Throughout the history of academic-enforced writing assignments, one of the more tried and true topics doled out in elementary schools is the one that asks children what they want to be when they grow up. “In 200 words or less, describe your dream career. Remember that this will likely define your value to society, determine your friends, your spouse, etc. And pretty soon you’re 54 and living in a studio apartment with a couch you found on the street, wondering if you made the right choices in life, getting buried under a mountain of debt stemming from ballooning student loans and maxed out credit cards, occasionally glancing at the fine print on your life insurance policy for the word ‘suicide’. But, no pressure, children. The point is to just have fun.”
The problem with making these requests of children is that maybe 1 in 1000 have an inkling what they want to do as a vocation. For me, the “ideal career” changed almost week to week. Occupations were usually sourced from such professional career sources as Nick-at-Nite or channel 20 on basic cable.
One week, (and possibly due to the syndication of Three’s Company), I was going to be a budding chef living in a beach-side apartment with two girls, one blond and one brunette. My best friend, let’s call him Larry, lives in the apartment below, but visits at opportune moments to further that day’s storyline. To me, he is just a cool ladies man and I may never quite realize that he’s actually sort of a creepy, balding petrie dish responsible for a large percentage of the STD’s in Southern California. This sounds like a great setup, right? Well, there’s a catch. See, in order for me to bypass what is apparently a local ordinance that prohibits cohabitation between non-married residents of the opposite sex, I would have to pretend to be a homosexual. And not just gay in theory, but an outlandish, almost offensive, caricature of a gay adult male. When forced to prove my sexuality to our nosy landlord, who has an irrational fear of catching ‘the gay’, I’ll sashay about like an 8-year old in a beauty pageant.
Rockford Files, Starsky & Hutch, Riptide, these reruns showed me the gritty reality of crime fighting. As such, I was determined to be a detective. A homicide detective? Narcotics? Cold case? It didn’t matter because, frankly, I didn’t know what any of those terms meant, and never followed plots close enough for them to matter. The only thing that truly mattered was that I was a detective. A detective that will have a long history of bucking authority, especially the chief. The same chief that will always looking to throw the book at me, but who also secretly admires my ability to stop the bad guy at any cost, sometimes at the last minute, and often in slow motion. No car chase is too dangerous, no amount of explosions too big, and no amount of shots fired from my six-shot revolver are ever counted because, well, who cares? Every week, taxpayers will graciously pay for repairs to my sports car each time I, say, roll it while in hot pursuit of a kidnapper or valiantly crash it into the vehicle of a fleeing suspect. Will they mind? Heck no! After all, who could stay mad at someone so charming in their roguish ways?
Some shows, like The Incredible Hulk, The A-Team, Knight Rider, showed me that adventure could be had by secretly working sometimes for and sometimes against the government. Coinciding with my discovery of old monster movies on television, I had chosen the perfect career. Adventure, technology, monsters. My career would have it all. It came as no surprise that my 3rd grade ‘When I Grow Up’ essay was well-received by my classmates (well, the boys. The stupid girls were too full of stupidness and dumb girliness to get it). So, here now, I present my readers, and world at large, with the essay to end all essays:
When I Grow Up
by Michael Calahan
“When I grow up I want to be a superhero. Or maybe a superhero werewolf. But a good werewolf because I will only attack bad guys like murderers and fire starting people and drug gangs. Eventually, I want to solve crimes and go on secret missions for the FBI. And finally, I’d like to have a secret were-cave under my apartment or mansion for all of super intelligent were-computers.”
Your loss, literary agents of the world.
By the time I entered 5th grade, I had matured, become more contemplative and introspective. As do all kids nearing adolescence, I had begun to recognize the line between reality and immature fantasy. Reality based programming (such as The Dukes of Hazzard or Sheriff Lobo) taught me that real-life was also a source of adventure and innocent law-breaking. So…
My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Dell, prompted the class to present its future careers orally, rather than in essay form. When called upon, I answered sincerely, “I wanna live in a town called Hazard and drive a cool car. It might be orange or red, I’m not really sure, though, but it has a flag painted on the roof. Me and my cousin… Well, maybe just a good friend ’cause the only cousins I got that I like are girls. Anyway, we’d jump our car over stuff like hills and other cars and whatever, but the cops chasing us will crash when they try to do it themselves. Oh, but the cops don’t get hurt, so when they crash it’s just funny.”
Okay. So, the line between reality and fantasy for me was sometimes as fine as cheap sewing thread, but technically it did exist.
“I have a question,” Mrs. Dell said. “How will you earn a living?”
“You mean money for gas an’ dynamite an’ stuff?”
“Yes. I never understood how the Dukes of Hazard made a living.”
“I dunno. I think people just give ‘em stuff for free.”
“But, why would people do that, Michael?” Mrs. Dell asked.
“Why?” My eyes darted back and forth along the floor as I scanned my seven collective brain cells for an answer. After a few second, I stumbled upon the obvious answer. “Well, because they’re cool.” Game. Set. Match.
Mrs. Dell pulled down the Rand-McNally above the chalkboard. With her finger to her lip, she pretended to study it. “Now, I know you want to live in Hazard, as you said, but remind me again which state will you be living in?”
At the time, I was capable of naming maybe four of the 48 continental states. But rather than admit defeat, I attempt to BS my way through the answer. I stepped toward the map and said, “Um, well, I think it’s one of the south states over here somewhere,” waving my hand in the general area of what was, in actuality, Winnipeg.
As time went on (or, to be more specific, as news shows entered syndication), I hopped from career path to career path the way a party mom jumps from “uncle” to “uncle.” I was to become a doctor for 11 years of what was a three year war. At times, I was big rig driver that thumbed his nose at the law by driving through police roadblocks. Other times, I was just an average man in an average suit married to a witch.
Then again, I might become a counter intelligence spy working undercover in a German POW camp.
Or a member of a group of teenagers that lived in a van and solved mysteries.
At times, I even longed for a quieter, more simplistic life, like that of a man in a cardigan with a small, sentient trolley in his living room.
And so on.
For teachers to ask kids, in any sort of seriousness, what it is they want to do with their lives is like asking them what names they prefer for hypothetical grandchildren. The future, a seemingly abstract concept, is simply too far off in the distance for most children to grasp. Having been kids all of their lives, they shouldn’t be expected to imagine being anything else.