Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Utter Waste of Promise Unexplored

I've watched two films this weekend that made me angry. Angry over the utter waste.

For several years I've resisted reading Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild." It's incredibly popular with my students (as are his other books), but I knew the basic story and knew it would be sad. Yet, the filmed version of it (written and directed by Sean Penn) has been well-reviewed, and I got it thru Netflix this weekend. And it utterly ticked me off.

It's a true story. Child of privilege, Alex McCandless, graduates from Emery. He's aimless, not sure what to do next, but knows he wants to find himself. So, he loads up his car and heads west, not telling his family his plans nor ever contacting them to let the know where he is. He floats through a series of encounters and adventures, eventually ending up living in an abandoned bus in the middle of the wilds of Alaska. He runs out of food, and dies. His body is discovered weeks later, along with the journals of his journey.

So, there he was. He graduated from college with no debt, his parents willing to finance his graduate studies. He blows them off, and basically commits suicide. Actually, it might have been better had he taken some pills or put a shotgun to his head. Instead, he committed suicide in a passive-aggressive manner, leaving his parents hanging for nearly two years with nary a word from him. Oh, poor Alex, he had a really bad time. His parents nearly divorced when he was young, they didn't "understand" him, he wanted to "experience" life in a way he couldn't. Boo-fucking-hoo.

In so many ways, he reminds me of some of my own students. Many have been blessed with a family that values education and has the means to afford them a superlative education. Yet, some don't take advantage of it. They cruise by, making the average grades, not causing a ripple on the surface of life. You hope that they will awaken from their egocentric daze, that they'll see how incredibly lucky they are, appreciate what they've been given, and make the most of it. Unfortunately, sometimes they make that discovery too late. And that's the saddest part.

This coordinates with another movie I watched this weekend. It's an oldie, one I don't think I've watched in 20 or more years. But I recently read an article in "Vanity Fair" on its making, and it's celebrating its 40th anniversary. It's "The Graduate," the landmark film directed by Mike Nichols; the film that introduced us to a young stage actor named Dustin Hoffman.

Looking at it years later, it really is a seminal film, one that reveals the feeling of the late 60s. The unease and disillusionment that generation felt, how many felt rudderless, lost in the climate of Vietnam. And yet, I found myself looking at it from the distance of the years and through my nearly 50-year-old-eyes. Take the last scene of the film: Ben and Elaine are on a bus, having escaped Elaine's wedding, and they're heading out into their unknown future. Once, I looked at this scene with the optimism of youth: they have the whole world before them. Now, I found myself saying, hey, you've got no prospects, no job, how are you going to live? I saw that realization dawn on each them, their smiles fading as they took a good hard look at their choices. Instead of that optimism, I felt sad for them. It seemed to me now that they had set themselves up to repeat their parents' lives, to be stuck in the ennui of suburbia. I can picture them today, in 2008 - they've been married 40 years, they're in their 60s. Ben is popping Viagra, while Elaine is either drinking too much or finding comfort in much younger men - like her mother.

I hate to sound bitter or jealous. My parents never handed me a check for my education - it was up to me to find the scholarships and loans. It took me years to pay off my student loans. And yet, it made me value my education. Every time I was tempted to skip a class - to go out barhopping instead of studying - I reminded myself of what that degree was costing me. Don't get me wrong, I certainly had my share of good times - but it was always tempered with the idea of balance. Yes, I was egocentric like all college kids, but that me-attitude pushed me to excel - because I needed to capitalize on my academic success to support me after college. I had no safety net. Which is what I guess I resent in some of my kids - they have the luxury of failing, of making several attempts to find happiness - knowing that someone is covering their back.

Would I have done things differently if I'd had that kind of support? Would I have tried a different academic major? Would I have done something less sensible, chosen a course of study that wouldn't have guaranteed me a job? I don't know. I do know that if I'd had those choices, I wouldn't be the me of today. And what is that? Someone with a really great, happy life. Able to afford crazy Red Sox vacations, to travel the world. One who can go to the mall and blow $$ on senseless items with no one complaining about the bills! Someone who is sensible 90% of the time, and insane 10% of the time.

Oh, my, I'm getting closer to sitting in a rocker on my front porch, ranting about these kids and their rock and roll music! I didn't intend this to be a manifesto or an exploration of a midlife crisis! Excuse my self-indulgence - but, hey, it's my blog and I'll cry if I want to!

In the meantime, don't bother with "Into the Wild"!


Blogger Ted D said...


I never saw Siskel or Ebert lose it like this!

But thanks to you, that is off my "Get my buddy to make me a copy" list!

Your anger at this guy is right in my wheelhouse. Most kids today don't really know what it's like to struggle. And they are poorer for it, IMHO.

9:09 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home