It was my least favorite question in school. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
On one occasion, I remember being forced (forced!) to draw (draw!) what my life would look like … in … the … few … cher-er-er. (Echoes.) If I had had the sense of humor I now claim to have, I would have drawn someone who was capable of drawing. Maybe I would have drawn someone holding a board with many colors on it. The person would be wearing a smock. And a beret. (That was how Mr. V—, our art teacher in elementary school, actually dressed. It was almost a parody of a cliché of someone’s parodied cliché of what an artist is supposed to look like.) The caption to my drawing would have stated that I hoped I would be able to draw when I was a grown-up.
I did not draw this. Maybe I could have drawn something representing a desire to be funny someday. A “Tonight Show”-type desk or a microphone in front of a brick wall. But no, as when I was asked to verbalize what I wanted to do when I was a grown-up, which I reacted to like it was a trick question, as if there was a perfect answer that I could glean by reading the cues from my questioner (“Mrs. A— wants me to say that I want to be an … astronaut! I’ll draw an astronaut.”), I could only draw a stick figure wearing a tie. My interior monologue: “Um. I want to have a job. Isn’t that what I am supposed to say? It’s already afternoon and there’s an Abbott and Costello movie on, so can I go now?” A stick figure with a tie it was.
Except I would never say out loud to anyone that there was something I would rather be doing, like watch a movie. As a kid, I think I saw adults as something to be tolerated. They did not know more than me, and those that I conceded did know more than me were pushy about it, which is I what made them (I guessed) teachers. My stick figure with a tie (red, in my memory) was basically my dad, the only adult with a job that I was aware of. (Teachers? I am sure I wondered how that was even a job. The freakiest thing in life—ever!—came whenever we saw a teacher in the grocery store, in the outdoors life. They shop? Doesn’t the janitor just fold them up and put them in a storage closet at the end of the school day, once the last detention bus has pulled away and a ride had been found for the last kid whose parents were divorcing and screwed up the daily negotiations over who was supposed to pick her up?) My stick figure with the red tie represented my eight-year-old’s deep inner knowledge that I was destined to be someone’s employee, probably working with or on numbers instead of what I thought I wanted, which I did not think anyone wanted for or from me: to work with words and sentences.
I also never imagined, neither out loud nor on paper, in writing or in stick figures for art class, a family life. My imagination was that limited. Marriage and family appeared (in my limited view) to be things that people seemed to fall into upon arriving at a certain age. For me, something never envisioned became something never worked toward. One does not live to be 43 and single without some effort at failure devoted to the cause; the wonderful news is that I am now 47 and not single, and life has opened up for me.
As a kid, I simply did not see the point to imagining something in the far-off future. Why bother, since it is going to be so different? My gosh, I wish I had had the foresight to say something like that out loud to my teachers. I just tried to read their prompts, their cues, for what I seemed to think they seemed to think I should say that I wanted to say that I wanted. “Draw your dream house.” I drew the house I then lived in, which was a three-bedroom, single-level ranch, the only home I’d known, but I drew it in a different color. Red. With a swimming pool. Within a year, in real life, the house had been painted (not my imagined color) and a swimming pool had been installed. See? Voilà! The distant future, my distant future, it was going to take care of itself.
It has taken care of itself, indeed it has, at least in that I am still here.
The only distant date that ever caught my imagination when I was growing up was 2000. In the 1970s, that year always came with this preface: “In the year.” “In the year 2000, I will turn 32 and … perhaps I will have a more detailed and creative imagination than the one I have now, in the year 1977. Ask me then.” And now the arrival of that far-off year is almost 16 years in the rear-view mirror. Life is what happens when you’re busy avoiding life.
Ever since then, in adulthood, every time I have written out a five-year plan, I have veered completely off course from it within six months. Each time. The one time I started a 401(k), I lost that job within a week.
Because I did not have an idea of adult life, my life so far has been nothing like what I imagined. There is a difference between being a grown-up and an adult. For much of my life, I have been a “grown-up,” with air quotes; I’ve been that stick figure with a red tie that I drew long ago. On my good days, I indeed wore a necktie and looked like I was an adult, but I was not. I would hold a job for a while and become bored or distracted by what could come next or stressed that I was expendable (the perpetual worry of a stick figure) and move to the next part of life. I remained open to possibilities, but sometimes the possibilities grew narrow. They no longer are.
I wanted life to be interesting. I wanted to be kept interested, interesting, and entertained. My life has been all of that and still is. It really is an adventure.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 30 asks, “When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up? What are you now? Are the two connected?”
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