I’ve told the story before of my first attempt to get involved in aviation, and my absolutely dismal failure.
It was sophomore year at Glastonbury High School in rural central Connecticut. A US Navy recruiter came to speak to students who were open to enlisting in the military.
That may seem like no big deal today, but in 1973, the US had just left Viet Nam and the gaping national wound was nowhere near being healed.
Enlisting was not a popular choice in my day.
Before the start of class, I approached my geometry teacher to ask for a dismissal so I could attend the recruiter’s presentation. She knocked down my request without a second thought. My less than stellar class performance and erratic return of homework assignments told her that I was not pilot material, and she made that opinion clear to all within earshot.
I didn’t get to hear what the Navy recruiter had to say. I didn’t become a pilot as a teenager, or even get started on the path to pilot-hood. Instead I doubled down on my listlessness, got cozy with the unending boredom of high school, and made absolutely no attempt to find meaning in my education or a productive direction to my life.
I’d like to think I was alone in this experience, but I’m not. Decades later my daughter experienced a substantially similar thing at the same age, when a teacher swatted my daughter’s hopes to the ground like an annoying insect.
The teacher asked my then 16-year old what she’d like to do for a living when she grew up. When my girl answered, “I want to be a fighter pilot,” the female teacher made her try again, saying, “That’s a man’s job.”
Yes, that actually happened in the 21st Century in a well ranked public high school.
Too often — far too often — the natural response when in conversation with a kid who shows a sudden, unexpected desire to do something different, is to squash that dream flat. To crush it. To kill it. To make it clear that the kid doesn’t have what it takes and probably never will.
Now think about that for a minute. Just consider what that sort of entirely negative feedback does to the hopes and dreams of a young impressionable boy or girl.
In my case, it put me off the idea of flying for a decade. It took me that long to realize that what others thought I was capable of doing had nothing to do with what I was actually capable of doing.
With that realization well established in my head, I did become a pilot and created an entirely new career as a result of achieving that goal.
Sadly, we as a culture have become proficient at trying to mold the young into duplicates of ourselves. If at all possible, slightly less ambitious, less successful duplicates.
We ignore their dreams and do our best to insert limitations into their lives. It’s as if there is a national obsession with holding back our progeny so that we can feel better about the decisions we’ve made in life and the level of success we’ve achieved.
“No” has become a thoroughly appropriate response to a kid who thinks big and has the audacity to share their vision with others.
“You can’t do that,” has become the anthem we adults are most comfortable with.
“That’s not a practical goal” sounds awfully good to someone who doesn’t have a clue how to get from here to there, even if that offhand rejection is a brutal disappointment to the dreamer who showed enough faith to share their hopes.
It has become entirely appropriate in modern culture to do our best to obstruct the path of those who are coming up behind us. Amazingly enough, there seems to be nothing shameful or disreputable about admonishing children to think small, aim low, and accept a lesser existence than they might have hoped to achieve.
Thankfully, this astoundingly short-sighted behavior isn’t universal. There are people pushing back against the tide. Folks with vision, and drive, and a faith that kids can find success at the things they dream of, even if they do have weird haircuts, tattoos, questionable fashion sense, and less than melodic musical preferences. They know that at 15 years of age, we, the readers of this column, were not the men and women we would one day become.
We too were a little slow in some respects. We hadn’t developed the judgment that would come to us later. We didn’t have any money to speak of, since most of us were still unemployed. Our grades might not have been impressive, our verbal skills could have used some brushing up, and our resistance to taking pretty much any aspect of life seriously might have been perceived as a serious limitation.
But somebody took a liking to us and showed us the first few steps on the path that led us to where we are today. Thank goodness.
I sincerely hope you are one of those few shining lights.
Let’s be inappropriate for a change. When a kid who gets squeamish at the sight of blood tells us he or she wants to be a surgeon, let’s consider encouraging them instead of going the other way.
When our often clumsy and frequently accident-prone niece or nephew announces they want to become an Olympic gymnast, let’s help find them a coach.
And when a daydreamer with low test scores and a less than vibrant drive to excel at geometry says they want to become a pilot, let’s share a link to the Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and see to it that daydreaming becomes a little more focused in the future.
It’s at least worth a shot, don’t you think?