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June, 2012

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

by Valerie

Very young kids are rarely asked questions. They are usually the ones doing the asking, while adults either patiently answer, suggest they go look it up, ignore them, or bluntly tell them to mind their own business. The phrase that comes to mind is "Children should be seen and not heard." It was repeated endlessly; it was my childhood mantra.

People who know me now might be surprised to learn that I was a rather shy and reticent child. I spent much more time watching animals, playing alone, reading, and drawing than chatting with friends and relatives. For my first couple of years, I did not yet have a sister, but I had a well-educated mother who read to me, and we had pets, and an interesting backyard. I was lucky to have some accommodating adults that did take the time to answer my questions. My preschool years were spent in Joliet, where our back neighbors were both school teachers. I have one recollection about that back fence. It was covered with plants and their attendant bugs and such. I asked how spiders make their webs. The specific answer has dimmed with the passage of time, but I suspect it was quite satisfactory, as I cannot remember a time after that when I did NOT know how spiders make their webs.

I often wanted to know the names of creatures I found. Our household library soon came to include a fair number of field guides, especially the little Golden Guide series of small, cheap paperbacks covering insects, reptiles, pond life, and fungi. Books gave me answers, but they never asked me questions. That was my role.

One of the first questions I can remember being asked as a kid was the quintessential ice-breaker that adults not used to speaking with children often ask. I was probably about 5 years old when my grandmother and my aunt with whom she lived asked me about my future vocational aspirations. I was caught completely off guard. How the heck should I know what I wanted to be when I grew up? I couldn't even yet imagine being an adult, let alone plan out how I would deal with it. I remember that around that time I was particularly intrigued with crayfish, and was learning all about them; how they molted, reproduced, fed themselves and evaded predators. I was mulling over this sort of information while sitting on the sofa during a visit to my aunt's house, and was totally unprepared to be hit with a pop quiz sort of question on an unrelated topic. I had never even thought about how I would eventually earn a living. I came up with a spur-of-the-moment answer in keeping with the surprise of the query: I wanted to be a beachcomber.

After I gave that retort, I thought about it and realized that I probably really WOULD like to be a beachcomber when I grew up. Five year olds do not consider such minutia as health care, utilities, or hurricanes. I could live in a shack by the ocean, take a morning walk every day, and see what the tide had brought in, scavenge driftwood and other detritus for furniture, and eat fish, crabs, and fruit that washed ashore. In fact, this seemed a perfect answer to give whenever anybody else asked me the same thing. It was weird enough that they couldn't immediately think up an appropriate response, so the conversation would quickly die. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had discovered that having a disarming reply to an unexpected topic gave me a bit of an advantage in the conversation. After hearing that answer, few of my older relatives had much else to say to me, which was fine by me. I was off the hook.

During my school years, I hardly thought about the future. I was busy at the moment, and something that might happen years from then just didn't interest me. Nothing in school seemed to demand preparing for, or thinking about, the adult part of my life. I followed my interests in art, music, and biology. Music turned out to be the most social of my activities. It was something I could do during school, and other people were involved, so I had friends with a common interest. Being in band meant going to competitions and festivals as well as traveling on field trips. Our family also took annual camping trips to various parts of the country, and we spent plenty of time fishing, mushroom hunting, canoeing, and just enjoying time spent outside. I liked doing research on my various interests at the libraries in Joliet and Chicago, gardening, creating artwork in various media, and caring for our dogs and other pets. But then my final year of high school rolled around and I was once again asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

As a teenager, this question suddenly seemed a lot more important. By this time, I realized that beachcombing would probably not cut it. I had to come up with a major when I applied to colleges, so that meant I must figure out what to do about my future. I liked art, and the Chicago Art Institute was conveniently close by, but I had never taken criticism of my artwork very well, so I thought I'd have a hard time learning anything from my teachers. I liked canoeing and other outdoor activities, but I couldn't see anybody paying me to do those; they were obviously avocations. I also liked biology, but I couldn't imagine specifically what I would be paid to actually DO as a biologist. And using biology to enter the medical profession just sounded too difficult. I'd heard about the stiff competition in the pre-med curriculums and balked at the idea of working that hard. That left music. I had been playing gigs and teaching lessons for four years, and was paid for these. The path of least resistance seemed to indicate that I could just keep doing the same things but get better at them by going to college.

So I taught and performed music for thirty years. It was not a particularly lucrative profession, but I enjoyed it and did it relatively well. I still like performing, but never landed a full-time orchestral position, and so now I just do the occasional gig. This leaves me with time to spend playing outside, watching wildlife, and messing about with a number of other interests, such as photography and entomology. And I still like to get out and be a beachcomber every now and then, but I am glad I never tried to make it into my life's ambition. It's comforting to know that we do wise up with age, and the follies of youth can remain amusing anecdotes to be fondly remembered.

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