When I was six, I got my first glimpse at how misguided and even harmful some adults can be.
I already thought my teacher was mean (a belief I still hold today), but I never realized that she didn’t believe in encouraging her students to develop their own dreams and aspirations.
I figured that out the day Mrs. Gladwill handed each student in her first grade class a large piece of paper with space to draw a picture at the top with lines underneath. She instructed us to draw a picture and write a couple of sentences in answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I soon realized that Mrs. Gladwill cared as much about our answers as she would about a random stranger’s response to the question “how are you?” In other words, she didn’t really care at all.
But even as a first grader, I was a bit of an overachiever. I wanted to impress Mrs. Gladwill with my plans to be a trapeze artist. No matter that I was completely uncoordinated and afraid of taking risks, I was going for glamour.
My first grade brain never equated a career, or even a job, with skills, aptitudes and passions that could make the world a better place. All I understood was a job defined you for life. Why else would adults always be asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I wanted to be glamorous and admired. The problem was, I didn’t know how to spell trapeze. When I asked Mrs. Gladwill, her only advice was to look it up in the “book of jobs” she had provided us.
Needless to say, trapeze artist wasn’t listed.
So I had to ask Mrs. Gladwill again.
Instead of just spelling trapeze or suggesting I think about other possibilities, she told me I should be something “normal” like a nurse.
I had no desire to be nurse, but I recognized the authority she had. So, I reluctantly looked up nurse in the career book and wrote about how I wanted to be one. Thus ended my aspirations of being a trapeze artist.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this incident when my son, a sophomore in high school, brought home his ACT Score report. One side provided his test scores and the recommendation he go to a four-year university. The back side was a complicated graph intended to help him make a career choice. I have a Master’s degree, and I didn’t understand how the “world of work” map could be helpful. And it, like Mrs. Gladwill and so many other adults, asked the wrong question: “what do you want to be?”
Every person already “is.” The question adults should be asking children, adolescents, young adults and even each other is “what are your gifts and how do you plan to share them with others?” That, according to a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso, is the meaning of life.
If Mrs. Gladwill had asked me about my gifts in first grade, I probably would have told her “my imagination and telling stories.” Neither lended themselves to being a trapeze artist nor a nurse. They didn’t really point to a career as a social worker either, but I would discover new gifts as I matured.
To me, helping young people discover their gifts is entirely more useful than the “world of work” map my son was handed. And watching them unwrap and use those gifts is actually a gift for all of us.