Here, I promised you fiction on this blog and so far all I've given is, well, blog posts. Oh well. I've hit a bit of a depression tonight, so here's the latest in the blog list.
When we are children, we’re told we can be whatever we want when we grow up. We spend our childhood dreaming of being doctors, firefighters, police, and astronauts. We play games of adventure and fun. We admire actors and musicians and storytellers, imagining what life must be like for those characters we see. Some of us continue to believe this lie well into our adulthood. Some few of us actually achieve their goals of being what they dream.
I was one of those who believed. I’m 39 going on 23 and I fancy myself an author. I have one book out, self-published, as many of you know. Maybe all of you as I’m not sure how many actually read my blog or my webpage. I have a few short stories out there in a few different places, Pill Hill, Wicked East, House of Horror, and the Flash Fiction Offensive. I continue to believe that if I keep up with it, my writing may still be read by others, perhaps a publisher, and it may be bought, bringing in the royalties of a well-known author.
My husband thinks otherwise. He’s a realist. He’s told me many times that in all the time we’ve been married, he’s seen me write, and seen nothing come of it. So, by reason, he thinks maybe I should reconsider my position. Maybe I should set writing aside for a while and get “a real job.” Oh, and my cleaning every night isn’t a real job, and it’s beneath me. In other words, I need a real job that meets his standards for me.
All of this has me thinking. Why do we lie to our children? In today’s society, can anyone really be whatever they want to when they grow up? I see it everywhere in the inner city. Our young black kids are being raised by parents, or in many cases, a parent who has been beaten down, told they’re not able to do anything, not able to be anything, so they aren’t. In return, they beat down their children. Not physically, most of the time, but with words. Disrespect, every one for themselves attitudes, what’s yours is mine, these ideas are expected, even encouraged. When loud rap music or hip-hop comes out of nowhere, we automatically think, “Black.” Moreover, we feel justified when the driver of the vehicle the music comes from is black.
We as a society believe Hispanics are lazy and can amount to nothing better than backyard mechanics. They are told so often that they can do nothing that they believe it. Native Americans too, told all they can do is expect to grow up drunks so often that they believe it. Even women, since women’s lib, being told they can only expect to be someone if they get married and have children. Whenever someone breaks out of the mold, it’s as a celebrity, someone so untouchable that we idolize them. We think, wow, they really did it. John Leguizamo did it, but apparently, no one else can. Tyrese Gibson did it, Ice T, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr. but I can’t. Wendy Williams, Tyra Banks, Queen Latifah, heck Jennifer Anniston, Salma Hayeck, Julia Roberts, they all did it, but we can’t.
They were special. They grew up with money, power, they must have or how would they have made it big? The white middle class family, average size four, mean income fifty thousand a year, they are the ones that seem to still lie to their children. They say to them, dream, you can be whatever you want when you grow up. Most people reading this may balk at the idea that we would tell any of our children, regardless of race or creed anything else. You might call me a racist, sexist, whatever-ist, but I’m not. I do believe we should encourage our children, regardless of race, creed, gender, or income to become whatever they want. I believe we should encourage them all to become our future leaders, doctors, lawyers, actors, musicians, writers, police, firefighters, mechanics, architects, astronauts, and anything else they can think of.
I tell my children they can become whatever they want when they grow up. But I am a middle class woman, married with two children. Oh, how I have fallen. Is this really what I believe? I think so. But, is it really?
When I was growing up, I was raised in a loving home. My parents are still married to each other. They told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. I played at adventures, planned trips all over the world. I wanted to explore caves, deserts, and mountains. I still have a wandering spirit. I started writing stories when I was about nine, telling so many stories of adventure. I wanted to go. I finally decided, after seeing a documentary, that I really wanted to see Africa. I wanted to see the Kalahari Desert. I fell in love with the exotic languages of the indigenous tribes. I wanted to become a doctor, to minister to them, to witness God’s love to them. But then, out there all on my own, I’d need to be able to fix my Jeep, so I also wanted to learn auto mechanics. I believed so firmly that that was what I wanted to do, I too auto mechanics in high school. I majored in biology in college. It was after my own dark night, my own soul searching, that I realized, yes I would love to travel, but really, what I love most is imagining. I love writing, and every idea that comes to my mind is an idea I have to write down. But when I told my parents I wanted to be writer, suddenly the lie blew up in their faces. Suddenly “You can be whatever you want when you grow up!” wasn’t really what they wanted to say. But by then, it was write or go mad. Or maybe I was already mad and simply had to write to live with it. I’m not sure.
