It’s that hateful question every child is asked by some grinning old person who means well but has no real idea of the strain they are placing on a young mind. What do you want to be is basically who do you want to be crammed into one sentence that most of us won’t even answer in a life time. We will do many things, be many things, our personalities will shift with our mood like desert sands and we will be and do more and less than we ever knew we could.
I remember my son’s kindergarten graduation. He was told to decide what he wanted to be when he grew up and this one question put him into such a tailspin of existential dread that he actually became depressed. How could he even hope to know? He was five. We talked about all the lives one person could live in one lifetime and how it was common to change jobs and careers many times as the years passed. In the end he decided he would tell his teacher he wanted to be a stay at home dad and I applauded his decision to think outside the box while coming up with an answer for his kindergarten graduation.
My son is a really good person with a really good heart and he has broken out of every box he has ever been faced with. I don’t think there is a box that can hold him. He’s been thinking outside the box for so long that he’s free in a way few of us will be. That’s why I was confused when he got up on stage after the last twenty five kids had declared their intention of becoming a veterinarian all because the kid before them said that, and stated in a loud voice that when he grew up he wanted to be an underwater treasure hunter. I had never heard that from him. Water had always frightened him and money has never meant a thing. He’s not one of those kids that will read a book for five dollars or clean his room for ten so why the change?
The answer of course is adults. He denied ever saying he wanted to be a stay at home dad, that he’d mentioned it at home but not at school. He’d chosen the safe bet, the manly bet, and the principle came up to me afterwards beaming because he was the only kindergartner who had stuck to his career goal. No he was not a sheep who blurted veterinarian, but he had not been honest, not been himself.
It’s funny how much this little moment has bothered me. It was 13 years ago and yet I still struggle with what happened to his inner authenticity. Had he told them he wanted to be a stay at home dad? And had they reacted the same way they had when he took off his shoes and showed off his blue nail polish? He was five. I had been painting my nails and looked up to see him painting his. I smiled and said, “Nice.” The teacher asked me, “Did you do that? Did you paint his nails?” No I hadn’t, he had, and everyone but me was weirdly upset.
I hate how we treat boys. Honestly I hate how we treat girls too. Society sucks and its patriarchal indoctrination is dehumanizing for both the sexes. We lost two boys in junior high because they didn’t fit into the roles society set for them. They died because of roles. I don’t think a week goes by when I don’t remember their faces. I guess what I want to say here is please don’t ever ask a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Instead maybe ask, “What is the thing that makes you most excited in life?” For my son that was theater and I pray it still is. For my friends daughter, that’s making TickTock dance videos. There are a thousand ways to live on this earth and there are no roles that need to be filled. A boy can be a stay at home dad, a girl can be a detective, I can be a unicorn and hide in my micro studio reaching out to people through WordPress. Be weird, be wild, be tame, be a fruit bat. None of it matters as long as deep down that being is what makes you sparkle.
It’s OK to paint your nails boys. Ladies, shaved heads are sexy. God, please forgive role enforcers who tell children it’s not OK to be who they are. And God forgive the person who told my two friends that Gay wasn’t okay. It was, it is, it always will be. I wished they had lived to see how much the world has changed.
I love you. I’m crying again. We’ve got this. Soldier on my compatriots and do it with sequins.