Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Do What I Say, Not What I Do (The Straight & Narrow Path)

The Road Not Taken and Other Poems (Dover Thrift Editions)I remember being seventeen, sitting on my back porch in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico with my mom cooking in the kitchen, visible in the window just behind me. It was hot, and so I was in the shade listening to my CD player.

An old man was walking up my block stopped abruptly, turned to me, and started talking. I took off the headphones and he continued, “...you’re going to help a lot of people. I see you in a white coat, talking to a crowd. You’re going to help your people...” and then he broke off mid-sentence and walked away without another word.

um, come again?

I was shocked. Who was this guy?

I asked my mother through the window whether she heard what he said. In typical form she yelled, “Que?! Who are you talking to? Que paso?!” Thanks mom. You just missed the Oracle.

I told my Grandfather, who is the dream-interpreter of the family (and apparently the Oracle-Whisperer) and he said, “mijita, it sounds like you’re going to be a Judge, you’re going to be a Mayor and then Governor of Puerto Rico.” ...right.

I think that’s just what Grandpa wanted me to be. And that's really how things went for a while. Me, pleasing my family, being what they wanted me to be. Part of me also did it to prove to myself that I could do it. Despite all the doubt thrown at me, I wanted to prove that this Puerto Rican girl from Brooklyn could get herself an "Esq." at the end of her name.

With my family’s hopes and dreams clinging to me, I followed the straight and narrow path, got my degree, and became a lawyer. Six years later, I’m on the other road…you know, Frost’s The Road Not Taken, that infamous unbeaten path… the one with all the overgrowth. And I'm barefoot, wearing shorts, skipping through the tall grass. I freaking love it. But I can’t tell anyone about it. Who would understand?

I don’t imagine my grandfather would’ve said, “ok Li, get an education, rack up a shit load of loans, go travel the world honey, do NOT get married, decide later if you even want kids, switch career paths TWICE, have a quarter life crisis, throw all those degrees in the air then say, que se jode and go into acting...” NO. Grandpa would not say that.

Nobody likes to live on the edge. No one likes the unfamiliar. No one teaches their kids to do that. We were taught to get an education, keep getting educated, and even more educated, then you get the amazing job, then you settle down, and you stay rooted through old age, happy, loved, with kids and grand kids and great grand kids bustling. We are taught and we teach others to follow the straight and narrow path to success and to happiness. We are not taught to veer off the path. We are not taught to change our minds. We are not taught to run barefoot through the unbeaten path, giggling and twirling in the sun. Why not?

I thought about this when an eighteen your old kid who was swimming in the lane next to me at the YMCA started telling me about how excited he is to be the first in his family to go to College. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but he was excited just to be going and achieving the "family dream." He would be the first generation to work toward a Bachelor’s. That’s a lot of pressure. And he made it clear that his family expected a lot from him. I could tell he wished he had the plan all put together, so he could answer my stupid question: “what do you want to be?”

He said he didn’t know, so I replied, “that’s OK, you don’t have to pick a major right away.”

How brazen would it have been to say “don’t worry about a plan.” Or to say, “just enjoy the process of finding your place in the world.” What would that mean to a Latino who is the first to go to college? I couldn’t tell him that despite the pressure from his family, his life is his own, and if he chooses one path, and changes his mind, he can choose another and that’s OK. I couldn’t open my mouth to say any of the words that were in my mind. Why? It felt irresponsible. It’s none of my business. And what would give me the right to put my shit onto this little kid?

He asked me whether I went to college and what I did afterward. I told him “I used to be a teacher and now I’m a lawyer,” without mention of acting. Why didn't I mention acting? I don't know. Perhaps I felt like I'm still in transition, and not being there yet, I didn't want to have to explain myself, they way perhaps, I have avoided explaining any of this to my extended family, including my grandfather. So, I answered his questions on what being a teacher and a lawyer takes in terms of education. He told me that he knew he wanted to be a leader or in a position where he could be in charge. So, of course, I told him that he could go to Law School if he wanted to. He seemed to mull it over in his head, as though it were the first time he ever thought of it. Despite myself, I planted a seed. But maybe not the seed I really wish I would have planted - the "do what YOU want with your life" seed.

Stand and Deliver

I didn’t get into my “you can achieve anything you set you mind to” public service announcement. Notwithstanding my inner quarrel, I couldn’t tell a young Latino, “hey, its OK not to have it all figured out,” or “feel free to change your mind 100 times,” or “travel the world and study abroad if you get the chance,” when there’s so much pressure to succeed, and set an example for ones family, for ones culture. I just couldn't.

I gave him the impression that there was a straight and narrow path. And he should follow it. He shouldn’t be like me all in "betwixt and between." So, all I said was, “congratulations on going to College and best of luck.”

Part of me feels like a hypocrite and like I copped out. What do you think? Should we continue the cultural norm of telling our youth to follow the straight and narrow path, or should we encourage them to blaze a trail...even if its not a traditional trail?

Please feel free to share your deep thoughts on this.

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