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     Volume 6 Issue 42 | November 2, 2007 |

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   Writing the Wrong
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Writing the Wrong

The National Nature

H.L. Mencken has been credited with coining the phrase “we get the government we deserve.” Though I feel that applies in many cases, I cannot reconcile the idea that the people of North Korea, millions of whom have died from famine, deserve to be ruled by the likes of their ruler. Nor can I believe that the refugees suffering horribly in the camps of Darfur brought genocide on their own heads.

Can an entire country have a distinct personality? Is the National Character of China really inscrutable? Are the Germans naturally militaristic? Are the Russians, on the whole, always melancholy and fatalistic or is that just Doestoevsky's take on the people of Ural Mountains? My friend, a Brit, every once in awhile will say something like, “well that's a very English response.” She has lived in the states for decades and is more New York, than she is English nowadays. She and I have decided (for what its worth) that nowhere is the present American National Character more apparent than in the playing fields of the American public school system. Namely in those school districts that are upwardly mobile, with wealth generated by Hedge Fund mavericks, and venture capitalists. This is the kind of town we both live in.

When I was growing up in the States in the 80's, I tried out for field hockey, track and one odd autumn, volleyball. I made it on to one of those teams and lasted a week. Besides being a ne'er do well, I was taken aback at how seriously the coaches and other team members took their sport. My head was in the clouds and I did not possess the proper discipline required for excelling in sports. Now I understand why the coaches and athletes took their sport seriously. But that was high school. Here, in yuppie New England, this focus and intensity starts at the tender age of five! Open a Town Parks and Recreation brochure and you will be regaled with numerous “pee wee” sports, from American football to something called Lacrosse, a sport pilfered from Native Americans and the trademark athletic activity of those of a certain class, like Polo and Golf. Miniature versions of aspiring David Beckhams and Don Mattinglys (baseball, a game I am beginning to appreciate now that I have a kid who plays it sometimes) flood the verdant playing fields of suburbs all over the US, with anxious, controlling parents watching from the sidelines. Intellectual athleticism is not as encouraged, and brute, physical force is the way these parents want their children to express and distinguish themselves.

I have observed the parents are almost always more intense than the kids are, pushing and driving their children to stand out and more importantly, win, at all costs. School coaches are given tremendous respect and power in this school district and parents fight hard so their children are accepted on to top sports teams. There is a strong sense here that excelling athletically translates into automatic social acceptance. Good grades are emphasised but not intellectual pursuit.

My friend told me a story of how her teenage daughter tried out for the high school field hockey team. When the time came for selecting the players, the coach stood back, bloated with petty power and announced, “If I don't call your name, you have made the team,” and proceeded to read a list of names. When she was finished a group of children, the rejects, in other words, stood alone on the field, some bawling in mortification, others stunned in disappointment while their mothers tried to console them. My friend's daughter was among those not selected but she could have cared less. Hers was a healthier attitude of, “I gave it shot and it didn't work.” Plus this young lady's social status did not depend upon being able hit a ball with a stick. For those less self possessed, my friend observed, this was tantamount to social isolation. Being a person who cannot stand by and watch others suffer, she approached the coach and asked if there was any possibility an alternate team could be formed (strangely, no alternates were chosen). She felt it would have more appropriate to post a list where the girls could privately go see or not see their names. This public display seemed unnecessarily brutal.

The coach was not interested (not surprisingly) in my friend's suggestion. Weakness was not tolerated here and was singled out for identification.

Being someone who makes at least three leaps in logic a day (some do yoga, I engage in imaginative associative thinking for relaxation) I started (with her) drawing parallels with the field hockey situation and the current US leaders and the messages they are sending the younger members of this society. In terms of the school system people wanting to fit in and blend into one's immediate environment is not a new phenomenon or particular to the US, but there is a distinct lack of tolerance in the air for anyone or anything different nowadays. And even more importantly intellectual exploration is pushed aside in favor of brute force as a means of expression in the communities that can afford to send their children to top private universities. People here have wealth but I have observed that very few of them use their money to travel. One cannot generalize of course, but if I didn't then how can make my point? The money here is spent primarily on the renovation of already state of the art kitchens and private soccer coaching for little Stanton Chase the second. There is no curiosity about the rest of the world. There is a sense that the rest of the world doesn't exist. The demographic of this town, I feel, represent those who have power in this country, primarily white, wealth generating males.

The other day I sat waiting for my kid's baseball lesson to finish. Another mom waited for her son with me. She watched anxiously as her son hit ball after ball. He was knocking them past the net. I said, “Wow. He's a natural.” “You think so?” she said, skeptical. I nodded. It was obvious to me. “He hasn't found his sport yet,” she said, as if finding a sport is like finding a life mate. “All the other boys in his class have found theirs.” She told me how it was hard to fit in (for a boy) if he didn't play on a team. I admit I was worried about the same thing but resigned myself to the fact that my kid was more interested in tying a cape to his back and pretending to be a magician than the next great elementary school athlete. I said, “I bet Bill Gates was lousy at baseball.” She smiled and told me that a survey was taken at her son's private school that asked parents this: Would you rather your child excel at sports and be an average student, or lousy at sports and valedictorian? The answer was overwhelmingly: average student, good at kicking or hitting (a ball). And these are the people who are the “caretakers” of the world.



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