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Drowning our inner child, 25 cents at a time

BY AUBREY HENRETTY
Neurotica
Published April 2, 2002

No one ever says, "I want to be an Internal Revenue Service agent when I grow up."

Paul Wong
Aubrey Henretty, Neurotica

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People want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, firemen and construction workers. We want to be space cadets. We want to cure cancer and be gourmet chefs and live in log cabins in the mountains, to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. We want to be cooler than we were in middle school.

Most of the world's population lacks adequate medical care. Classrooms are overcrowded. Public defenders are overworked. The space program peaked in the '60s. Last time we checked, there was no correlation between Coca-Cola consumption and world peace. Cancer still wins more often than it loses.

Yet there is no dire shortage of IRS agents.

So many of us start out with good intentions. We set up lemonade stands (25 cents for a plastic cupful) on the sidewalk with our friend Nicole on the weekends and sell cookies for ten cents apiece (less than our parents paid for them on sale at the corner store). We make colorful signs and talk about what we want to be when we grow up (nurses and marine biologists, stand-up comedians and truck drivers) and the great things we will invent (flying cars and cherry-flavored cough medicine that actually tastes like cherries). Not as business savvy as the kids down the street with the boom box and the designer Dixie cups, we eat more cookies than we sell.

A few of us - the luckiest - get into decent colleges. We are older, but no less starry-eyed. Cough syrup is of little consequence to us; we have ideas. When we grow up, we tell our friends and families, there will be no more racism or sexism or poverty or injustice in the world. We have studied great thinkers' thoughts and become brilliant; we can fix everything. Just you wait. This time, it will work.

So, what happens? Where do all the young visionaries go to die? At what point does the eye doctor/tax collector changeover occur? More importantly, why does it occur? With all the loud, proud idealism that pervades college campuses nationwide, why do we turn out such sorry CEO-to-soup kitchen volunteer ratios?

One argument says people go to college to get good (i.e. facilitating the acquisition/maintenance of sport utility vehicles and large domiciles) jobs. It is for some a stepping stone to the upper-middle class and for others a rain check promising engraved plaques outside brick buildings: Welcome to the Rich Banker Auditorium. This is America. Take what you can get.

But what about space camp? What about the giant hospital we were going to build in Somalia? The master plan to end international conflict, strife and general unpleasantness? The cough syrup?

Most "successful" post-collegiate card-carrying members of the social elite are quick to dismiss our aspirations as childish delusions of grandeur: Impractical if not impossible. We will, they say, understand when we are older and wiser and the real world is snapping at our heels. We will leave our lofty ideals out in the garage with our old board games and rusty one-speed bicycles. Our peers will sigh with relief and welcome us to the fold and the country club. Before long, we too will chortle, pontificate, dismiss and forget our dreams, amazed we were ever that young and stupid. We will grow up.

Meanwhile, we keep on with our ideas and our words, our enthusiasm intact and unscathed (or at least minimally scathed). We stomp our feet and shout, demanding respect from head-patting naysayers who smile and blame college. We buy each other Cokes. We don't want to grow up.

Aubrey Henretty can be reached at ahenrett@umich.edu.