Friday, December 8, 2023

From the Archives - Careergate


I recently came across a letter to my brother from 1995, recalling a shameful episode from my past, dating back to first grade. This being a slow news day, I figured I’d post it here. I’ve fleshed it about a bit, from memory. Believe me: I remember this ordeal all too well.

— July 9, 1995

In first grade, we did a big unit on careers. First we watched some film loops (remember those?) about various careers including middle manager, quality control technician, and comptroller. Naw, just kidding, it was the normal assortment of clichéd vocations like doctor, nurse, construction worker, teacher, farmer … the stuff it’s easy to imagine and picture, even if it represents only a sliver of the wide variety of actual careers out there. Various parents came in to talk about their careers as well, though I didn’t pay much attention. The only one I remember well was a long-haul truck driver. He described, in great detail, the methamphetamine regimen that kept him awake at the wheel, along with its various side effects. (Okay, fine, I made that part up.) Then we kids had to decide what we were going to be when we grew up, and make a big poster showing ourselves on the job. The year before, my brother Max had chosen “ambulance driver,” mainly (I believed then, and continue to believe) because he thought he could draw a pretty cool picture of an ambulance. My parents were pleased at his choice and made a nice fuss over him.

I didn’t put much thought into deciding on my career. I believed at the time, naïve as I was, that I would have a chance to revisit this decision later. I had no idea that this initial stab at a career plan would forever cement my reputation among my peers, my teacher, and my parents. So I thought about the project for about thirty seconds before deciding I could probably draw a TV set, and that it would be fun to draw a TV showroom with not only a few TVs in it, but also a big picture window, through which you could see the street and a cyclist riding by. I thought it would be a nice challenge to draw this well enough for the window not just to look like another TV. So I chose the career goal of TV salesman.

It is probably the case that Mrs. M— explained how the posters would be put on prominent display for all to see, including the parents who, on Parent Teacher night, would be pleased as punch at how Bear Creek Elementary, and Mrs. M— in particular, were grooming their children for highly successful and prestigious lives. But I wasn’t paying attention and thought this was another pointless project that would be soon forgotten. That is, I didn’t realize I was about to shame myself and my entire family, as I was too engrossed in the task at hand to see the big picture. I thought my drawing came out fairly well. It showed a man at a counter taking some money, and the happy customer with his hand on the TV set. In the background was a window: if you looked closely, you saw, through this window, a bicyclist riding by. I was most proud of that scene through the window. I felt it embodied happenstance—a little snapshot of life, caught by random, totally unrelated to the sales transaction. Naturally, I didn’t think these things in these words, but the feeling was there.

I find it noteworthy that I undertook the project without so much as a glance at what my classmates were doing. I was accustomed to being unorthodox, since I was raised if not by wolves, at least by slightly odd parents who in some ways diverged from mainstream society: we didn’t watch much TV, certainly didn’t follow sports (I mean, we didn’t even know the basic rules of football or baseball), used good grammar, were often ignorant of pop culture, and were put on the swim team instead of in Little League. I so often felt lost in the world that I’d just learned to accept this feeling and went through life in a fog, long pondering a great many mysteries but never thinking to ask anyone about them. For example, I couldn’t understand the Snickers ad showing a candy bar being sliced up to show off the peanuts and peanut butter nougat, and ending with the words, “No matter how you slice it, it comes up peanuts.” I’d never heard the expression “no matter how you slice it,” so the entire ad was a mystery. Who, I wondered, goes around slicing up Snickers bars, and why?

And, when I listened to the Carole King album “Really Rosie,” and its title song, I couldn’t fathom the point of the lyric “I’m really Rosie and I’m the most/ Beat that drum, make that toast.” I mean, okay, beating a drum to celebrate someone, sure … but making toast? “Wow, you’re really the most, let me make you some toast. Whole wheat or white?” I had no idea people clinked together glasses of wine or champagne while wishing each other well … I’d never seen such a thing. In my family we drank powdered milk from plastic cups and never offered up good tidings.

So, when I finished my career poster and happened to glance at what my classmates had done, I think I actually felt smug at how hackneyed their career plans were, compared to mine. All the boys in my class chose fireman, doctor, policeman, or U.S. President, and the girls chose actress, nurse, or nun, maybe even saint. You’d think Mrs. M— would kind of snicker at the utter predictability of it all, but she fawned all over them like they were child geniuses. When she got to my poster she kind of turned her nose up. “Where did you get this idea, TV salesman?” she asked, with a distinct note of contempt in her voice. “We didn’t have any parent presentation on this. It wasn’t in the film loops. You wanna sell TVs?

I just shrugged. I had long before written Mrs. M— off completely. She had lost my respect by tearing masking tape with her teeth, while telling us not to do it; by chewing me out for wiping my nose on my sleeve, which I knew full well was an unassailable privilege of childhood; and by holding a special meeting with my mom to discuss my poor attention span. (My mom described to me the entire encounter. She’d been unconcerned, either because she didn’t see my daydreaming as a problem at my young age. Confronted with the negative report, Mom replied, “I’m sure he’ll come around eventually.” Mrs. M— slammed her fist down on the table and retorted, “That time has got to be now!”)

