge our children to enjoy themselves, but when they hit 12 or 13, they are told immediately to grow up. In college we indulge our kids to learn, enjoy college, join clubs, etc., then we tell them to get a job. And before you know it, there's a new group of young people, unsullied, ready to be exalted and examined, minutes after the preceding group was hurried out the door.

As someone who recently went through this, I hope to always carry with me a modicum of the boundless potential once seen in me by others — not to please others, but to prove I have worth to myself. And though we're quick to hustle the post-college person off into the sunset to make way for the new young, we should never forget that post-college person is us. In a way, we will never stop being him/her. It's something I hope I can express to my daughter — that she should never completely lose a feeling of childhood and should never lose a feeling of young adulthood. You lived these things, and they can never be taken from you. As an individual, I feel my potential is only becoming realized. I feel I have a long way to go. And I feel the young time in me, 18-21 — the one I share with my parents, whom Terkel analyzed — will never die. Will always be in a process of becoming.

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