The Common Good
March 2005

Advice to a Young Man

by Ed Spivey Jr. | March 2005

Fortunately, social structures are well established. If you're cool.

After years of home schooling,

After years of home schooling, a 12-year-old boy I know has decided he is finally ready for the ruthless, dog-eat-dog world that is called, for lack of a kinder term, middle school. Clearly, this is a brave child. After all, experts say junior high is the most traumatic period of adolescence, a time when hormones are raging, moods are shifting, and a child’s brain is actually changing shape and size (due primarily to the amount of brain cells that must be replaced each day after watching reality television).

Granted, this particular child has advantages, given his loving parents and the bucolic surroundings that have nurtured him with nearby woodlands to explore, farm animals to care for, and even a three-legged cat to add a bit of character. (I briefly considered adding some character to my own home, but neither cat seemed interested in making the sacrifice. Indeed, they found the idea so profoundly unsettling that, for a brief moment, they actually stopped licking themselves.)

But is this child ready for such a change? He’ll need to brace himself for the first big difference: the ride to school. His day will now begin on a bus which, like every school bus manufactured in the United States, has that one seat specifically designed to make the new kid feel uncomfortable. And even though it only seems like everybody is staring at him, the fact that they really are is not something he should think about. And it goes without saying the bus driver will be a guy who needs a cigarette, needs it bad, but can’t have one for 12…more…stops.

Most important, this former homeschooler will need a good backpack to be self-sufficient throughout the day. (This avoids the need to go to his locker, unnecessarily exposing him to young toughs whose primitive motion acuity limits their prey to those who stand still.) His well-meaning parents will probably offer an old backpack covered in "War Is Not the Answer" stickers, which, for reasons that might not be obvious to homeschoolers, must be immediately torn off. ("Yo, Gandhi, wait up," a young tough will shout, adding cleverly, "give me your lunch money.") Alas, as a high-ranking federal official recently pointed out, you go to school with the backpack you have, and not the backpack you wish you had.

AT THE NEW school, this homeschooler will encounter a completely different style of learning. No more cocoa at the kitchen table during morning study time. No more afternoons of discovery at the pond. You want science? "Here’s a test tube, kid. Break it and your parents gotta pay." (Hopefully, it’s the chemistry teacher talking, otherwise the vice principal is in another one of his random drug-testing moods.)

But the most demanding part of the new school’s curricula will be physical fitness, a strange daily ritual that consists primarily of a red-faced man ("Coach") teaching important life skills - such as jumping jacks - at which the students always seem to fail. Although, according to him ("Coach"), this is because the students "have an attitude."

Fortunately, the social structures of school are well established to help an inexperienced student learn the most important goal of junior high: to be popular. And it’s a good thing the cool kids are there to help point out who is worthy to associate with and who, sadly, is not. A note of caution, however: Social groupings can change. One day the Shia kids might seem cool, but the next it’s the Sunni kids who are "making the scene." A new student should choose wisely and avoid a lifetime of consequences which, in my own case, includes a deep regret at hanging out with the kids who turned out to be from [shudder] Nerdistan.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

IMPORTANT Note: My December column, which contains a humorous reference (or two) about The Purpose-Driven Life, prompted several negative letters from readers. I hadn’t got this much mail since the time I hypothesized that the pope went to bed in Sesame Street pajamas instead of more traditional papal sleepware. (It was a comfort thing.)

To be clear, when I wrote that the success of Rick Warren’s best seller might result in a sequel called The Chauffeur-Driven Life - a line that comedy experts still insist is actually quite witty - I meant no disrespect. After all, this book has had a positive influence on thousands of Christians. That said, however, I remind the reader that "Hrumphs" is a humor column, and that laughter is the best medicine, unless you need antibiotics, in which case laughter should not be expected to reduce swelling. Moreover, poking fun, especially at ourselves, is a sign of a balanced and healthy life. And if we can’t make fun of ourselves, well, then, who CAN we make fun of? I mean, aside from people who wear those really thick glasses that make their eyes all bulgy and whatnot. Anyway, I hope this clears things up. - ES

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