Category Archives: culture
After spending a summer leading adventure camp trips for teens, I have a perplexing question: are there any hipster children out there?
Being immersed in the experience of a camp counselor for teenagers was an ethnographical experiment. What exactly, constitutes the life and thoughts of these strange creatures, the standard American teenager? My observations led me to an archetypical picture of what makes the average teenager tick; I found a thread of common interests and mannerisms highly influenced by mainstream popular culture. And then I began to think further: was I like that as a teenager? Though I’d like to look back and think that I was unique in my youth, that I was a fiercely independent thinker, I wonder if perhaps this was not the case. Does hipsterdom—that blatant and intentional disdain for all things considered mainstream—emerge later than childhood? And thus, is the dominant teenage culture not a choice of the teenager themselves, but rather a product of the consumerist culture they are bombarded with?
I’ve been pondering over the similarity of certain interests for the teen-aged demographic to which I’ve born witness. With the vast amount of driving campers around which I was required to do this summer, I acquired keen insights into their musical tastes. The music that is sure to please is easy to find; the campers all know the frequency and call letters by heart. The sure crowd-pleasers, the jams that get them all pumped up are the American Top 40 songs on the local pop station. AT40 songs are absolute earworms. Not only are those songs engineered to get stuck in your head and stay there, radio stations will play the same six songs at least once an hour, every hour to ensure that they do. Fortunately, just to keep things fresh every couple months, the old songs will be replaced by a batch of new, similar-enough sounding songs that will be all the craze for the next few months. For me to save my own sanity while driving at camp, I sometimes tried to introduce my underground indie jams from the local community radio stations. Vetoed right away—always. If music is just not similar enough to what they know already, they seem quickly repulsed by the musical difference.
And what about the shopping interests of teenagers? They are fascinated by chain stores and name brands. Driving, as we often do, down the busy suburban commercial strips, the kids will look out the windows with excitement as they shout out the chain-stores they see flying past in the Big-Box landscape. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-11, Cumberland Farms. They salivate at the chance to go to those stores and buy their products. Even though the campers haven’t been to this particular location before, they know nonetheless what every store on this commercial strip will offer. The cultural homogeneity of chain-retail stores leads to a predictability about the products each store sells. These teens know what they want—and not only are they entertained by the thought of visiting a chain-store to get it, they are in fact motivated at the chance to spend their money on it. And mostly what they buy is just junk food.
And then there’s the speculation that kids often offer about what profession they would like to do as adults. The teens I was with did have high aspirations; they talked of becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers when they grow up. But, they seldom noted that their motivation was a passion for the job duties or the desire to help others. Instead, the dominant motivation for these high-end jobs was to earn money—lots of it. They talked about how they want high-paying jobs so that they can afford to travel and to own nice things. I was disappointed by how seldom a teen would talk about desiring to enter a profession based on a sheer passion for it, no matter the pay. These teens are far from the hipster stereotype of following their dreams of doing what they love in a career path—even if the consequence for the hipsters is working for minimum wage at a coffee shop in spite of their fancy liberal arts degree.
Was I a hipster teenager? Even as a child, I was fiercely independent and more likely to do my own separate thing rather than follow the crowd. But did my tastes reflect my temperament at that age? Perhaps, but maturing is always a process of becoming. As I grew older, I began to develop some of the interests of hipsterdom: underground music, obscure foods, and a penchant to avoid commercialized mass-produced mainstream culture. Maybe I was a hipster child all along, but it only took a fair amount of time for this attribute to manifest itself in my behaviors.
To be fair to teenagers as a whole, there are a handful of teens who break the mold of the unquestioning follower of consumerist appetites and media-conceived notions of entertainment. There are those teens who loathe American Top 40, preferring instead classic rock or foreign instrumentals. There are teens who not only can pronounce the word ‘quinoa,’ but enjoy eating it as well. There were those teens who weren’t overjoyed at visiting a gas station convenience store to buy candy and soda. There was even a contingent of campers, I found, who were quite interested in learning more about my home-made sprouting jar and eating the ensuing vegetable sprouts. Actually, most of the teenagers at camp exhibited at least some form of cultural independence apart from the mainstream stereotype (albeit some more strongly than others).
