My Sources Say No

Happy New Year!

Dear Reader:

The Year of Our Lord 2010 is here and with it a slew of prediction blogs which have just about the same odds of being right as that good old fortune-telling technology known as The Magic 8 Ball. Remember using those? You ask a yes-or-no question, jiggle the 8 Ball, and wait for an answer. For example: “Oh, Magic 8 Ball, will Billy Bob fall in love with me this year?” Jiggle. Jiggle. Message pops up floating in a pool of electric-blue liquid. “Absolutely yes” or “maybe” or “concentrate and try again” or “my sources say no.” If you don’t like the answer, you try again for one of the other seventeen answers in hopes that it matches your desire. Eventually, one does. Ta-da! Magic.

Well, I’ve been trying to read the signs for proof of positive changes in our society and so far the “oulook is not good.” Oh, I hate to be a party-pooper right at the beginning of the new year, but if we humans need to begin relocalizing rather than outsourcing, producing rather than consuming, conserving rather than wasting just so that we can continue with some semblance of civilization let alone the frenzied, glittery, electrified extravaganza commonly known as Western Society, then the following story my sixth-grader brought home from school yesterday does not portend warm and fuzzy things.

Actually, let me start this story a couple weeks before Christmas. While talking to various friends of mine, a curious common theme ran through the conversations about this year’s Christmas shopping. It is the phenomenon known as Wii. I would add a link but you would have to be from another planet (or maybe a Third World country) not to know what I’m talking about here. Just about everyone I know, except those who already possessed the glorious invention, bought one of these gaming systems for their offspring this Christmas.

We want Christmas to be fun for our kids. I understand. I am not blaming any parents for buying their kids a nice Christmas present. What you buy your kids is your business. That’s not my point.

Yes, there is one and I’m getting to it so stop rolling your eyes at me.

Anyway, maybe if my kid had been clamoring for said homophone of “we”, I would have joined the crowd in line at the big-box store on Black Friday and purchased one (maybe but not likely). However, for some reason my child’s desires were of a simpler nature this year, and I thanked my personal deity of choice (the lifeforce of the universe, unnamed, if you are curious) and proceded to fill up her stocking with small gifts I thought would delight her when she got herself out of bed on Christmas morning. They did. We spent the day sitting around in our pajamas, eating cinnamon rolls, and hanging with my parents.

It was a nice day, and everyone was happy and contented.

In any case, because I’d had these conversations with parents of her friends, I knew what would happen as soon as she got back to school. I tried to prepare her. “Honey,” I said. “Lots of kids are going to be talking about what they got for Christmas. Alot of kids got stuff like Wii’s this year, and you got a bunch of nice, little things. You might want to figure out what you are going to say when they start asking to compare presents.” Did she listen to me? Sorta. I think what she heard was, “Other parents got their kids really cool stuff for Christmas and we didn’t so you are going to be embarrassed to death when school starts up again.”

Unfortunately, we were both correct, but at least my offspring was prepared for the bus-stop talk and the cafeteria talk and the hallway talk and the locker talk. “I got a Wii what did you get?” “I got a PS something or other what did you get?” “I got a cell phone what did you get?” Yup. Junior high hasn’t changed a bit from when I was there. I was always happy with my presents, but I do remember being embarrassed by the comparisons with kids whose parents had more money to spend. I dealt back then. She could deal now. At the very least, it’s character-building.

According to her, she handled it with as much dignity as she could muster and went off to first period social studies class. This is where things went into the Twilight Zone, at least as far as I’m concerned.

According to my twelve-year-old (and yes, I’m taking everything she says with a grain of salt), the teacher started off class by saying, “Okay, let’s get this over with. Go around the room and tell everyone your biggest present. Or your most special vacation activity.” As a parent, listening to this tale, I knew what the teacher meant by vacation activity. Trip to Disney. Trip to Washington D.C. Trip to the Bahamas. Probably not sledding or ice-skating or sitting around in pajamas watching White Christmas with the grandparents. My kid didn’t pick up on that, poor little semi-innocent that she is.

“I spent the whole time trying to figure out what I was going to say, Mom,” she told me “Everyone was like ‘I got a Wii, I got a flat-screen tv for my room, I got a cell phone, I got a DS. I was the last person. I said my special vacation time was typing up my story on the computer. I felt stupid. Did I sound like I was trying to impress my teacher?”

Um, yes, I thought, but that’s beside the point. What in heaven’s name was that teacher thinking?

I grumbled and mumbled and, yes, ranted. I called my mother and ranted. When my husband got home I told him, i.e. ranted. I hopped on Facebook when everyone else went to bed and guess what? I ranted!

I’m not naive. Junior high is the age of figuring out where you stand in the social hierarchy. Comparing yourself to the rest of the kids is de rigeur. The trick is to look, act, talk, smile, smell just about like everyone else . . . only a little bit better if possible. I know. I remember. I’ve watched The Breakfast Club a couple times.

So, while I understand the underlying junior-high pschological need to compare, I can’t for the life of me figure out why a school teacher would not only tolerate that behavior but also encourage it! What about kids who don’t celebrate a holiday? What about kids who are too poor to eat let alone get fancy presents? I’m just curious to know what possible benefit there could be to this classroom exercise. Don’t they need to learn about China or Ancient Egypt or something?

My Facebook friends came through with encouraging yelps of indignation on my behalf. Bless you, girls.

The consensus is that while we all have our own levels of gift-giving and recognize that kids will brag about their new stuff, we don’t appreciate teachers promoting that behavior in social studies class.

I hate to jump all over hard-working, underpaid, public-school teachers. For one thing, the teacher didn’t buy the kids all that high-end stuff. The teacher isn’t responsible for telling those children that it isn’t polite to brag about their acquisitions. It’s also possible my pre-teen drama queen blew the whole thing out of proportion–it’s been known to happen.

