What some of you now experience for the first time is the other end from what I experienced basically every day from the time I was 8 until I was 19, and in that sense, what my parents experienced every day lo those 11 years that aged me to a lifelong 50. So if you have seemingly impossible free minutes to humor someone who thinks his counsel might be of small benefit to you during a task that is clearly already the most daunting one in this already so daunting era, please just indulge me a few small words of advice, encouragement, warning, and hope.
The unnaturalness your children currently experience in class was already the unnaturalness of the classroom for some kids literally every day of their lives. Had my schooling just been to leave me in the Pratt Free Library every day from 5-18, maybe I could have read the entire contents, but instead I was locked into classrooms for which I had absolutely no ability to stay attentive or complete tasks, and over those years, savantish abilities the whole world assured me were so prodigious that my future at the top of whatever field I chose was assured, wore away to a hollow nothing, and any hope for a youth of bright future inhaled by a spiritual void that eventually turned to inner horror that to this day, stares me down at any moment of its choosing.
I’m almost 40. I obviously didn’t have kids and I probably won’t have kids of my own. In some ways I thank god for that every day. Raising kids could play to all my organizational and emotional weaknesses, and the daily sight of their struggles could be a hall of mirrors that relive all sorts of bad memories for me. But we’re just two days into this school year, and so many peers of mine have grade-school kids and I’m hearing stories about their meltdowns in quarantine that feel quite familiar, as though ghosts from the 1990s are being raised.
I never rued the day I didn’t have kids, but I always rued the lack of love that came with it. In my 20s, mental health had so put me to the rack that I couldn’t help but make a de facto assumption that I was quite literally unlovable. I watched as one good friend after another found love, found meaning and mission, and amid all the frustrations of living, found joy.
I’m not telling you anything you haven’t figured out already, but your joy is about to be as sorely tested as it has ever been in your lifetimes. I know that because I lived it for a decade as a kid with some of the most agonizing disabilities on earth, disabilities that only seared their lifelong impact into my mind so much more because they seemed to come from a person who had so much ability that everybody sometimes assumed he was faking it and his inabilities came in part from a lack of character.
In the next year or so, the parenting is the job, just as it was for my parents. You will watch as the kids you thought you knew become unrecognizable from hourly agonizing frustrations, and their agony will be your agony. This all will continue, and it won’t get easier. Your kids will melt down many times, and all but the saints among you will melt down many times on your kids. There will be times when they blame you for their failures, and there will even be times when you blame them. Many will be the times you both doubt each other’s good intentions, and you will even doubt each other’s love. There will be a museum of regrettable phrases said over the next year which everyone will remember forever. And at some point, many of you and many of your children will lose control in ways you’d have previously found unforgivable. All it takes is hearing and reading couple stories about Zoom schooling to see almost identical similarities to my own childhood. Every previous familial assumption, every fabric, every bond, is going to be tested to the existential marrow. However much you’ve braced yourselves already, brace yourselves more.
People shouldn’t lie to you, the consequences of moments like these are lifelong. Most of your kids will develop all kinds of skills you neither thought they’d acquire nor have to acquire from a moment like this, but it will probably leave them with a lifelong anxieties – not medical DSM anxieties, though no one tragically doubts that lifelong mental malady can be forged in moments like this, but rather anxieties about what can happen, what will happen, what should happen. No matter what’s going on in your houses right now, they know as well as you do that something is very, very rotten. They not only are struggling, but they see how their parents are struggling, and they see how their parents are struggling on their behalf, which only makes them feel the need to struggle more, and they realize that if their parents who love them so much cannot make the world right for them, then something about the world must be very very wrong. The majority of these kids will live well into the 22-century (and they will), but all of them know now what kids like me could only intuit. That there are a lot of people out there who claim to have their good interests at heart who really, really don’t. They don’t take education seriously, they don’t take providing for the future seriously, and they leave people with good intentions in the lurch for their own self-indulgence.
Then as now, I was a know-it-all little shit. At 10 years old, I couldn’t tie my own shoes and it took me 90 minutes to figure out 10 long-division problems even though I knew how to solve algebra problems when I was 3. I didn’t really believe that most of my teachers or schools had my best interests at heart, and I don’t even believe it much today, but because I was that know-it-all little shit – installed with a lifelong belief that I was smarter than everybody from the time I was 3, I made sure to know exactly what was going on in the world, if only so I could find people whom I could blame and start figuring out in my child-like way how to fix things. I could name all the presidents by the time I was 6, all the kings of England from Henry VIII to the present day by the time I was 7 or 8 (we can thank that Almanac lying around my parents house…), I had most of the Bush and Clinton cabinets memorized, I knew the names of every major world leader and every major new head of state, and believe it or not, I made sure to know every major politician’s positions on the issues, present and past. Kids are information sponges, and whether the subject is sports or music, if they develop passions for a subject, they will learn literally everything about it. And if kids were information sponges, I was a leechy parasite of information who knew more than most of his teachers, yet had a loathesome lack of ability to translate such obvious gifts to the classroom.
