In 7th grade, I started acting up. My father died suddenly near the end of 6th grade and when he was gone, my behavior changed. One fine day in 7th grade, Mr. Mac, my language arts teacher, whose first name was Harry, came into my social studies class to convey something to our teacher, Mrs. Gooding. When he entered the classroom, for reasons I still don’t understand, I blurted out, “How’s it hangin’, Harry?” Mr. Mac conveyed his message to Mrs. Gooding, then flicked his finger at me and said, “You.” I immediately panicked. The most serious disciplinary action I’d received during my grade school years was being sentenced to sitting on my hands during story time in Kindergarten (I couldn’t resist the girls’ pony tails). We turned a corner into an outdoor corridor. Suddenly, Mr. Mac stopped, grabbed me by the collar and shoved me against the warm brick wall. His face was ruddy and grave as he pushed it a half-inch from mine. “You will never disrespect me like that again.” He half-breathed, half-growled the words. I nodded my head frantically in agreement and he released me.
In high school, I had a hard-nosed, ex-marine priest as an English teacher. Fr. Lukan, still sporting a buzz cut, as gray as the ashes piled in the ashtray on his desk, explained to us bewildered freshmen that he expected all graded essays returned to him. “The reason for this,” Fr. Lukan explained, “is so that when mommy and daddy come complaining to me because Honey Baby Dolly got a bad grade on his report card, I can show them your work and tell ’em, ‘Honey Baby Dolly got a bad grade because Honey Baby Dolly can’t write worth a damn.’” The truth was clear, and liberating.
At my first job out of college, I worked at a small business owned by the father of a classmate. This man came from Arkansas and, though a devout Catholic, was as hard as the Ozarks. Every day, without exception, he wore a plain button-down long-sleeve shirt (tan or gray), the kind you find at Goodwill, sleeves rolled up carelessly, jeans held up with a brown belt clasped with a big silver buckle adorned with chunks of ivory and turquoise. He wore the same boots every day. He chewed constantly on toothpicks and his idea of a great “supper” (lunch) was Furr’s all-you-can-eat cafeteria. He constantly grumbled that the federal government should issue belts to Americans with their names on the back, “so they know who they’re screwin’.” I once suggested an improvement or two to my work area, such as a vent for AC. It got pretty warm in the cramped space in the back of the building where my workbench was, especially during the sultry summers in Dallas. My boss looked me straight in the eye with an unblinking, manly certitude and said in his deep, sonorous voice, thickly imbued with a southern drawl, “You know where to find sympathy don’tcha? In the dictionary, between sh*t and syphilis.”
I was reminded of these episodes from my youth when I heard about universities offering psychological support to students suffering anxiety after the election results last November. A professor at the once esteemed Yale University gave his students a pass on mid-term examinations because of all the weepy emails he was receiving. He determined his students were simply too distraught to take a test. I remember when only death got you out of a college exam, preferably your own.
More troubling reactions were reported elsewhere. The University of Michigan provided Play-Doh and coloring books to help their students cope with what is the most traumatizing experience they have ever had in their lives thus far. Squeeze it out, kids. Squeeze it out.
Tufts University made arts and crafts available, while the University of Kansas reminded their students that therapy dogs were available every other Wednesday for those distraught over the election. Perhaps the most utterly absurd account comes from Cornell University, which hosted “cry-ins” where teachers provided soft, blubbering students with equally soft tissues and hot chocolate. I was expecting President Obama to utilize his beloved Executive Order privilege to provide government issued pacifiers and blankets to these inconceivably benighted and expensive babies.
Perhaps, I’m not being charitable. Yet, I learned along the way that truth sometimes has a sharp edge. These kids don’t need pandering teachers handing out Play-Doh and Tinker Toys. The teachers are partly to blame in the first place for this abominable display of infantilism. These kids need a Mr. Mac or a Fr. Lukan. Honey Baby Dolly needs to be shoved against the wall and told some inconvenient truth, maybe even slapped in the kisser, as my dad used to say. Maybe they should be put to work.
A great way for kids to develop some callouses, both physically and emotionally, is menial labor. I’ve had many menial jobs from delivering pizza to doing landscaping in 120° heat. We all learned at least two things in my family: work and responsibility. This meant, when you do well, don’t boast. When you screw up, don’t blame someone else. Never make yourself someone else’s problem. Always have at least $20 in your pocket. There was no empty praise in our house.
Throughout high school, my friends and I worked at fast-food restaurants. It was greasy, hot, and humbling. The worst was when a girl you liked came in and saw you there in your ugly polyester uniform smeared with secret sauce and topped by a dumb hat. It had its dangers, too. I remember picking up a friend for school one morning. He came out of the house with big white bandages wrapped around both hands. He worked the grill at McDonald’s and the previous night he slipped on a spot of grease. He tried to save his hands by aiming them at two beef patties sizzling on the grill, but he was a tall, lanky kid with big hands. Those measly patties weren’t enough to save his skin. The worst part was cleaning the grill. It was like a ring in Dante’s Inferno leaning over that hot grill scrubbing away at 2:00 a.m. It was even worse on Friday nights when I had to be at football practice at 8:00 Saturday morning. But, my mom made it clear. If I wanted gas in the car and money in my pocket, it was my responsibility. No handouts at the Jay household, and no car insurance with less than a B average at school.