Anyway, I wasn’t about to reassess my career goals: the picture was already drawn. I asked Mrs. M— what she thought of the bicyclist in my poster, seen through the window, frozen in time. Isn’t that cool? A lone rider trapped forever in a two-dimensional depiction of life itself? Pedaling, and yet going nowhere? Caught in the act of existence? Alas, it would take someone with a college degree in literature to assemble the body of rhetoric necessary to defend my picture, and I was just a dumb kid. I pointed at the bicyclist, and said, “Look at him! He’s not on TV, he’s really there, through the window!” Mrs. M— just rolled her eyes and moved on, freshly flabbergasted by my idiocy.

Even after this icy reception of my poster, I was kind of proud of it, hanging right there on the wall with all the firemen, presidents, nurses, and doctors. I remember feeling a strange kind of pride: nobody else had a window in their pictures. And besides, Chris Phillips’ fireman looked exactly like David Brown’s. Same ladder, same fire hose, same burning home in the background, everything. Moreover, what I saw were a lot of hats. Fireman’s hat (well, helmet), policeman’s hat, nurse’s hat. Like on “Sesame Street,” with its “These are the people in your neighborhood” song. Such simple, foolproof choices. Nobody had even attempted to capture the essence of simultaneity: the skew paths of the featured persons (salesman, customer) vs. this unimportant background character, who is unaware of the brazen, undiscriminating promiscuity of existence, like a nameless renter in a giant apartment building who’s unacquainted with the neighboring tenants. If nothing else, I derived a peculiar pleasure from being the only future TV salesman in my whole class.

Well, I hadn’t heard the end of it yet. I guess it was one thing for my mom to shrug off Mrs. M—’s criticism of me in a private conference, but to have her kid’s utter lack of ambition showcased there in front of all the others at Parent Teacher Night didn’t go down too well. Perhaps she was oppressed by all the proud parents there, all of them giddy in the anticipation of their children’s futures, entranced by the obvious nobility represented by their career goals. Firemen saving homes and families! Nurses helping doctors! Doctors saving lives! And what was her kid planning? To facilitate mass brain erasure by selling televisions?

When she got home Mom gave me a hard time about it. She seemed disappointed, and possibly embarrassed. I could no longer be cavalier about it… I had to face the evil of my ways. I took a hard look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. A TV salesman … it was disgraceful. I hadn’t been brought up to sell TVs; our dad didn’t even allow us to watch TV! Since he was so seldom home to police this, he had removed the knobs from the TV set so we couldn’t operate it, forcing us kids to reach in with needle-nose pliers and endure powerful electric shocks! Officially at least, TV was beneath our family’s intellect. So where had I gone wrong? How could I so breezily trash my personal brand among my fellow students, not to mention with my family? Was this what I stood for: a livelihood based on brainless transactions, selling boob-tubes to people so ravenous for simple entertainment, all I had to do was basically collect the money, like some schmuck working a toll-booth?

My mom’s criticism was like catnip to my eavesdropping brothers, who treated this like a major scandal, like I’d murdered somebody’s pet or something. They endlessly mocked me for it, to the point that our dad overheard (or had my mom actually told him?) and now he was all sore, too. Looking back, it was kind of an amazing academic performance on my part: I’d made an entire family feel bad. I was miffed at my parents for making such a big fuss, angry at my brothers for teasing me, and felt bad about myself for having so little ambition. My brothers, though delighted at the dustup, surely lost (even more) respect for me; my parents felt bad about me, of course, and also about themselves, and perhaps about my school. Perhaps my mom even wondered if my TV salesman ambition was rooted in some kind of rebellion, lashing out against my dad’s prohibition of TV in our household, in which case this shameful episode may have increased her animosity toward him. As for my dad, who knew full well that he himself was perfect, any defect in us kids was surely my mom’s fault, so he was probably almost as miffed at her as at me. I think it takes a pretty special school project to do all that.

One thing was certain: all of this could have been avoided if I’d just toed the line and gone the conventional path, deciding to be a cop or fireman or doctor, instead of following my fancy. It’s a good thing I was an arrogant little bastard and mostly uneducable, or I might have taken a bad lesson from Careergate. Instead, I just kept muddling on in my clueless way, shaken by the incident but not stirred to any action, such as trying to do better. Story of my life, I guess.

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1 comment:

  1. What a great story. It pains me that I don't remember it, though I do remember the assignment when I had to do it, a few years earlier, and the angst, and the futility of it all. As I recall we had to make paper mache heads to represent our own heads in our future careers, so of course these heads had to have hats, which seemed to limit the career choices to careers that had hats associated with them. Maybe they realized how stupid that was and dropped that requirement. Now wait a minute... I guess they were puppets, actually. Oh, and there was a puppet stage, and we had to make a personal puppet show and it was a big, gut wrenching production. Anyway. I'm glad that's over, and that you didn't end up as a T.V. salesman. That would have been a pretty short career.