That is a question that grade school teachers love to ask their pupils. I remember writing far too many essays on the subject when I was a child. And what I wanted to be was different from year to year—from scientist (general) to astronomer (more specific) to performing artist to writer to orator. The indecisiveness ended in the sixth grade when I decided I wanted to become a lawyer. Of course, I didn’t know back then what being a lawyer really meant except that my own parents were lawyers and I thought they were cool.
But I don’t intend this column to be about what I wanted to be when I grew up. This is about why most end up becoming something other than what they dreamed of as children.
Several months ago, a fellow blogger, a grade school teacher fondly called Tito Rolly in the Filipino blogging community (he’s much, much older than most of us), posted an essay in his web log (http://titorolly.blogspot.com) the gist of which was that not all of us were born to make rocket ships. Some would grow up to become ultra achievers while others would lead average lives.
Months later, members of a group web log called Blogkadahan (http://www.blogkadahan.com) posted their entries on “What I want to be when I grow up.” Now, these people were by no means teenagers on the verge of deciding what course to take up in college. They were full-grown adults, most already parents, who were reminiscing on childhood dreams and looking back on choices they made. Surprisingly or not, quite a number of them did not have definite ideas about what they wanted to be. Those who did ended up becoming something else instead. Most, anyway. Reasons varied. From financial difficulties to migration to motherhood to lack of real opportunities in one’s chosen profession
Last Sunday, a necrological service was held for a first cousin of my husband. As it goes with Filipino families, the necrological service was a family reunion of sorts. I was talking with my sister-in-law whose oldest child is a freshman college student. About two months ago, I forwarded the contact information for the Culinary Arts Center (CCA) to mother and son after learning that the son dreamed of becoming a chef. I asked how it had turned out. According to my sister-in-law, CCA was way too expensive and her son has decided to become a professional photographer instead.
All of that got me thinking about why many of us end up being something different from what we intended to be. Even I who wanted to become a lawyer, and in fact became one, ended up not doing a lawyer’s work at all. Even before my career could really take off, I decided I wanted to be a full time mother the moment I held by firstborn in my arms.
The question is whether it is always a matter of personal choice. If it is, how freely do we make our choices?
If we go by Tito Rolly’s thesis, it would seem that there are inborn factors that already limit our choices. If we believe that “intelligence”, in its broadest and most common context, is genetically inherited, then children of parents with average or below average intelligence cannot, from the very start, hope to end up in professions and/or vocations that require above-average intelligence. In short, they would have fewer choices. And those few choices will not include the best ones.
If we consider a number of the Blogkadahan essays, then we can say that the inability to make choices early in life may be a significant factor too. Then, there is the financial aspect which necessarily affects the quality of education that children receive especially during the grade school years when the foundation for knowledge is laid. Who can deny that the ones who get quality education have an edge every step of the way?
The glaring reality is that over 70% of the Philippines’ public elementary school graduates can barely read and perform the basic math operations. The sadder reality is that most of these children will not be financially able to enroll in private high schools where they can at least have a chance to make up for the shortfalls of the public elementary school system. More than 90% of them will go to public high schools that cannot equip them with the skills and tools that they will need to qualify for admission in the better universities and colleges.
Therefore, when we consider what we want to be, we draw a line between what we dream of and what we can be in the more pragmatic sense based on all these limitations. Some of them, we have little control over as individuals, like the current general state of our education system. But some factors we can do something about. Probably the most basic is to provide a home environment that encourages learning and discovery. No magic solutions like what those infant milk formulas claim–that with their “complete” vitamins and minerals, our kids will automatically grow up intelligent. There is even one that shows a child on the stairs and he manages to reach the top without going though every step. You know, like a short cut. Ridiculous, really, especially if it was meant to illustrate acceleration. As though infant milk formula is a comparable substitute for real learning.
The school that my kids attend has a better approach. It operates on two basic principles: 1) that everyone is educable (no such thing as I’m bad in math) and 2) that excellence is not a goal but a standard (no resting on one’s laurels; one has to keep earning them). All that with due consideration to special talents that make every child unique. The school is a place where the question what do you want to be when you grow up becomes irrelevant. The operative statement is when I grow up, I can be what I want to be because I am preparing for it today.
Definitely no infant milk formula solution there. Rather, it is all a matter of systematically removing every limitation—obstacle—so that the children can have more and freer choices. If a child knows he can, that he has the skills, then he is able to believe in himself. He becomes confident that he can be the best in whatever field he chooses. It is, for me, a good principle to live by.
“Inherent” intelligence aside, I think we can all make rocket ships if we wanted to and if we can acquire the skills necessary to go towards that direction.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to schools and facilities to provide our children with quality education, we need to make the most of the opportunity. For those who have to rely on the public elementary and high school system, we can supplement at home what the kids don’t get from school. Perhaps, nothing high-faluting like teaching them astro physics. But something as basic as encouraging conversations and discussions rather than watching those ridiculous teleseryes and reality shows, as if there is anything real about them.