But even for the masses of teens leading indistinguishable lives, there is some hope. At the very tip of Cape Cod, away from the influence of mainstream America lies a place distinct from the popular culture known as Provincetown. Though not even remotely a hipster destination, Provincetown is a place and economy that revels in its unique, off-the-cuff identity. During the summer, most trips at camp include a visit to Provincetown. Often it’s a highlight for the campers. In Provincetown, the conventional teens can revel for a spell in a town like no other they’ve been to. There are no big box chains here. Instead, the main Commercial Street becomes a narrow pedestrian mall flooded with people milling about the business district perusing the town’s counter-cultural offerings. Here you’ll find Hippie stores and stores of the Occult. Tucked around the corner is a musty used book store, a palm reader, and a costume shop. Street performers, drag queens, and artists freely roam the streets. Even though in Provincetown the kids will still go for the junk food, at least they’ll buy it from the quirky Donut Experiment or the exclusively pink cupcake store. Maybe in a place unique as Provincetown, that tiny part of us that gets excited by difference can start to peek through. Maybe, after all, there is a little hipster in all of us, even the teenagers.
I have a confession. I have sent anonymous secrets through the mail to a man named Frank who lives in Maryland.
What is it about secret confessions and their anonymity that draws us in? Why are we intrigued by the private admissions of others? Is it a voyeuristic thrill at becoming privy to someone else’s inner being? Is it that we feel oddly connected to the vulnerability espoused by another—a vicarious living through another’s susceptibility without having to be vulnerable ourselves?
Since 2005, there has been an active channel to send one’s anonymous confessions broadcast on a postcard via standard mail. The PostSecret project, as it is formally known, was started by a man in Maryland named Frank Warren. It was an experiment. A community-fueled mass mail art project. Confessions being mailed in had no restrictions on content or style, so long as they were true and a genuine first-time confession. Since its inception, the PostSecret project has grown into a large social experiment shedding light on the hidden side of human life. It has become a clearinghouse of secrets and confessions, both mundane and salacious. The collective consciousness of the confessions is a window into the human condition.
I find myself continually drawn to the PostSecret project. I am inextricably attracted to the struggle and humanity expressed in the postcard confessions. A simple piece of paper, an anonymous hand-scrawled message, is a gateway into the breaking down of the barriers and facades that bind us to polite society. The reader of the postcards is as anonymous as the sender, a conversation happens in which no one speaks face to face. Does the reader relate to the struggle of uncertainty and vulnerability? Is the reader only humoring himself? And how many people, if any at all, will eventually see one’s confession?
After being merely a consumer for many months, I have decided to join the ranks of the confessors. Understandably, I have sent in no groundbreaking confessions of my own. Compared to the content of many postcards, mine are quite tame. I will not spoil my secrets by publically disclosing them here. But mine have been confessions more akin to bad manners and personal oddities that don’t quite match up to social etiquette. ‘I enjoy peeling gum of off the bottoms of chairs,’ would be an example similar to the content of my confessions. It’s a small start. But it imbues a powerful feeling nonetheless.
Reading these postcards and sending in my own confessions, I feel a sense of solidarity with the community of unknown contributors. It gives me a sense that I’m not so much alone in the world. That other people, like me, are indeed strange and have many quirks and idiosyncrasies that we cover over in the going-abouts of our daily lives. Each confession sent also provides a sense of relief. A freeing feeling. A sense of liberation at getting something off your chest.
Has the PostSecret project amassed its popularity because it is so hard to be open and vulnerable? Because it is so tough to find a confidant in other people? Perhaps it’s because life is so much about image, about putting on a game face and hiding what’s underneath. We don’t normally get exposed to the nitty-gritty details that lie at the core of a person. Is it because we have a deep-rooted desire to be known and exposed that we seek to confess to others?
Posting this blog article is a confession in itself. A confession of having confessed something. But the audience remains anonymous. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, writing is the most egotistical endeavor; instead of personally telling their story to a select few people, the writer chooses instead to pursue the attention of anonymous thousands. Maybe sometimes all it takes is a nameless confession in front of a multitude of strangers to feel some sense of comradery.
Check out more about the project at http://postsecret.com/
Send in your own secret to
13345 Copper Ridge Road
It all changed after a series of bad days. Especially after one particularly tough day where I ended up reaching a turning point. It started, innocently enough, in a kindergarten classroom. Within the first 20 minutes of class, one troublesome boy raised both his middle fingers and yelled ‘fuck you’ to a classmate. Accepting his correction, but not changing his behavior, he continued to harass and hit other students throughout the morning. Later on, a tardy student walked into the class, promptly stealing some chapstick from another student. After refusing to correct her actions and to make amends with that student, she became defiant. “Make me, motherfuckin’ bitches,” she called out as she ran around the room, “Go ahead—call the principle. She’s a bitch!”
