As a Child – When an Adult
Jonathan T. Jefferson
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13:11 King James Version
The above quote is a fitting start to this self-study. I am not a religious man, and I rarely use quotes from religious texts. As you will read, my life experiences are at odds with the statement written above.
In this essay, I will represent myself as John and my neighborhood peers as Lance. We are all African Americans who grew up in a predominantly black middle class neighborhood in Queens, New York. By the time we reached adulthood, we learned that the average income of blacks in Queens was higher than that of whites. This was due to the fact that most of our parents worked service jobs for the city, state, or federal government.
By the age of two, John’s life experiences began to diverge from Lance’s. John’s parents bought a rustic rural farm in northern New York’s dairy country. John and most of his seven siblings were introduced to white farming families, and John spent the bulk of his childhood summers engaging with them. In contrast, Lance either remained in the neighborhood all summer, or spent a couple of weeks visiting family in predominantly black communities in southern states (e.g. Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, etc.). John experienced kindness and friendship while learning about life on dairy farms, and he looked forward to his summer escapes from city life. Meanwhile Lance more or less became more immersed with city life, and the newest trends in black music, dance, and sports.
By the age of seven, the gulf between John and Lance’s trajectory grew even further. John’s lack of effort and penchant for truancy at the neighborhood school led his mother to “bus” him out to a predominantly white school district roughly 10 miles away. After visiting this school, his mother believed the “foreign” environment and richness of resources would keep her son engaged and reacquaint him with his early potential. This would prove to be true. John’s new school was academically two years more advanced than his neighborhood school, and in the process John’s socialization lead him to embrace diversity, as he attended many bar mitzvahs and sleepovers with his new friends of varying cultures. Some of his new friends would also sleepover his house, which afforded them a reciprocal learning experience.
Life, however, was not always peaches and cream at John’s new school, as he would find himself on the receiving end of bullying from fellow black students in the “busing” program. In this regard, distance from home base proved somewhat detrimental.
Summers added even more diversity to John’s experiences. Amish farmers began to move into the dairy country of his summer escapes. The ability to enjoy life with less was the foremost lesson he took away from his observational interaction with the Amish. Lance, on the other hand, in succumbing to the prevailing peer pressure of the local neighborhood, received accelerated lessons in materialism and found himself more consumed with the fashionable attire he could attach to his body (sneakers, jeans, hair styles, etc.) than the batch of information he could plant in his brain to help direct the course of his life.
With the brief descriptions of the different upbringings of John and Lance, let me share a glimpse of their adult lives. John did well in school, but college did not interest him. He wanted to travel, see the world, and explore other cultures. He had been suffering migraines all through high school, so the Marine Corps did not accept him; he reluctantly attended a local college. The diversity of his college peers, and the excursions he took for college credit (skiing in Quebec & hiking in the Adirondacks) quickly warmed John to the idea of college. Lance, meanwhile, saw his options as limited to enlisting in the army.
As a child, John traveled and experienced different lifestyles; no wonder he was keen on doing the same after high school. Many neighborhood high school students felt largely unacquainted with the notion of college, so Lance joining the army was indeed a common pattern amongst his peer group – it certainly was a better option than falling into other neighborhood traps entailing drugs, crime and violence. One nevertheless wonders if Lance might have thought differently had he traveled the more rigorous academic road that John was subject to?
Moreover, as a child John almost intrinsically found himself fulfilling the role of de facto teacher among his peers. He would share the realities of the black urban experience with his white school mates, while enlightening his neighborhood peers about the social mechanics of other cultural environments. Over and above racial distinctions, John’s teaching extended to informing both city groups (black & white) about details of life on a farm and the unique values of Amish living. After graduating from a diverse city college, John went on to attain an advanced degree at a rather vanilla New England graduate school; after which, a teaching career awaited him. Meanwhile, once Lance completed his tour of military duty, public-sector/blue-collar service jobs beckoned him to join their ranks.
John would ultimately embark on a career teaching and coaching sports as he had learned to do as a child. He also became a school administrator with a compulsion to immerse himself in many different types of work environments in the education sector – ranging from white districts, wealthy districts, city schools, black and Hispanic districts, and private schools. John’s work capacities varied as well from assistant principal, director/principal, central office executive, etc. Lance, on the other hand, remained in one job year after year. He never relocated, and seldom sought advancement.
The experiences John and Lance had as children clearly impacted the choices they made as adults, or even conceived them. Thus, if I may offer a functional alternative to the Apostle Paul’s scripture: We don’t so much put away childish things as we ideally apply the richness of our child experiences to our adult lives, the act of which helps to ensure maximum growth.