We're All Damaged

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hey, Kids, Someday You Can All Be Just Like Me.

I was recently a guest speaker at Middleborough Elementary School’s Career Fair here in Baltimore. My friend is an assistant principal there, and—against what I can only imagine was her better judgment—she asked me to attend.

My first reaction was to say yes instantly. But as the day grew closer, I found myself overwhelmed with a truly unique, dual anxiety. Superficially speaking, I imagined a scenario not unlike The Lord of the Flies in which the children would rise up against me. But then, more self-loathingly, it began to dawn on me that I am in no way qualified to advise the youth of America on anything even remotely useful.

“Hey, kids, I’ll be honest. If you play your cards right, math is almost entirely useless. Especially if you’re good-looking.”

“Hey, kids, next time your mommy or daddy says anything about something being too big or too hard, I want you to say ‘That’s what she said,’ and then awkwardly walk out of the room.”

“Hey, kids, when you get to high school, you’re gonna hear someone say ‘Beer than liquor, never sicker’, and ‘liquor than beer, never fear.’ I’m here to tell you, that’s mostly bull$hit.”

“Hey, kids. Last night I dared my wife to give a passing bus full of strangers the finger. Can you believe she agreed to married me?”

Clearly, to make this situation work and to help these children, I was going to have to do what adults do best…lie. And so, on that sunny day in the Baltimore suburbs, I put on a nice shirt with a collar, shaved like a genuine adult, and delivered a PowerPoint presentation all about the joys of gainful employment.

But then a funny thing happened. I was going on about how it’s fun to be creative and that reading and writing are skills they’ll be able to use their whole lives, when suddenly I began to actually believe what I was saying. I told them that grammar is important, and so is spelling. I told them that writing is not only an expression of yourself, but a way to inform and persuade. The movies you love. The books you love. The shows on TV—even the commercials. Those are all written by writers, like me!

Believe it or not, the kids weren’t sharpening their pencils into prison knives or painting their faces with the blood of the weak among them like I suspected they would. They were actually listening to me! Some of them were even smiling and nodding as I spoke. It was obvious: I was making a difference. Their lives were changing. Each of them would go home and demand to be taken to Barnes & Noble to buy the books that would shape their imaginations forever.

When I was done with my presentation, I thanked them for having me…and I meant it. “Does anyone have any questions?” I asked.

A little girl’s arm shot up immediately. She was smiling. She wore a t-shirt with a dinosaur across the chest. I was sure she was going to ask me for a book recommendation, or perhaps for some advice on how she could get started at becoming a writer.

“Yes,” I said.

“Umm, hi,” she said. “Do you have a dog?”

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