Saturday, February 28, 2009

Paradox Lost

Jane and Michael Stern, enthusiastic chroniclers of American foodways, do a lot of things. They crisscross the country, appear on radio shows, and author books. They wax rhapsodic about grilled cheese, conduct an epic quest for the perfect Hot Brown, seek out restaurants both signless and emblazoned, books for the New York Times?

Apparently so. In last Sunday's Book Review, the Sterns recorded their reactions to Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India (I can never remember to capitalize that preposition). Normally, I would have paged past a review of a non-fiction book chronicling 1960s-era treks through third-world countries, but, lured by the byline and by the vague hope of some mention of onion rings, I plunged right in.

Alas, there were no descriptions of fulsome crabcakes or succulent cream pies. On the other hand, there was, buried in the bottom paragraph, a quote from Indian bookseller-cum-traveling enlightenment industry bigwig. The hippies, Rama Tiwari asserted, propagated a singular mistake: "They didn't see we can only live in happiness if we conquer the restless dream that paradise is in a world other than our own."

This statement struck me at once as inordinately wise and irreparably flawed. As an inveterate coveter of Greener Grass, I acknowledged that wondering if what you don't have is better than what you do is both a full-time job and the scourge of peace. On the other hand, it occurred me that curtailing avarice, being where you are, and lying back and thinking of England are all well and good if you're a middle-class white hippie, but may not be so desirable if you're, say, a poor black elementary school student.

I think about this a lot. Here I am, trying desperately to accept where I am in life, to keep my yappy little mind off the grass; yet, in my inner-city workplace, the staff members are pouring bucketfuls of energy into inciting a schoolful of poor black children to want something other than the world into which they were born. Is this right? Or smart? Or even tenable?

Tyrone, one of my five-year-olds, has a dead father and a drug-addicted mother. He lives with his elderly grandmother and greets me solemnly by name in the hall every time he catches sight of so much as the whites of my eyes. Tyrone has a hard time sitting still when he's excited and has several times fallen out of his chair; recently, he won two suckers for doing his homework and gave one to the kid who comes with him to speech, a watchful, intelligent, snotty-nosed five-year-old named Amarion whose shirts always have holes.

I have ceased to be moved by all of this. Slowly, the pathos of these children's stories has worn off. So-and-so's in foster care; so-and-so's mother works the streets; this family doesn't have running water; this one can't afford shoes but somehow comes up with the money for several different game systems. There are far too many kids and far too many stories, and I've run out of outrage and empathy and tears.

What still moves me, a year or so in, is the paradox. We educators are off meditating and accepting and seeking happiness in the present even as ask we ask these children to be latter-day hippies, to rip themselves up from their roots and set off on an unthinkable journey through foreign lands. The last time I cried in school was when a kid showed up with a lunchbox containing a Lunchable and a note that read I love you Jamar: from Mommy. The rest of the kids ate their free lunches and squabbled and talked trash and learned a few things and went home to their parents or grandparents or foster parents or group homes. Yet, here was Jamar's note, flapping on the lunch table like a white flag, a signal of surrender from the faraway world of middle-class lunchrooms. I had to leave the cafeteria.

Jamar is a well-behaved, eager-to-please six-year-old with curly hair and big eyes. Maybe one day he will become a banker or a lawyer or a judge. If he does so, he will have come an unimaginably long way, over mountains and through woods and across dark water. He will arrive in a city where he doesn't speak the language, in a country with alien customs, because he thinks paradise is just a little further on.

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