Common Ground

Our essay topic: “What are the advantages and disadvantages of a “child-free” lifestyle?”

It’s kind of a ridiculous topic on its face, and written in such a way as to invite confusion in how people answer it.  Most of the class brainstormed on the advantages of not having children and the disadvantages of having them.  It took a long time to get everyone clear on the idea that we were supposed to be thinking about the disadvantages of not having children. 

The conversations happening around the room were interesting.  I anticipated the arguments against having children — although I was surprised by some of the voices those arguments came in.  I didn’t anticipate the conversation that bubbled up at the boy table.

A group of young guys and one older guy started my class in January.  The young ones all met before enrolling in my class, but they have formed a fairly strong bond with the older student over the last month.  The young ones are all seventeen — ok, James turned 18 about six seconds ago — and the older one is in his mid-30s.  All are Latino.  All have  (surprisingly vulnerable) defenses in place.  At least two have experience with the criminal justice system.  One — one of the 17-year-olds — is father to a baby boy who just hit his one-month mark on Thursday.  His girlfriend is also in my class, but wasn’t in class that day.

I was working with another group when I overheard their conversation.

“I can’t write about a child-free lifestyle when Jenny and I have a new baby at home.” (Isidoro, whose baby is named for him.)

“Well you only know about fatherhood for a month.  You can still remember what it was like without a baby, right?” (James, who has pictures of Isidoro’s baby on his phone and shows me updated shots almost as often as Isidoro does.)

“Yeah, I remember what it was like.  If I could go back a year, I think I’d do a few things differently.”  He shakes his head.  “I mean, what do I know about being a father?  I never had one to learn from.  Mine left before I even got here.”

“Mine, too.”  This was said in unison by both James and Ray, the older student.

“I grew up without a father,” says Wilson, “but not because he left.  He was just always trying to work at something.  He always had to be in another place to do that.  We were all at home without him.”

“So who am I supposed to learn about being a father from?” Isidoro asks.  “I grew up without a father, but do I want that for my son?  No.  But how am I supposed to do any better than my father?”

“You already are, man,” says James.  “You said your father left while your mother was pregnant.  You didn’t do that.  You’re still here.”

I’m not so naive that I believe every one of my students comes from a storybook family.  Of course not.  My surprise at this conversation is about the fact that a tableful of young men would be sitting around talking about the lack of male role models in their lives, about the absence of their fathers.  And that surprise is, of course, mostly about comparisons between my own experience of being a teenager and the ones I see playing out in front of me at school.  We didn’t talk like this when I was a kid.   We surely should have.   I’m glad these guys can, glad they feel comfortable enough with each other and our classroom to talk about real things.  And, odd as it sounds, I’m glad they share this piece of family story, this less-than-“perfect” bit of common ground, glad Isidoro didn’t say he’d grown up without a father only to be faced with uncomprehending faces, or scorn, or disapproval … or anything that would have gotten in the way of him talking his way through to James’ lovely observation at the end.

Really looking forward to reading the essays that get turned in this week.

7 thoughts on “Common Ground

  1. This sort of thing always makes me choke up; not because people have crap childhoods (a sad reality that hasn’t been surprising for most of my life), but when people – boys especially, who are so often taught *not* to show vulnerability – can so honestly and openly discuss their feelings; to show a fear in front of peers and have those peers provide encouragement and dialogue instead of – like you say – scorn and disapproval. They can be the role-models and strong figures for each other they didn’t have as children.

    It takes some of the sadness away from their circumstances; that they can learn and grow and support one another hints at them changing their lives and breaking the circle of dysfunction.

    Thank you for this uplifting slice of life on this Tuesday!


    1. Jade, you are right on target, talking right out of my head with this one. It’s not the fact of their bad life experiences that move me here (although, of course, that moves me, too). It’s that this was the “boy table” talking, this was all my tough guys being open and honest in ways that tough guys just aren’t supposed to be.

      This vulnerability is something that I have discovered again and again in the young men I’ve taught. It’s encouraging because all of those young men are so different, but all have that hard wall up in front of them, and my experiences give me hope that maybe every man is like these boys and has this sensitive, contemplative side that can be shown in public … if only they were given the safe space to show it.

      And I’m glad my classroom is a safe space.


  2. molly

    Do you think the Latino culture has more open emotiuonal spaces in it than other sub-cultures? I really wonder. I also wonder if times have changed about men being able to say things like that to each other. It would be nice if this kind of communication were open to everyone. I hear my son and his friends say supportive things to each other that I would wish for any group of young people.
    Always remember to give yourself credit for creating a place where this can happen. Yes, there’s the school, and all the stuff around you, but you as the teacher are “the” person who allows this to really happen — of course with the synergy of time and place and the students, but you are the woman. And that is one very fine creative act.


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