One summer I worked with the half-crazy older brother of a friend. He decided to start a palm tree trimming service. He climbed the trees while I waited on terra firma for the jagged-toothed fronds to come down and piled everything up into the truck to take to the dump. He liked throwing fledglings at me whenever he encountered a bird’s nest. I became adept at quickly ending the suffering of those little creatures. Severing their heads was better than leaving them to burn to death in the brutal Phoenix heat, or to starve, or to wait for a stray cat to gobble them up. These experiences were formative. They helped ground me and prevented me from thinking I was owed anything.
Do kids work anymore? It seems so many of them now are too busy playing organized club sports arranged and paid for by their parents. Kids seem to hardly have an hour left that isn’t organized for them by adults. And, parents are only too happy to shove electronic devices into their kids’ hands before they can even talk. They gasp that it’s so cute the toddler can already operate the smart phone, certain this is a sign of tremendous intelligence.
By the time that kid is 10 and sitting in my classroom, he can’t focus on anything more than 10 seconds if it isn’t moving. So, his parents take him to their unscrupulous pediatrician who diagnoses “some form of ADHD” and prescribes a medication. But, the doctor doesn’t know what dosage to prescribe. How can he? “Some form of” means everything and nothing. So, a trial period ensues during which time the child complains of headache and nausea until the dosage is correct, which probably just means his body has gotten used to it. By the time he graduates high school, he is awarded a crutch and sent off to college, for which he never doubts someone else must pay. He does advanced studies in identity politics, tolerance and how to enforce it, victimhood, feminism, Shakespearean misogyny, and social media. His diploma confirms that he has earned his sense of entitlement and that society now owes him everything he demands, including a president of his choosing.
In the early 1970s, 18-year-olds were fighting for their lives in the jungles of Vietnam. In the 1940s, they were storming the beaches of Normandy or charging into a meat grinder on Okinawa. Today’s 18-year-olds are playing with clay and coloring because they can’t handle the results of an election. As Jesus said, in the beginning it was not so.
In Plutarch’s “On Bringing Up a Boy,” he laments the proliferation of bad teachers and the ignorance of parents, observing that “the behavior of some fathers is contemptible” because “they put their children into the hands of frauds and charlatans.” Maybe Plutarch saw the future.
Reflecting on children in a text entitled On Anger, Seneca observed:
“We ought to allow him some relaxation, yet not yield him up to laziness and sloth, and we ought to keep him far beyond the reach of luxury, for nothing makes children more prone to anger than a soft and fond bringing-up… He to whom nothing is ever denied, will not be able to endure a rebuff, whose anxious mother always wipes away his tears, whose pedagogus is made to pay for his shortcomings… Flattery, then, must be kept well out of the way of children. Let a child hear the truth, and sometimes fear it; let him always reverence it.” (My emphasis.)
College students today don’t trouble themselves about truth because their teachers tell them daily it doesn’t exist. But, if they really believed the drivel fed them by their teachers, parents, and social media, they wouldn’t need the therapy dogs and hot cocoa.
St. John Chrysostom, following the classical ideal of virtue, also urged prayer: “Furthermore, let him learn to pray with great fervor and contrition.” He also recommended fasting for teenagers on Wednesdays and Fridays. Like the ancients, Chrysostom knew a disciplined body leads to a disciplined soul, which is paramount. “First train his soul and then take thought for his reputation in the world,” Chrysostom writes. Most importantly is what Chrysostom calls the “master principle,” by which he means wisdom. This is the function of philosophy, whereby “he may know God and all the treasure laid up in Heaven, and Hell and the kingdom of the other world.” Given the repudiation of authentic education in favor of training and social conditioning, it is no wonder millennials demonstrate a deplorable incapacity to reason.
Chrysostom said young people need to curb their spirit, both a blessing and a curse, because it produces both good and bad. Menial labor humbles the spirit of a young person. It encourages respect for the value of work and compassion toward those who either lack employment, or who have little hope of attaining anything higher. I recall a Hispanic boy I bussed tables with at a country club when I was 19. He was my age, intelligent, and had dreams. I asked him why he didn’t apply to college. He said he couldn’t afford it. I told him about financial aid. He told me he was in Phoenix illegally. That job was better than anything he could find in his hometown in Mexico.
Menial labor helps young people understand what really matters. It is a powerful antidote to entitlement, and it prepares them to strain toward the summit of wisdom. One could do worse than learn to pray and work.
(Photo credit: Jill Greenberg)