I am positive that the one thing kids can learn right now with no trouble at all is history, because they are living it every day, and they will want to know why they are living through what they are. So much of the reason we are here is because Americans do not learn about history, we do not know it, we do not care about it, and we are often called ‘The Land Without History.’ What little effort we give to history is either learned through sanitized traditional right-wing mythologies that have so little to do with the actual experience, or with a giant left-wing mountain of theoretical academic editorializing which makes blanket assumptions that the lifelong work of centuries of historians was done in bad faith. Neither points of view are at all true, and yet both the traditional myths and all the revisionisms are simultaneously absolutely true.
The one thing that adults can understand (yet usually don’t), that kids never can understand is that two self-contradictory truths can simultaneously be completely true: The original settlers of this country were both escaping religious persecution and also intent on founding persecutory states of their own. The founders of this country were unquestionable heroes of moral vision and courage and simultaneously villainous hypocrites who turned a blind eye to suffering of millions that would impact them deleteriously to alleviate. The pioneers who settled this continent were people of enormous bravery and suffering who gave everything of themselves for their families and descendants to have better lives than them; and simultaneously brutal killers, enslavers, violators and desecrators, either complicit in all manner of injustice or enforcers of that injustice. American wars of the last century were simultaneously efforts to make the world a freer, fairer, more prosperous place, and simultaneously an effort to establish American dominion over the entire world in all but name. And now, your children’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are people who love and loved you and thought we were providing a better future for you, but we were too satisfied by that potential future of infinite prosperity to notice that the prosperity was eroding the future of the entire world, and by the time we noticed, we had no choice but to leave you the most unfair struggle in world history since the generations born into World Wars.
Kids may not be able to understand how people can simultaneously be good and evil yet, but they can be taught both visions of American history, and even if they come to favor one over the other, when they live long enough god willing, they eventually come to realize that the nature of human beings is unreliable, and what each of us thinks is a good cause or an evil one is often not rightly ascribed and always seems to be changing.
So no, whatever you previously thought of as feeling ‘whole’ is not in your future nor in your children’s. It is not in your future because it is so clearly not in the country’s future. History is knocking, history accepts a locked door no more than Stalin did.
But families, now more than ever before in American history, are what we have. In these dark days and darker days to come, you may not always feel love, or trust, or appreciation for your closest dear ones, but in particularly those moments more than ever otherwise, blood really does become so very much thicker than water. You will love each other again, you will trust each other again, you will appreciate each other again, and you will even appreciate and love each other’s company again, but the point of family is not even love, the point of family is survival itself, and the ability for one generation to live on to create the next, which creates the generation after that, and the generation after that, because all that truly matters is that the future is assured, because that itself is the ultimate act of love.
Families, real families, bonded families, are not the ones in which everything goes right. A family where everything goes right is a family that can pursue its bliss elsewhere and has no reason to stay in close touch. The real families are the ones in which everything goes wrong, and yet they still endure. One foot in front of the other, every minute of every day for generation after generation – the continuity of life itself being the great testament to their love. I don’t need to recount, yet again, what my family endured in Europe to survive, my own smallish struggle is example enough of how difficult life can get without bringing genocide or even poverty into it, both of which may yet come for us soon enough. But the joy in living does not come without meaning and mission, and since your kids surely give you meaning, you know what your mission is.
You will know joy again, you will know satisfaction again, but joy grows different with every new experience, and every emotion we feel is a map of all our experiences until that moment. The idea that in our generation, raising children would get easier, or that family bonds would grow weaker, that’s all over now. One day, when your kids graduate their schools, when they get their degrees, when they get married, when they have kids of their own with all the frustrations you experienced, you will experience all the joy that you thought these events might never afford you in eras when they meant so much less, and you’ll feel that joy precisely because getting your kids to that point was very fucking difficult. You will love the closest people in your life more because of the struggles you underwent together, not less, and that you will give you a joy in living that you never thought possible before.
Good luck friends, to you and your kids, and along the way, you will have good luck.