Posted by: MC | June 1, 2010

Oil Spills, Financial Crises and the EX:Change Voices Who Will Inherit It All

This morning I had tea in a coffee shop in the Oakhurst neighborhood of Decatur, GA.  Yep, back in Georgia.  In fact, as I type, I’m sitting in front of the courthouse in the photo atop the February 27, 2009 blog entry from the EX:Change Road Trip (EX:C blog, The Heart of Dixie).  Family lives here.  I’m visiting.  Thus tea in Oakhurst.

I sat at the table with a grandmother, two moms and a dad of children in local elementary schools.  Stories spawned stories until we had a pretty good collection of insights on parenting and schools and, you know, kids these days.  The coolest story came toward the end.  The story of Emma.

Emma just lost another tooth.  She was headed to place it under her pillow for the now familiar ritual of offering it up to the reliably rewarding Tooth Fairy.  But before she tucked her molar into its fluffy limbo place, she turned to her mom and, somewhat haltingly said, “Mom, Is it you?”  Her mom was taken aback, but kept her usual cool and said, “What?  Is what me?”  “The Tooth Fairy.  Tell me the truth.”

Placed in the ethical dilemma of sparkling fantasy vs. veritas, Emma’s mom looked gently into her 9 year old’s face and said, “Yes honey, it’s me.”

Emma’s countenance dropped.  Tears began filling her eyes.  “Are there others?  Tell me the truth, Mom.”  “Yes.”  “Santa?”  “Yes?”  Emma was sobbing a bit now.  “Does Molly know?”  Molly is Emma’s sister who just turned 21.  “Yes, Molly knows.”  “Is she ok?”  “Well, it might be a good thing for you two to talk about,” Emma’s mom said. Emma said, “In a little bit.  First I need to be alone.  I need to cry.”

After a while, Emma was ready to talk with her sister, then her sister’s boyfriend joined the conversation.  Before long they were all laughing at the stories of the older one’s experiences with believing and then learning the truth about the Tooth Fairy, Santa, the Easter Bunny, and even the futility of waiting as a rising middle schooler for a letter from Hogwarts.

Fantasy is fun.  Believing in mysterious and reliably loving benefactors is comforting and reassuring and central to the lives of many children.   As Emma’s mom said, “The tradition seems to do two things.  It holds the larger spirit of giving for the joy of it and passes that spirit along.”

Not a bad thing.  Generosity.  Giving expecting nothing in return.

And then there’s reality.  There’s the way the facts of being in a life ultimately demand attention.  A spirit of generosity helps navigate the choppy waters of encountering the truths of adult life – truths like oil spills and financial crises.  Education for understanding and interacting with the world helps, too – particularly education that balances the mechanics of the three R’s with opportunities to apply those tools to increasingly ambiguous questions.  That’s what schools are for.  Parents and living one day after the next teach plenty, too.

Among the 100 EX:Change voices were younger people.  The ones who will inherit the reality beneath all stories of fairies, bunnies, jolly men, flying reindeer and elves.  These young voices are making sense of what they see and feel.  They have the unavoidable task of learning how to be adults and citizens of a world they had little to no part in creating.

Toward the end of March, 2009, I talked with a brother and sister in Omaha, NE.  It was a cool gray morning and I was on the homestretch from east to west across the northern states.  Isaac and Mallis, ages 6 and 4, were finishing breakfast.  The backdrop to their morning was a large window framing a seemingly endless expanse of prairie.  Their ‘stay-at-home’ dad, Mike had made it possible for Isaac and Mallis to have a little extra time before school so we talked a bit about change.

MC:  I have a question for you.  It’s about the word “change.”  What do you think about when you hear that word?

Isaac (6):  “Like things being different.”

Mallis (4):  “I think something.”

MC: What do you think?

M:  “That things are changing.”

MC:  How do you know when things are changing, Isaac?

I:  “Because it looks different a little bit and it feels different.”

MC: What have you noticed that changed?

I:  “That we have a black President.”

M:  “And we have fish instead of two cats.  And we used to have no flowers and now we do.”

I:  “Like changing clothes.”

M:  “Or like changing a light bulb.”

MC:  What about the words “the same?”  What does “the same” mean to you?

I:  “It means the same, never different, never apart.  Before Barack Obama got elected, we had all white Presidents.”

MC:  So that was always the same.  Is there something that you like to have stay the same?

M:  “The same meatballs.”

I:  “I want my school to be the same instead of changing to another school because right now I like my school and I don’t want to move to a different one.  I might have to and I might not have to.”

Change is real, and within the reach of their sense of the world, kids are registering what’s going on.  There are simple observations like fish instead of cats, no flowers and then flowers.  There are also the seedlings of insight into public life.  Like Isaac and Mallis’s dad said, “Change is incremental but it is constant.  My kids are paying most of their attention to what I do in my life.  In their gradual developmental changes, they may hear the words, but they watch the actions.”

