Monday, September 1, 2008

My claim to fame

Does anyone else use rush hour traffic to solve the problems of the world? No? It's just my husband and I? Hmm. It's probably brought on by excessive amounts of NPR. Regardless, we decided to take the boys to Disneyland last week and passed the hour in the OC snail caravan by figuring out how to cure society's ills. We started with who should take the White House this fall and then the conversation ranged all over from "White guilt: how long should we feel it?" to "Entitlement: a social cancer." I will now announce our diagnosis of the root of our current social ills: Crying Girl.

You remember her, right? Two seasons ago on American Idol? The little blonde girl they showed weeping over that crazy-haired Sanjaya like he was the second coming of the Beatles? The one we then saw in everything from interviews on Good Morning America to YouTube spoofs? She was a student in my third period language arts class and man, did that whole kerfluffle screw up my school year.

I taught 8th grade language arts for five years, along with a creative writing elective and a class geared toward high acheiving kids who were the first in their family to be on a college track. In that class, I worked with the kids to set goals for their education and career. Most of them were Hispanic and never knew anyone besides their teachers that went to college so it was a whole new world for them. I asked them to think about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Girls usually wanted to be pediatricians or hair stylists and boys wanted to be NBA players. Pretty much without exception. That's right, even the five foot tall ones who wouldn't go out for the school basketball team. They were still pretty sure they would make it in the NBA. For them, I asked them to choose a back up plan in case they blew their knee out their senior year in high school: how about sports management or coaching or physical therapist? We usually found an acceptable compromise.

The last couple of years of teaching, things changed. Instead of binders covered in stickers and pictures of favorite singers and actors like I saw my first few years, girls now had Paris Hilton on prominent display. Planned fights broke out several times so they could be captured and rebroadcast via cell phone cameras. Boys cooked up elaborate stunts for their own shots at Youtube stardom. My teacher compadres and I tried to hold the line against fame without merit. I had so many heart-to-hearts with students about making your way in the world on hard work and talent. In my college prep class, at least, I felt like I made some inroads.

Until Crying Girl.

Our little middle school universe exploded. A girl who only her three closest friends could pick out from a line up became an overnight sensation. Reporters followed our students home after school trying to find out more about her. The kids began to taste reflected "glory" as their quotes appeared in the LA paper. It was madness. Nevermind that she was perfectly behaved and had straight A grades. That got her nothing. Being caught by the camera crying, though....she punched her ticket, all right. She ended up failing 8th grade by the time it was all said and done, anyway. Her parents pulled her out of school for every interview and multiple trips to the big news programs in NYC, then didn't hold her accountable for the missed work. (Although somehow her failing grade became my fault by the end of year, nevermind the many make up packets I assembled or phone calls and emails home I sent). They got her an agent instead of a tutor.

Worst of all, though, was that as teachers, we lost any leverage we had with the kids that year when it came to merit versus empty fame. I realized in a few short years that for this entire generation of kids, it didn't matter why they were famous, just that they were famous at all. There's no thought to the consequence of notoriety. They want their fifteen minutes in the spotlight and they're sure they can parlay that into a beachside mansion and a garage full of sports cars. And if not, hey....there's always the lottery.

I've left the classroom now to focus on my little family, although someday I'll return. I have two boys who may never be famous at all. If I do my job right, they won't be. But they'll be heroes to their own kids and wives, with a presence far longer lasting than Crying Girl and her Idol love.


Kimberly said...

That last paragraph gave me shivers...the good kind. I hope to give my kids that same gift.

Alison Wonderland said...

What?! You taught her?! Wow what was she like? You know you're like, famous!

Seriously, this is so sad but so true. I'm not sure how we've managed to create this generation (hiring agents rather than tutors may have something to do with it) but it really scares me. And why on earth would anyone want to be famous anyway? Rich? Sure, but not famous. That's why I want to be a writer. I'm ok with name recognition as long as they don't know my face. ;)

Heather of the EO said...

Yes, what Kimberly said--that last paragraph rocks the party.
So does the whole post, really. So engaging, sucking us in with crying girl! Of course I remember her! I couldn't get over how disturbing it was to see that played over and over and over and over...
Great post. Again. I'm so glad you Write Stuff.

Nancy said...

omigosh - it's scarey - I still think I should be curing Aids in Africa or something - but intellectually and spiritually, I know that I can do the most good by reaching out to my neighbor or teachings kids how to read at the local library or being kind to my husband (good example to kids, right?)

Janette Rallison said...

Great post. It should be published in the Wallstreet Journal. It should make you famous. (Or maybe not.)

Actually, you should tell your kids that the easiest way to get famous is to become a writer. Look at JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyers. (Okay, I'm totally lying about the easy part, but maybe they'll improve their writing grades, nonetheless.)