Friday, August 13, 2010

The Sure Thing

This weekend marks the halfway point of August, which explains the veritable spate of school buses and vans I have started to see on the highways and byways here in the State of Concrete Gardens and the ever-burgeoning Sunday edition of the Star-Ledger that my paper man leaves on my driveway every week. When I was a kid I do not recall supermarkets taking part in back-to-school sales but apparently now, nothing says, "C'mon kids it is time for the school bus" quite as well as a deal on Poland Spring water.....unless it is one on Sun-Maid Raisins. Literally every purveyor of every good or service available within the geographical boundaries of these United States is selling something (or several somethings) that is being marketed as "indispensable" for your child's imminent return to the classroom or the campus.

I accept as a given that thirty-plus years ago I was a far less sophisticated cat than the 21st Century's imprint of an elementary school student. But has the world changed that much in less than two decades that what comprised the "Must Have" list for a 3rd, 4th or 5th grader when my two young adults were the ones for whom Margaret and I were doing the shopping has been rendered completely obsolete? Apparently the answer to that question is "Yes".

It is forever for me an uncomfortable tug-of-war between technology's convenience and innocence's end. You can make an endless number of solid, rational arguments in support of your lower level grade school student being sent off into the big bad world with his or her own assortment of electronic devices, including the omnipresent cell phone. Yet, the rational man I am notwithstanding I cannot help but think that most of your arguments are silly. It seems as if parents equip their wee ones with "emergency" gear much in the same way that a parent sends a son or daughter off to college with an "emergency" credit card. If more college students took a Bradbury-ian approach (as in Alison) as to what constitutes an emergency then their parents would not recoil in horror at the prospect of sending them off matriculating with adventure in their hearts and plastic in their hands. I have not asked Schneeds about it in a number of years but I do not think his father has ever accepted Alex's claim that the dinner he purchased at Mataam Fez in Boulder for the three of us (Alex, Jay and I) constituted an actual emergency and that was more than twenty years ago.

Do little kids really need to be ready to be full-on participants in the technology race at age 8 or 9? I suppose it is my inner dinosaur poking its head up above the tree line but it simply does not seem so. Small children go to school equipped with iPods/MP3 players and cell phones/blackberries, the latter justified by parent and child alike on the grounds of, "What if my child needs to get in touch with me?", which is not a silly or trite concern to be sure. I would be willing to wager however that less than 1% of all communication one's elementary school age child has on his/her cell phone during any given school day, week or year is secondary to an actual emergency - unless what Archie thinks of Veronica's new sweater constitutes an emergency in the pre-teen universe.

Connectivity is the new benchmark. We strive to be connected to one another, to our jobs, to our social networks, to our virtual existence 24/7. Why? Who decreed that 6th graders should be more concerned with Twitter than Twister or with Facebook than Wiffle Ball? Whoever that person is we should punch in the nose as hard as we can. In the ever-escalating race to be cool, children are given precious little time to be something innately special: themselves. Life is a forward-lived experience. The summers, the autumns and yes even the winters or our youth - once gone - are not coming back. We will spend our lives dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of coolness, of being one in the know, of being a member of the 'in' crowd. Knowing what we are setting them up for later on, do the parents of school-age children not owe it to their kids to allow them to enjoy just being kids? It has been said that youth is wasted on the young. If that is indeed true then it is due in large part to the interference of the old into the lives of the young.

We have not abandoned the old saw of asking a child what he or she wants to be "all grown up". But it appears as if we have shortened the time line from youth to adulthood. And for what good reason? From one man's admittedly jaundiced point of view, nothing pops up in my field of vision.

I think that what got me thinking about this (giving the word 'thinking' its broadest possible definitional interpretation) was something I saw while driving back to the office from court in Middlesex County on Thursday morning. I was stopped at a traffic light on Hoe's Lane and when I looked to my right I saw a group of kids of varying heights, colors and ages goofing around together on the lawn of either a school or perhaps a church in what I presumed was some sort of summer camp program. I was at the light long enough to see nothing more or less extraordinary than kids being kids, running after one another on the lawn, laughing and having what looked to be one hell of a good time. Not a cell phone, iPod or PSP visible in the bunch. Lots of smiles. Not a lot of gadgets.

It is mid-August already. The days grow shorter. Summer is no longer measured in months but in weeks or days. It will be over before we know it. And sooner than they know it now, so too shall the childhood of our kids. Let us not be in too much of a hurry to see either depart. Because unlike the former, once the latter goes, it is not coming back.

-AK

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