Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I had planned to write about the tedium of daily work routines, but the topic was too boring to confront even in conversation. Instead, I want to scrutinize a recent personal discovery: as I begin my working life, it seems that I have become obedient. The sassy, lippy, smart-ass adolescent has grown humble and respectful of authority. This new man is an advocate for the five-paragraph essay structure, for reading the book instead of watching the movie, for towing the party line. When did all this happen? When did this become me?

In order to contextualize this epiphany, let me backtrack a bit. After two months of increasingly arduous post-summer unemployment, I have been enjoying daily work as a grade 12 English teacher since October, slinging hash for a fledgling private academy. ( I couldn't think of a cool industry-insider term for teaching, so I borrowed lingo from another field.) My students have thrived in the small class environment and have legitimitely improved their ability to understand and write about literature.

Damn, it felt good to be a gangster! (still stealing slang)

My enthusiasm waned slightly when the school administrator expressed concern that my marks were too high and requested that I grade future work in a deeper shade of red. Moreover, I was rankled by the insincerity of their request: they didn't want to earn a reputation as "one of those" academies.

As a younger man, I might have thundered back indignantly on behalf of my students. After all, they were going to receive a grade drastically lower than what I had led them to expect. But like the woman in the long black veil, I said not a word, even though I had every right to be frustrated. The administration never helped me to establish evaluation guidelines and now they wanted me to tarnish my reputation for theirs.

Still, I acquiesced and now I'm left wondering - what am I to make of my begrudging allegiance, my new-found professionalism?

Perhaps my behaviour represents a step towards emotional maturity. If I had responded with self-righteous contempt, I would have been avenging my wounded pride as much as anything. (On that note, am I the only one who's ego talks like a lisping Wally Shawn in The Princess Bride: "A criticism? Of my work?Incontheivable!")

I don't think I can claim a unanimous victory in the name of progress without mourning the loss of my rebellious lip. Once a proud and mighty weapon, authority figures would tremble in its presence. Parents, teachers, coaches, random clergy - none were safe. Now that I'm crossing over to the other side, becoming a mister - the man - I can imagine that the victims of my youthful disrespect must have secretly admired the caustic irreverence. My sass was a necessary evil; I carried the torch of youth which they let smolder out. Like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, deep down they wanted me on that line, they needed me on that line.

Does this occasion really mark the beginning of my sanctimonious Tom Cruise years? Now that I'm actually responsible for my own income, have I been cowed by the hand that feeds me? Shit, I don't even get paid that much! I could have at least held out for more money.

I feel like I've betrayed my teenage self by growing up, but then I look around me and realize that I have been betrayed by my childhood heroes. All my smart-alec inspirations have gone the way of the walkman. The young Corey Feldman, who yapped his way onto the silver screen and into our hearts, is now a disgrace. A once proud Ferris Bueller now goes by the name Mr. Jessica Parker and seems only to speak in public on eponymous daytime talk shows like Rosie, Ellen and Oprah. Zack Morris finally graduated from Bayside and became a cop on NYPD, while Steve Guttenberg finally left the Police Academy and became a throwaway punchline on the Simpsons. (maybe I should be more concerned by the fact that I ever revered Steve Guttenberg)

No wonder I've gone soft - all my rebellious role models have grown old and stale. As my writer friend observed recently, we are now older than most of the athletes we revere. Rap's gone corporate and I'm not cool enough to keep up with legitimate underground punk. Facial hair might be my sole remaining outlet for petty resistance.

Let me know if I'm alone in this struggle. Young people, do you feel me? Old people, regale us with stories of bosses triumphantly told off.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Paper or Plastics?

It's been a few days since this space was created, and in that time I have decided that I don't want to maintain an idle, unfocused blog. Instead, I plan to use this space as a forum for those who share my so-called quarter-life crisis concerns. The search for a rewarding career has begun - oddly concurrent with the end of my interest-free student loan grace period - and it demands my constant attention.

In order to understand my career malaise, let's trace it back to its source: the movies. A langorous and ongoing childhood dalliance with the movies can be doubly blamed for my current confusion; not only do I keep waiting for the story of my life to unfold before me, I get bored during the commercials and flip the channel. Can't make up my mind. Want it all. Sound familiar?

No movie speaks more to the point of this condition than The Graduate. (While I'm laying blame like Wilt laid wood, I'll pause to reflect on 1960's America as my mecca of disillusioned self-entitlement; in 40-odd years, young men in my position went from sexy iconoclast to "not marriage material"). When we meet The Graduate's anti-hero, Benjamin Braddock, he's somnambulating his way through his own graduation party. And then he's exposed to a future brimming with potential: "Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics."

Though the film spoke to another generation, this scene still strikes to the heart of my current post-graduate indecision. What could be more mundane than a career in plastics? I think I'm like a lot of people my age, who may lack focus and inspiration but know what they don't want to do. Plastics. Like Benjamin Braddock, we all want our future to be"...I don't know....different." From a distance, most jobs seem similar. They all seem like plastics.

We all want to do something great, something special, something that doesn't make us feel like we wasted our time. Maybe that's the problem: we're getting tripped up by an adolescent conflation of "special" and "great," with a generous splash of "different than my parents" to the mix. Like Albert Brooks ponders in Defending your Life: How come everybody is someone famous in a previous life? Everybody thinks they were Catherine the Great. How come nobody was Joe the Butcher?

For the moment, I'm trying out life as Jon the ennglish teacher. Actually, I really like it. It's similar to life as Jon the english student, but better: more money coming in, more reading, more learning. Still, I know that I will continue to be dogged by the spectre of something more "special", something more "different," possibly even something "great". Go west young man, and all that.

We'll meet back here to discuss the trials and tribulations of careers in progress and careers on the horizon. Perhaps the potential insights we gain from this virtual paper will help us avoid a career in plastics.

Looking forward to it.