Hank: (deep discontented sigh)
Me: (having just been hosted for a coffee by our neighborhood friendly auto-parts store owner) Two cakes in one day! Lord, you’re a loved and lucky boy! Sr. Pereira is so kind.
Hank: He is and I like him, but… (sigh)
Me: But what?
Hank: Why are adults always asking me what I want to be when I grow up? Or that when they were my age they were done with school and working? It’s like every time I want to yell, “I’m a kid! I don’t know what I want to do for a job! And I know… I know you were working when you were my age. I know already!”
Me: Wow. Okay. These are two separate and very important things, so lets break it down so that you can be more empathetic when someone tells you their story of leaving school after 4th grade.
Hank: That is how it was back then.
Me: For some.
Me: Era uma vez (once upon a time) before the revolution (April 25, 1974) your education ended at the end of 4th grade unless your family could afford to educate you further. Think about that. It didn’t matter if you were smart, it didn’t matter if you loved learning with your whole heart, if you were poor you went to work and if you were wealthy you continued on. Can you imagine leaving school in a month and never going back?
Hank: (pause) No.
Me: Your Avó Dalia (grandmother) was devastated to leave school. Your Avô Alfredo (grandfather) went to apprentice to be a carpenter and Dalia worked in the fields, helped take care of your tias and tios (aunts and uncles), then she went and worked in factories. After the revolution one of the important policies that everyone fought for was education for all. The key word in that sentence is fought. It was so important to the people of Portugal to end the stunting of education that they fought for all children to be able to stay in school, for you to be able to stay in school! That is why neighbors, family, strangers when they hear how old you are they tell you the story of how they had to leave school, because they are so proud and grateful that you don’t have to. You are truly privileged, Hank.
Hank: If the revolution didn’t happen that means my papa would also have finished school when he was nine years old, too?
Me: Yes. Our family is a proud, funny, loud, charming, working class, amazing group of loving people, but your papa would have never become a doctor (Phd) without the revolution or the money to keep him in school.
Hank: And papa would have never gone to study in America and you would never have met and I wouldn’t have you and papa as my parents and Molly as my sister.
Me: (nodding) When someone confesses that they left school at your age your answer should never be (annoyed), “I know, I know, jeesh.” You should listen to what they’re saying with an open heart and say, “I am so lucky. I love school.”
Hank: I never thought of it that way.
Me: Another reason you are privileged. You never had to. And now on to the second part of your query: Yes, for the rest of your life from this day forward someone will ask about your future plans: job, wife or no wife, kids or no kids, house, car, the whole enchilada.
Hank: What’s an enchilada?
Me: (shaking my head) You’re so European. An enchilada… never mind it means everything. (starting over) Hence forth for the rest of your life until you’ve become stable and established people will pepper you with question as to your intentions.
Hank: Why? That is so frustrating. I don’t know! How am I supposed to know?
Me: Some people do. My childhood friend Lisa wanted to become a chemical engineer when she was your age and guess what?
Me: She is a chemical engineer.
Hank: How did she know that way back then?
Me: She just did. Now, I have a bit of a trick that worked well for me when I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life so the next time someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up you can say, “I don’t know what I want to do yet but I plan on being very happy.”
Hank: That’s good. I like that. That is what I will say.
Me: It works well and changes the subject away from the epic life quandary and on to the satisfying notion to live a happy, lovely life.
Hank: That’s perfect because I don’t know about the future. I might have a job that pays my bills and then my happiness comes from my life and my friends and my family.
Me: Truth! That’s what I did until I moved to Portugal. I had a string of jobs that paid the bills and then focused on my passions after work. A smart, thoughtful answer will get you far. You don’t have to let other people pressure you. Never take other people personally! You do you and grow and learn and your future will unfold as it should. I can’t imagine what your future will look like. The world is changing so fast, far too fast for you at nine or I at 37 to be able to answer the question of what you will be when you grow up, but you will work hard to be happy. That we know for certain.
Hank: People ask you what I want to be?
Me: All the flippin’ time! It’s madness. It’s far too rushed.
Me: But it was the same when I was young, but unlike you I always had an answer until I was about 19 and then I had no clue. When I was your age I wanted to be a flower arranger.
Hank: What’s that?
Me: The person who makes bouquets at the flower shop.
Hank: Oh, so you wanted to own a flower shop?
Me: No, I just wanted to be the arranger. Then I wanted to be a writer.
Hank: You are a writer.
Me: But then I forgot I wanted to be a writer when I fell behind in school and started struggling with reading and writing. I thought writers must be smart and I knew I was stupid
Hank: You’re not stupid.
Me: Well, I know that now, but I was convinced then that I was stupid because I didn’t know I was dyslexic SO because I could barely read or write I decided I would be an actress.
Hank: You did?
Me: Oh yes. This was my longest phase. I never got one lead roll and was a constant chorus girl but I was determined and auditioned for everything. Then I decided I wanted to be an anthropologist.
Hank: A what?
Me: A doctor who studies people and cultures. It was the only “real job” I could find that felt utterly romantic and adventurous. I wanted to travel the world and immerse myself in cultures and then observe how those cultures grew and thrived, but all the while I was making art and taking art classes and throwing pottery and was always in the art building and covered in mud or in museums sitting quietly in front of art to sooth my weary soul.
Hank: But you’re not an anthropologist.
Me: No, I dropped out of school. I couldn’t keep up with the reading and the work. I didn’t want to get a Phd and my grades were average at best and school was expensive and so I got a job and just worked but I spent my vacations making fruit trays and doing kitchen prep in the kitchens of these fancy craft schools in North Carolina and Tennessee so that I could take more pottery classes and learn from working potters. I worked all year to be an artist for a few weeks and then I got a second job managing a ceramics and photography studio. I taught classes and I met your papa and I realized that I was an artist, there was no helping it, so I went back to school and then I got pregnant and then I moved to Europe and then I learned Portuguese and I remembered I had always wanted to be a writer so I started doing that and then I had your sister and then I got sick, but I kept writing, and now I am making working with clay again and teaching workshops and my RA/AS is more manageable and through it all I have always, always, always promised myself I would be happy. And I have been. I am happy every single day and I am loved and I consider that to be the success of my life.
Hank: Wow. You have done so much.
Me: Life is not a strait line, Hank. It is a winding road. It is an adventure.
Hank: I don’t know what I want to do yet, but I have decided to be very happy.
Me: No one ever called you dumb.
Hank: Not one day.