Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The View From This Side of the Pool

When I was Child Two’s age I had already lived in three different cities and gone to three different elementary schools.  The cities were similar to one another in many ways: each was suburban, each was middle class and each was politically conservative.  And in each, we were anomalous: we were Jews, we were liberal, and we were the only of either for miles around.  The only thing my family had in common with our neighbors was the color of our skin, though I’m sure to the neighbors we were as exotic as anything they’d ever been exposed to.  I grew up with a lot of, “You don’t look Jewish” and “Jews believe in Jesus Christ, right?”

This is what I was pondering as I sat poolside with Child Two over the holiday weekend.  We were in Palm Springs, bouncing between our uber-chic resort and the wildly groovy-cool place our friends checked into.  It struck me, as I sat gazing over the shimmering water of the perfectly heated pool in the middle of the well-groomed property, how different the influences shaping the worldview of Child Two are from those that shaped my own.  I know that sounds obvious and sort of silly – but the profound depth of the difference is worth noting. 

For instance, if you were born in Bakersfield (yes, that is the place of my birth), spent a few years in Edmond, Oklahoma and the rest of your youth in the suburban East Bay, you would probably think that America is comprised mostly of white born-again Christians and well-educated Catholic Asians.  You might think the majority of Americans are Republican and that most pay too much attention to their liquor cabinets and not enough to the whereabouts of their teenagers.  You wouldn’t know much about private school (save the parochial options) and you wouldn't meet anyone who went to an Ivy League school until you were in your twenties.

If, however, you spent your formative years in the world of Child Two, you might have a slightly different worldview.  You might think, for instance, that the world is mostly fashionable, mostly well-to-do, mostly Jewish and mostly gay.  You might not think that you live in a country where 12% of the population is black and 15% Hispanic.  You would not know that you live in a country where one in every eight people rely on food stamps or where almost half the public school population will not graduate from high school.  Nor would you think that Jews actually comprise a relatively small portion of the population.  Instead, you would probably think that most people are well educated, well dressed and inclined to engage in spirited discourse over long meals of plentiful food and wine and that sometimes those meals took place on Shabbat.  It isn’t that Child Two and his peers are unaware of homelessness or bigotry or mediocrity or suffering.  It’s just that they don’t SEE any of those things terribly often.  What they see is a world full of well-dressed women and fabulous men toting little dogs with sweaters. 

So I was thinking about these differences and wondering how they ultimately influence who we are in the world.  Does the world look the same, sound the same, taste the same to each of us and how much of the difference is defined by the sights and smells and sounds of our youth?  And how, in a world of privilege and exclusivity, do we make our children aware of life outside the bubble?  How do we imbue them with a sense of responsibility to engage in the world, to step outside of their box? 

There is no question that my own childhood was a fancy bubble all its own – we wanted for nothing and my parents went to great lengths to make sure that we kids were unaware of whatever struggles they endured to give us a good life.  Culturally, we may have been outsiders in an average world – a living example of statistics at work.  But even in our outsiderness, we were pretty normal – we went to public schools and traveled economy class and had a distinct awareness of wastefulness and saving and that even with all of those things we were so much more fortunate than so many people.

I worry now that as much as Sig Other and I talk to the children about the real world and as much as we try to show the real world, the fact that we don’t actually LIVE in the real world has more influence on their formation than anything else.   Maybe that’s ok.  Maybe a fancy bubble is okay if we’re forming sensitive, caring souls who will someday walk out of the bubble with a sense of responsibility and vision.  I don’t know.  All I know is that today my gratitude is tinged with guilt and the hope that I’m making enough holes in the bubble for Child Two to look through and see the other side with empathy and compassion and a sense of purpose. 


Anonymous said...

As with everything else in life, you can only gain experience in something by really doing it, not by viewing or reading about it. America is definitely splitting into poles of haves and have nots, and you are absolutely right to think about how to possibly get youth to understand the plight/life experience/point of view of someone not like them.

One way might be to encourage (require?) them to consistently volunteer at an organization of their choice helping those less fortunate. Being a consistent presence -- rather than an occasional one -- will help them to understand how best to help the organization and its 'customers'.

Anonymous said...

Well, holes in bubble is a good sign.. children should learn from early age that life is different for different people... and they can then only appreciate of what they have..
I come from India, where 70% people donot get enough to eat, nad when I moved to USA 10 yrs back , it seemed to me this country is so wasteful(Iam not generalizing people here, ofcourse there are people who are very much thoughtful of there every action), now I have seen ugly things too in this country , my 7yr old when 1st visited India 2yrs back was dumbfounded, how can people live like this? but I wanted him to see, that he is so fortunate than so many people, now he has to think twice befor he asks for things and decide if he wants it or needs it...

Anonymous said...

They probably *will* experience it, because it's getting increasingly harder to be a "have," and unless you and Sig Other plan to support their current lifestyle indefinitely (which would probably be damaging to both you and them), they will grow up, become independent (with all the pride and power that brings) and find that the community they can afford to live in is a lot different from the one they grew up in. Fear not! It's not all liquored-up conservatives out here, I promise...

shayma said...

so beautifully said, Mrs. L. i love how you talk about living in a bubble-as an expat's child, i too lived in a bubble, but the point that you make is so true- and something we must remember- "Maybe a fancy bubble is okay if we’re forming sensitive, caring souls who will someday walk out of the bubble with a sense of responsibility and vision." i would like to think that my parents produced a good child, someone who, even though lived a privileged life in the noisy, beautiful, crazy, poverty-stricken city of Lagos, knows the meaning of poverty and is aware of what is happening outside of her bubble. look at bill gates- he is my idol- a man with so much money, such a privileged life he leads, and yet, look at the amazing work the Gates Foundation is doing. i am sure you are bringing up your children with a conscience and a sense of what is important. best wishes and a happy new year. x shayma
ps my husband used to be a chemical engineer for schlumberger- and he worked for a while in Bakersfield where the oil fields are- i was so pleased when i read that is where you are from!