The afternoon, unfortunately, got worse. Instead of kindergarten, I was switched to a second-grade classroom. Older kids did not mean more mature behavior. Instead, when the students came in from lunch recess, they immediately proceeded to physically fight with one another. One student raised a chair above his head and threatened to throw it. The principle had to be summoned—the quarrelling students had to be removed. While waiting for backup to arrive, I held the most intent student back by the shoulders. He had been insulted by another student and was now deadest on pummeling him. I got down on the student’s level to reason with him. He made no eye contact, he spoke nothing. All I could see was the glazed, glowering expression of a young boy narrowly focused on physical atonement on those who he felt had wronged him.
Both classrooms ended in chaos. That school was not a safe learning environment. It was a place where physical and emotional violence was dripping at the seams. Driving home that day, I reflected on what I had just experienced. It was a lot to process. Once back to the safety inside my house, I plopped down on a chair in the living room. A visceral sense of relief finally settled over me. As I debriefed my day with my housemate, my body started to physically tremble, sympathetically, autonomically. While at school, my adrenaline was flowing in the moment as my attention was focused on the extreme behavioral challenges in the classroom. Once fully removed from the situation, my body was left quaking from the trauma of the day.
That was the turning point for me. At my third week of substitute teaching, I came to a crossroads. It was either get tough or get out. I knew I couldn’t continue in the teaching position with my idealistic attitudes of kindness and compassion. So I got tough. Instead of focusing on nurturing the development of the students, it became more imperative just to control them. It was an unfortunate reality, but this change of focus was a move for my own survival as a teacher. The situation had devolved to a point where basic jungle survival instincts kicked in.
As an idealist, I came into the job soft and compassionate, motivated by the belief that I could make a profound impact upon the youth. I wanted to look favorably upon children as kind and innocent. I wanted to run the classroom with fairness and generosity, giving the students the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Fundamentally, I wanted to foster holistic personal growth in the students—all within the short day-long duration of my stints as a sub.
Instead, I shockingly found what could become a very corrosive environment inside the classroom. These kids don’t know you, and they don’t respect you because of it. They aren’t of the upbringing where they learned to respectfully listen and obey adults or authority. To them, you are a stranger with no weight or consequence to their lives. They see you and think they don’t have to follow because “Man, I don’t even know you,” or “You’re not a real teacher.” The relationship I developed with the students never reached my idealized version of youth mentorship; instead, what organically developed was a predicament of antagonistic adversaries. As a substitute, you have to be stern and assert your authority, lest you quickly lose control of the class. You budge an inch, the kids take a mile. Eventually, you begin to develop the mentality of a prison guard controlling your wards. Your task as a sub is to force your prisoners to follow the lesson plans no matter how much they try to derail your efforts.
In the end, I became a much more callous person. My patience shortened. Authority and control became my goals—not out of a desire for control itself, but out of sheer necessity. Each morning, I had to prepare for battle with the mindset that these kids are out to tear me down. In a behaviorally troublesome classroom, I had to enter drill sergeant mode quite frequently, barking the students into a terrified submission. Often, I had to publicly shame certain students in front of the classroom just to make an example of them. Teaching was not an uplifting experience—for me or for the students.
For all those reasons, I had to quit being a substitute teacher. The person I feel that I am and the person I feel like I want to be did not line up with who I was becoming as a substitute. So I had to quit while I was ahead, before my integrity became corrupted by the corrosive classroom environment. I honestly enjoy working with children, but how did teaching become a position where children are viewed as the enemy? I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be that kind of person. But I am as much a product of my environment, and those toxic classrooms created a menace in me. I never wanted to yell at kids. I didn’t enter education to yell at children. But nevertheless I found myself slipping into the mire of the circumstances.
