Women and men’s pasts

A very nice man and excellent teacher has dropped off one of the listservs after being a participant for many years. I suspect he lurks. He and I argued over the nature of society now versus what it was years ago.

At one point, after I had described many of the experiences I had had, one after another to illustrate the “bad” things that abounded in ’my day’ (the 40s and 50s), he said my childhood had been “Dickensian”. I was astounded b/c the whole point of my autobiographical sketch was to remind everyone on the List of just how things were in the glory days of the 50s. Nothing unusual, just the common vagaries of life. Yet he failed to grasp that and instead singled out my life experiences as atypical.

Being chased by the police, having a suicide in the family, many divorces, imprisonment of acquaintances or family members, catastrophic job loss, school failure, financial failure, and so on. People were not more moral or kept to a straighter path in “the good old days”. So why did he see those days as a picket fence sort of existence?

What has occurred to me about this arose out of my trying to understand teachers who complain about “kids these days”, as if there’s been some big change in kids. Finally it dawned on me: just as ne’er-do-wells will fill your head with stories of drunken parties and car wrecks and run-ins with the law b/c that’s what they and their circle of friends were doing, so these teachers and their friends were doing homework, obeying teachers, studying for tests, and attending church. What they remember of their school days comes from what they and their circle were doing and simply being unaware of other people unlike themselves.

And so I believe many people think back to their own childhood and, if it was peaceful and fulfilling, think everyone lived like that.

To illustrate this, I will retell a story about a staffing we had one day at the mental health clinic I worked at. Several of us presented children we had assessed and were working with and a rift grew among us. On one side were those who felt these boys were presenting with symptoms such as ’undersocialized aggressive behavior’ and so on; the other side was downplaying these behaviors and discounting them as symptoms.

It became apparent that the breakdown was along sex lines: the female therapists believed the boys were markedly disturbed and the males thought they were quite normal. We guys — to slip into ’guy talk’ – us guys looked at each other and said something along the lines of “should we tell ’em?” We agreed it would be a good idea.

There followed the most horrifying (to the women) list of boyhood atrocities that these women never had heard about. Stealing, fighting, being arrested, climbing freeway-side cliffs (that was me), making .22 pistols out of cap guns (that was me), having the cops at least looking for you (me), and on and on. Now stealing may have been candy or watermelons off the truck and the theater manager may have had the cops looking for us for sneaking into the movies without paying or some such, but even these minor juvenile offenses seemed to horrify the women.

And I was an extremely mild and well-behaved kid. I knew my mother was fragile and that if I messed up too bad, I might wind up in a foster home (I had been in many homes but as a placement by my mom as a kind of temporary baby-sitting), so I wasn’t about to cause her any grief.

Yet here I almost had a wrap sheet by the time I was 12 and had come close to serious injury or death several times. We called it playing.

What do kids do now? Wander malls and do drugs. Not as much fun but probably no more dangerous (kids got molested, too. I remember at age 7 or so running like crazy to the lights of downtown b/c I was told what the hobos would make me do if they caught me – but then I saw a documentary about 15 year old girls riding the trains in the 30s just to get from one place to another and never being bothered).

I’m not saying things haven’t changed. We need to look at that, understand it, and adapt to it. But what teachers present often seems like night and day, Jekyl and Hyde, between “then” and now. I wonder if the fact that so many teachers are women have anything to do with that – they have been ignorant of this behavior until confronted with it among their students so they decide that this has all come about suddenly.

What do you think?

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