This weekend I overheard a conversation between a young man and his father about the teenager’s post-high-school options. I know of the student through the community and I know that he is sweet and bright and got expelled for something minor and seemingly ridiculous, and the conversation was colored by his embarrassment over the ordeal. His father was trying to explain that this was just a road bump, and that he still has a number of options in front of him. All is not lost. The student, though, couldn’t seem to help feeling as though he had messed up, and that this was the end of the road for his dreams.
I remember being young, and while I sometimes long for the luxuries of youth, I don’t miss it. One of the daunting elements of being young, particularly being a young person who has drive or possesses passion and promise—or who hopes to do something that feels different or unorthodox—is that it can be a lonely, confusing, and devastating experience as nearly everyone is out to level you. And when you finally do start to figure this out, you don’t know how to manage it outside of internalizing it negatively, or by becoming self-destructive because what’s the point, really? Whatever.
And you haven’t really begun to wrap your head around the fact that you can win, but if you do the people who make it their goal to crush you will never acknowledge as much. Because really, most of the people who are your adversaries would rather see you fail than succeed because it is a lot easier for them to kick you while you’re down than it is to see that you have achieved something and—in witnessing this—be reminded of their own failures. You have not yet realized that the only way you can truly win is to do whatever it is you want to do on your own terms, and to do so brilliantly.
The confusion sets in early, though it starts to solidify in part when they make you read 1984 or Animal Farm or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in school and they try to get you to obsess over symbolism rather than starting from a point of, “You know why this should speak to you? Because it is about the anxiety you are feeling right now, particularly with regard to your relationship in this 100-year-old education experiment. It is about your desire to get the fuck out of it and burn it down. It is about how people who do things that are different, even very, very slightly different, scare the hell out of the order and the authoritarian class will do everything possible to crush those people. They will lobotomize them, figuratively and literally. It is about that fight.” And the very few, very precious teachers who do try to open your eyes are getting leveled by their professional peers, school boards, archaic testing standards, and other insane obstacles themselves. So the institution cruelly put the manual for understanding what the hell is going on right in front of you, and they destroy your desire to engage with said manual in an empowering or meaningful way.
Looking back on that time, you come to realize that the only way to beat them at this game is to read everything on your own terms. Don’t look at assignments as theirs, but as exercises in your own liberation. Read every single thing you can get your hands on. Arm yourself with as much knowledge and wisdom as you can stuff into your brain.
Because a good deal of this fight comes at you before you have the opportunity to read books about all of the people, events, and ideas that will eventually inspire you. We usually learn that most of those who move us never pursued anything that looked like a traditional path in the first place. They, for whatever reason, overcame unconventional circumstances, adversity, systemic bullying, dropping out, getting kicked out of school, skipping a number of grades, or never going to school in the first place. And they were ostracized for all of these things but they figured out a way to do what they loved because fuck you, it’s their lives. And it was hard, but it was worth it. They didn’t get it right all of the time, and they failed here and there, but they got there. The more you feast on that story, the more easily you can envision yourself as a character in that narrative, the more manageable the fight becomes.
Because we also learn that these people, these heroes, they learned from their failures and that this is key to how they became those we look up to. They failed and sought and eventually found networks of support and made some real shit happen because they were hell bent on realizing whatever it was they had inside of them, even though all signs pointed to no. They came to look at failure as a stepping stone to success, even though the common naysayers and those in power did everything possible to use these failures as a means of cutting them down, of embarrassing them, of crushing their wills. They brushed their shoulders off. They soldiered on.
They made shit happen.
When you are a kid, you only have a sense of how rigged the game is towards extinguishing any spark. Know that to beat it is to survive it and thrive against all odds. This measure of success is hard to achieve, and at times the game is devastating, but in the end it is rewarding to survive, spark in tact. At times it will be at once heartening and crushing. They can be convincing and particularly good at stepping on your will, but coming out the other side with minimal scars, with with your chin up, and with that aforementioned spark in tact is not only forever essential to maintaining your self-worth, but it’s the only fuck you these people will ever understand.
PHOTO CREDIT: I think my wife took this picture. I am holding a newly acquired Lenny Bruce album, which is significant, of course, because “Do it for yourself, eff everybody else…” is as Lenny Brucian as it gets.