Earlier in March, I had talked with another sibling pair, Asa (9) and Hanson (6) in Asheville, NC.  They too were listening and watching.  Hanson had a single directive for the country regarding the war.  Asa kept bringing his focus back to the wellbeing of the environment.

MC:  What does change mean to you?

Hanson (6):  “Change the war!”

Asa (9):  “Change means not having too many cars.  If you live in the middle of the city, you only need one car to get to work or to go on a trip.  If you live in the city you can just walk wherever you want so there’s not as much pollution.  Change means to clean up the rivers.  Don’t litter.  Have electric cars; those are cool, like the Smart cars.  Get cars that have good gas mileage, don’t get huge gigantic trucks that get two miles a gallon.”

MC:  What’s important to you to have stay the same?

A:  “Have people close together.  Don’t have people where every house is a mile away from each other.  Keep your next door neighbor close.  Our house, I want that to stay the same.  Keep the grass green and keep people happy.  A house that’s big enough for the number of people and for everybody to have clothes.  That should stay the same.”

Daniela was coming to the end of her 8th grade year in a middle school on Long Island when I spoke with her in mid-March.  Daniela’s mother and grandparents immigrated from Cuba long before she was born.  .  On the night I visited with her family, she was in and out of the room when her mother spoke with me about change and  later, wanted the opportunity to share her own take on things.  For Daniela, the problems and the opportunities of change all come back to building and sustaining relationship.

“I live in a very tiny community where we all know each other.  We’ve gone to school with each other for, oh my god, some seven, eight odd years – nine.  Some of us – we’ve known each other since we were five.  We were going to kindergarten together.  The closeness creates a bond but there are still walls.

“We have gone through a lot of the same things together, we just don’t realize it.  So, we need to be able to remember when we’ve laughed together, and cried together, we’ve done all these things together, but we need to knock down the walls that are separating us.  It’s an important thing to be able to realize that another person is going through the same things as you are at that very same moment.

“They don’t want people climbing over the walls because they feel vulnerable. I’ve seen it happen.  They box themselves off and they go, ‘Only the people that I know can do anything with me.’  Then if someone from another group tries to climb over that wall and they succeeds, that person that built the box feels very vulnerable.  Even though the one who climbed over just made an effort to get to know the boxed person it feels strange to them.

“Like, I know people who’ve moved here and they start off with one group of friends and then they go, ‘I need to make more friends.  I’m going to meet these people.’  Sometimes it succeeds, but sometimes it doesn’t.  Most of the time it doesn’t because of the walls.  We’re afraid to go over each other’s walls, especially the walls of a person who’s very hostile or doesn’t want anything to do with anyone.  It affects people in different ways – keeping someone out like that.  Really, you’re pushing away someone who can potentially be a catalyst in your life.  That could change a lot of things for you.  And change is a positive thing.”

Developmentally, each of these voices is right on track.  Children Mallis’ age are more inclined to the budding reality of what is concrete and right before their eyes.  Children the age of Isaac and Hanson are a bit farther down the road in observing what is actual in the way the world works.  They can hold concepts of things like wars and great moments in Presidential history.  At Asa’s age, the capacity for concrete reasoning becomes more operable.  Reality is not just a series of events over which one has no control, but a set of circumstances that can sometimes be improved.  Asa is at the age of using his understanding to come up with plans for having a positive influence.

Then there’s Daniela who is right on time with shifting her concrete knowledge into a service position relative to the way she is in relationship with friends and within community.  This is the way it moves as we each grow into our adulthoods.  We leave fantasy for gradual understanding of and agency within the concrete world.  The tools that come from concrete understandings then are of greatest use when they come into service of our relationships.

All along the way, the children of our country and our globe prepare for taking on the circumstances left by the generations before them.  Along these young voices also have unvarnished truths for those of us being adults right now.  Check again what Daniela is saying, for example.  Likely, we could all benefit from a dose of this: “We have gone through a lot of the same things together, we just don’t realize it.  So, we need to be able to remember when we’ve laughed together and cried together …; we need to knock down the walls that are separating us.”

The reality of oil spills and financial crises is all too obvious.  We’re leaving a lot for these kids.  They’re developing into it with us as their guides.

They are change.

We full grown citizens could stand to listen, to observe, to learn from the agency and resilience of the young among us.  We could also stand to take seriously the change their lives demands of us – to attend with care as we make decisions today that, 17-year-old Egan (EX:C blog, Listening Across Difference  — We’re all in this together, Pt.1, 5-10-2010) said in Georgia, “So change is good, but not just for the sake of change.  It has to be sustainable.  Too often there’s this mindset of doing something immediate to fix it right now.  But if it’s not well thought out, in 50 years, we’re just going to have to think of another thing that will fix it right now.”

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