The discussion on Facebook also brought up all kinds of reminiscing about Esprit shirts and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and Nike high-tops. Some moms said they shopped at low-end department stores when they were teens and figured they turned out all right just the same. Another shared that she started buying Vogue in 8th grade and never stopped but now contents herself with knock-off bags from Target rather than spend a month’s grocery money on Coach purses.

I used to save up my money in order to buy the Bonnie Bell Makeup Collection advertised in Seventeen magazine which I took out religiously from the Bangor Public Library. Oh, the Prom Dress edition! Oh, all those fluffy Gunne Sax dresses! (Did you know Jessica McClintock is from Aroostook County, Maine? How cool is that?) I still buy the September issue of Vogue and vicariously enjoy the $16,000 couture dresses and $6,000 shoes. I understand the pull of the Sex and the City phenomenon. I’m not totally immune to what is considered hip and cool and fashionable.

A little fashion never really hurt anyone. However, people saying you aren’t cool because you don’t wear Ambercrombrie & Fitch and Aeropostale clothes does hurt when you are a kid. (I’m thinking of starting my own clothing company aimed at teenagers. I’ll have the tee-shirts made for pennies in some Third World country and mark them up like six-thousand percent and sell them in cave-like spaces in the mall where the smell of expensive uni-sex perfume will draw them in like flies to honey. I’ll call my company Flabbercrabby & Bitch. I even have a great marketing slogan: It’s Cool to be Crabby. What do you think?)

Which all leads me to the possiblity of our society changing anytime soon BY CHOICE. My daughter will survive the social stigma of being Wii-challenged. She will get by with tee-shirts from J.C. Penny and, gasp, Mardens and, double-gasp, maybe even homemade if I can get my sewing maching out and running. Yesterday’s experience gave us the opportunity to discuss, as a family, our values and what mom really thinks about clothing labels. But what about the rest of society? What about the future? Do we have any chance at all of evolving from our materialistic, consumeristic ridiculousness to a more enlightened, thoughtful, productive way of life?

If my daughter’s experience in school yesterday is anything to go by (maybe a little more accurate than the Magic 8 ball) I’d say we have some work to do as parents and educators in pointing out what really matters in life.

When do the kids get a chance to go around the room and share the last time their parent said, “I love you” to them? When do they tell about how their parents played a board game with them after supper. Will they get to stand up and compare how many nights their family sits down to dinner together at the table rather than scarfing down take-out in front of the television? How about going around the room and saying whether or not their parents live in the same house, if their mom is home when they get off the school bus in the afternoon, if they visit their grandparents regularly, if they attend church together every Sunday, if they volunteer at a soup kitchen together as a family.

Until those sorts of topics become the bragging points for our kids and ourselves rather than who bought the latest and brightest MP3 player and video gaming system, I don’t see much hope for the future.

My family mantra for 2010 is “It’s not what you buy; it’s what you do.” I challenge each of my readers to join me in this quest. If you can make it, don’t buy it. Don’t buy something, do something. It’s a start . . . Outside the Box.

6 responses to “My Sources Say No

  1. Looove it…!!!! You hit the nail on the head for me, I have been feeling that same way all season. Ever since iI became a parent it has been more about what you do, than what you have. Coming from a low income family I have been blessed. It has helpped me to see what we do not need to be a happy functional family. I don’t understand our culture. As much as I like to get new things once in awhile, I still am happy with the knock offs. I do not think having more Money to spend would make me happier. Would probably all go into savings for educating my children and grand children. I hope more people can see passed there wallets.

  2. Kathryn Davison

    You rock! I think I know the teacher — at least I know one who might do that same thing. This all rings soooo true, from child’s experience through your message. Thank you.

    • Thank you. I emailed the teacher and asked for clarification and she told me she tried to downplay the “I got a wii’s” and up-play the “I went skating with my family’s” in an attempt to show that Christmas isn’t all about the presents. I’m sure she meant well. I do like and respect this teacher–so I’m letting this go. Everyone makes mistakes. I hope that by bringing up the topic that it is a mistake that is not repeated next year.

  3. I had this happen to me in school some 25 years ago. I remember coming back from Christmas vacation and the class was talking amongst themselves about what they did or got during vacation. I had to think hard, I still hate being put on the spot. If I remember right I asked to go to the bathroom and hoped that the class was on to something else when I got back. I dreaded the thought of the questions again. And it did happen again in April but there weren’t alot of travelers so that wasn’t so bad. This was because the teachers thought they would get the hype out so they could proceed with the daily schedule.

    Somebody once made a comment to me that we now have the material need and greed because we started having two income homes. I have to agree with this theory. We survived with one person working and one person keeping house. Now we have fast food, 2 cars and texting addictions.
    Material things seemed to be an important part of social status.

    We bought our kids a Wii for Christmas but it wasn’t because everyone else has one. I don’t follow that line. I know when the last time I hugged my kids and told them I love them.

    I am going to sign off now I have to go to my part time job.

  4. Have you shared your high-school experience story with your kids? What do they think about it?

    I think people have always had material need and greed, but there used to be a balancing emphasis on family values. Now it is “politically incorrect” to compare family values. Kids can’t take pride in coming from intact, loving, hardworking families (it might make the other kids feel bad). All that matters is the name brand on their tee-shirts and the electronics in their living rooms (which also makes other kids feel bad, but it is somehow acceptable in American culture to compare material possessions). As parents, we are under great pressure to “keep up” and for our kids to “keep up” because we don’t want to be socially ostracized or our kids socially ostracized. I think that is sad, and I’d love to see it change. We parents talk about this stuff all the time, shaking our heads, but then we give into the peer pressure ourselves. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. I’m saying, let’s try to buck the culture.

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