One fact is true though. I did not grow up with money, or power. I have never been in the right place at the right time. I was born too late to be at the beginning and too soon to be at the revolution. I have seen the invention of the home computer and the advent of the laptop, and I have given up my pencil for a keyboard. I dropped out of college with delusions of genius and superiority, and promptly failed to get published. I fell into a depression, got a “real job” and tried to make my dream come true. Then I found a husband and had my two children, and now I’m a wife, a mother, and a middle class American woman. I clean offices at night to supplement our average income, rather below average income.
Still I cling to belief that I can be whatever I want to be when I grow up. And I want to be a writer. I want to be published and read and remembered. In a hundred years, I want people to say, “Oh, have you ever read The Other Side? No, the one by Jen Steffen. Yeah, it’s almost epic, but wow. That’s fantasy I can read. No lofty language, lots of action and believable characters. Yeah, they totally need to remake the movie they did back when special effects were at their advent.” I want people see my name and pick up the book, or rather at that time, download the book, just because I’m the author. I want to see my other titles get picked up by a publisher, not because I’ll make more money, but because the prestige is greater than when I do it myself. Being picked up by a publisher says to the world that you’ve been read by those who know good reading, and they have found you worthy. Therefore, if they like you, then the rest of the country will like you. Maybe even the rest of the world.
I’m probably just mad. The voices in my head, the ones that tell me stories, still cry to be let out, so I put them down on paper, even the ones I can’t make any money with. I’m a dreamer and an idealist. It hurts me to hear my husband say, “Stupid driver, must be black.” Or my daughter say, “Yeah, some of the boys on the bus just wouldn’t settle down or listen to the leaders.” And when my husband asks her, “Were they black?” She nods sadly. “Yeah.” This isn’t because their racist. It’s because they hear it from society. They’ve come to expect it from certain races, certain creeds. And until we truly believe the lie, “You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up.” And we truly pursue the deepest dream we have, and we stop falling short of our own expectations, we will continue to live the stereotypes we’ve placed on ourselves. I will never amount to the author I want to be, because I’m not good enough. I’m not in the right place at the right time. I don’t have money or power or influence. I don’t have a college degree. So I’m fit to be wife and mother, and maybe an office assistant or a retail clerk, and I should set my dreams aside. I should drop my lofty expectations of humanity, especially those growing up in the inner city, like I did. I should let it all go and come to terms with my own mediocrity because that’s all any of us will amount to.
‘Sup, y’all. Imma gon go hit up Target for some groceries an maybe git my girl some new clothes. Then I gotta go to work later, clean a daycare run by morons. Imma go in, git it done, and come home to sleep. My husband will keep tellin me that I’m workin beneath me. I need a smart job, one that uses my brain. Um, what brain? I’m just a girl, lucky me, and I just can’t let go of that lie. “You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up.” If you’re a doctor, or a lawyer, or a police, or a firefighter, or a mechanic, or a grocer, or anything that will sustain you in the real world, because dreams don’t come true.
But I want them to. I need them to. Please, can’t mine come true, just once? God? You gave me imagination and the ability to write. Can’t I use that? God? I want to be writer when I grow up. And I want to believe that the world can be a better place because children are taught to believe in themselves, and that they can be whatever they want when they grow up. Obama did. Tyra did. Neil Gaiman did. Marion Zimmer Bradley did. They still talk about a guy named William Shakespeare. Can’t they talk about me too?
I can’t give up writing, no matter how mediocre I really am. So I can’t give up on the lie. I have to believe it’s true. And if it’s true for me, then it’s true for you. Are you a young black man or woman? You don’t have to stay in the inner city unless you really want to. You don’t have to disrespect everyone and everything just because that’s what you see. You can work for change. You can be whatever you want when you grow up. Are you a young Hispanic or Native American? The same holds true for you. Are you Muslim, gay, Asian, or poor? The same is true for you. If it’s true for me, it has to be true for everyone. “You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up.” You just have to keep believing, and keep pursuing. Never give up on your dreams. When you start to believe it’s a lie, that’s when you lose hope, that’s when the dream dies, and that’s when you have to come to terms with your own mediocrity. And that would be really sad.