More than anything else, I was appalled by what I witnessed as the toxic learning environments that predominated in many school classrooms. It started with a culture of disrespect for the teacher and for the learning process, then broadened to include a disrespect for any students interested in learning. In my classrooms, there were numerous fights and countless episodes of crying. There were times where I as a teacher did not feel safe in the classroom. No doubt that my students, young and vulnerable as they are, felt any safer. Instead of becoming an opportunity for inquiry, learning became the punishment for misbehavior. How, then, can you expect anyone to value or invest in the educational process? Thus, I had to remove myself from the situation once I felt myself contributing to the culture of school as a penal system.
In stark contrast, life was much easier in the suburbs. I found I could be more relaxed and compassionate towards the students, reaching closer to my idealized vision of classroom flourishing. Instead of being a punisher and enforcer, I could be a friend, mentor, and teacher. But even though the suburbs are easier, I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I could never feel right about selling out to the suburban school districts and contributing to the flight that attracts resources away from the already under-resourced districts. I felt it more important to be in the urban school districts where the behavioral issues were most pressing and the impact of a teacher is most needed. But I also found that I couldn’t survive there—at least, I found I couldn’t survive there while being the type of person I was striving to be. Being in the inner-city classroom for too long reverts one back to primitive survival instincts. Values like kindness and compassion take a backseat when your main goal becomes surviving the day.
I’ve recently spent a week in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., touring the important sites and institutions that run the country. In terms of educational vacation destinations, Washington D.C. is ideal because most of its signature attractions are free of charge. While I visited America’s capital city, I also learned a lot of interesting and obscure facts about our country:
*The nation’s premier museum institution, the Smithsonian, is an oddity in itself. The founding benefactor, James Smithson, was a British chemist and mineralogist who never once set foot in the United States. In his will, Smithson wrote a stipulation that if his only nephew should die childless, Smithson’s entire fortune should be gifted to the United States government as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson’s nephew died a boy in 1835 and the fledgling United States government shipped Smithson’s fortune in gold coins from overseas to begin the Smithsonian Institution.
*Looking for a unique gift this Christmas? The largest book in the Library of Congress is Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, written by Michael Hawley. It is a 5 foot by 7 foot photographic exposition of the country. (Library of Congress)
*The 1980’s saw a tremendous explosion in the diversity of Poinsettia colors. Horticulturalists used radiation to induce genetic mutations and cause colors other than the standard red and white to be produced. (National Botanical Garden)
*As president Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Lincoln was true to his adage by being the only US president to ever hold a patent. Lincoln’s invention, patent number 6469, was an inflatable apparatus under the hull of ferry boats that was intended to buoy boats over shallow channels. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not quite invent the future as his creation proved impractical and was never manufactured. (Smithsonian Museum of American History)
*Though typically thought of as an instrument of white Appalachia, the banjo owes its origins to African Americans. African slaves who were brought to America in the 1700’s fashioned a stringed banjo-like instrument out of a hollow gourd similar to an instrument in their homelands. Their instrument later evolved into the banjo form we recognize today as it became popular in white minstrel shows and in American folk music. (Smithsonian National African American History Museum)
*When the Senate Wing of the United States Capitol was completed in 1859, Senate vacated its old chamber. Filling the vacancy for seven years afterwards was a pop-up farmers market complete with livestock in the old senate chamber. Back in the late 1800’s, building security was not as tight as it is now, but some still consider the capitol to be full of swine. (United States Capitol)
*The hot air balloon’s early history is tied intimately with military use. Hot air balloons were used for spying efforts in the French Revolution and by the Union in the American Civil war. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)
*Could you have an antique form of American currency lying in your wallet? For the greater part of the 20th century, the United States government produced three types of bills which circulated as legal tender paper money. The currencies—Federal Reserve Notes (current), United States Notes (until 1996), and Silver Certificates (until 1968)—were of visually similar design but had different legal implications. Today, all bills produced are Federal Reserve Notes, but that doesn’t mean the older types don’t show up now and then. As I now know, the odd blue-tinted dollar I kept in my wallet during high school was actually a silver certificate, which would has been redeemable for one dollar worth of silver…until I unintentionally spent it. (United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing)
*Wood is a renewable building material that is gaining interest for large scale building projects. The city of Springfield, Oregon, is planning on building a 4-story, 350-car parking garage completely out of wood. (National Building Museum)
*Though the Washington Monument is made up of 555 feet of stone, the very top of the obelisk is a small capstone of aluminum. When the monument was completed in 1884, aluminum was more costly than silver or gold due to the price of electricity needed to produce it. (Washington Monument)