The Hallowed Halls
I went to learn with the Jesuits for seven years, post-elementary. It cost my parents plenty (and I’m forever grateful, as there is no doubt whatsoever that my education there helped make me the man I am today), but the education was top-notch.
The facilities however, did not always reflect the cost of attendance.
The cafeteria was a converted garage. The ceilings were low, the tables and chairs uncomfortable, and the food horrendous. The main building’s basement used to be a gymnasium back in the day, but in my time served to house six classrooms. Four of them were large and spacious. Two were the old showers. No windows, sealed brick walls. Only one place on campus that students regularly went had air conditioning: the President’s Office, which is where my homeroom was during my senior year. 15 minutes in the morning, and that was it for the day.
I admit that the heading is a little heavy, but it’s going to a larger point, trust me.
These days, much has changed. The old cafeteria has been demolished in favor of a new eating establishment, which itself is attached to a new gymnasium. The basement classrooms have been removed, and the area is again a common area, thanks to the new building now firmly attached to the old one. Aforementioned new building has AC in more places than the whole campus did 15 years ago.
The students of today walk the path I (in some minor way) helped forge.
Gatherings of Old
Whenever I gather with friends from that era though, we can’t help but marvel at how different — different better, usually — things are compared to when we were there. It’s the classic “Life sucked, and we LIKED IT!” mentality, coming from folks like myself, who lived a life of opportunity. It’s a weird feeling to reflect on.
We recall — FONDLY! — the atrocious food of the cafeteria, the cramped shower-cum-classrooms, the sweat that would form by 10AM as summer neared. And it all got me thinking: why is that? What it is about the crappy times we shared that makes us long for their return, and resent that they’re not imposed on the present generation?
Shared Adversity and Personal Identity
There are two factors at work, I think.
The first is that struggles can (but certainly do not always) bring people closer together. Misery, company, you know the deal. People band together to overcome — or in the case of crappy cafeteria food, wait out until graduation — whatever adversity is being tossed at them. It’s not happenstance that commiserate has the etymology that it does.
The second is an inflated sense of self-worth that I think just about everyone possesses. Most people think that they’re good people, at least in their own eyes. Their surrounding situations may often be less than ideal, but inside, they think themselves on the right track. Couple this sense of “I’m decent” with “I slogged through the snow uphill to school”, and you arrive at “Everyone should walk uphill in the snow to school” pretty quickly. Life was rough, sure, but you came out the other side OK, right? The hardship build character, and taking it easy will certainly keep those character-building callouses from forming.
The Paradox of Parenthood
So this shared adversity, overcome in the past, molded a generation into what it is today. Sometimes life sucked, but we fought through it and we came out the other side better for it. Huzzah adversity!
But then you’ve got parenthood. Ugh.
Parents, in general, want life to be good for their kids; want them to have the things they didn’t have. Trouble with that is, providing all of that robs the character-building exercise detailed in the last few paragraphs.
Ease wins out every time, too. My daughters have a giant backyard, a playground with a slide, a trampoline, four TVs in the house, two gaming consoles, and for the older one, a computer in her room. They are 8 and 5. To compare, I had an Atari and an NES by 8 (if memory serves). There was a swingset in my postage-stamp backyard, but rust overtook it quickly. My first computer came in my sophomore year of high school. If you go back another generation, the differences become even more stark: no TVs, no money, and at times, a dearth of hope. Thank Nixon for that, I guess.
We want to give our kids the stuff that we really wanted but couldn’t have. And we usually do, because it not only makes them happy, it makes us happy in a vicarious sort of way.
What I Wonder Now
It’s no secret that I’m doing pretty well in life. I’m no zillionaire or anything, but I can pay my bills and eat fresh food and splurge every now and again if my heart desires it. It’s led me to be an enabler for that give-the-kids-the-stuff-you-wanted mindset that I described in the last paragraph.
All that’s good, I suppose: I want my family to be happy, and not HAVE to put up with some of the crap I did growing up, if at all possible. It’s not referred to as “crap” because it’s a pleasure to put up with.
But it gets me to thinking: what will my kids have for their shared adversity? What force will make the next generation band together and stand tall? Will there be anything at all, even? My generation doesn’t really have a defined stand; my stories are local and anecdotal. Will the next generation be the same? And if so, what in the world will their problems be? We built the new buildings, renovated the old ones, improved the food, and in general took care of the things that both annoyed us and shaped us… what’s left?