What young women want to be

It’s a small throw-away line in a NYTimes article about Riccardo Muti and the glory he is bringing to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Its an OK piece, and heartening to those who like classical music. But..

At a music making visit last Sunday to the Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile prison in Warrenville, several teenagers there announced that they wanted to marry him.

It made me sad. Not that incarcerated young women (or perhaps young men) would want to marry Muti over say, a rock star or athlete. But that there dreams are about marrying up and out and not about themselves. I know the line was supposed to be about how a plumpish middle aged classical musician was perceived by young people. But its sad.

Here is what the web says about the facility:

IYC-Warrenville serves a juvenile female population with multi-service needs. The center provides GED and high school diploma academic services, an in-patient substance abuse treatment program, vocational programs, mental health services, medical services, clinical services, leisure time activities, parenting education, assessments and family reunification programming. The average age of the juvenile females at the center is 16.3 years.

When I grew up I was lucky twice over – firstly that it was a comfortable middle class life (which had not been true of either of my parents) and secondly who my parents were, and the emotional/social leap that my father, in particular, made to educate and support his daughters. I can remember in my youth wanting to be the partner of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuriaken (Man from U.N.C.L.E., sigh, I hear they are remaking, and likely re-destroying that one too- a TV show from the 60’s). I remember having friends who said “wouldn’t you rather marry him?”. But my memory of wanting to be a secret agent and not marry one, which I thought would be a bum deal, is very strong. My youthful dream involved a helicopter landing in our backyard to take me away to work with them – not be on a TV show, but to actually be a secret agent.

To my eyes the issue of wanting to “marry up and out” becomes somewhat of an issue of class (which can’t help but be intertwined with race). I don’t study this, but I live it a little bit, and work with it a lot. I’ve watched working class kids struggle with a path that’s a lot harder because of their background. But the kids I am seeing have already made some commitment to education and a career. I am guessing that the young women in Warrensville are not from owning classes, or even the middle class. And all of them have made some bad life choices along the way. I suspect the reasons these people are incarcerated is not uncorrelated with the reasons they think marrying Riccardo Muti is a good life goal.

Yet, thinking that marriage will save you, or make you better, or is a more important goal than finding your (non-sexual) passion cuts across socio-economic/racial/ethnic lines. If you grow up working class, and see work as an ugly necessity, and do not believe that the “system” will ever let you live like the glorious folks on TV and the Web and Glossy Magazines, then marrying up seems like a more reasonable goal than say, education and a career/avocation.

I want to go shake all the 14 year old girls in America and the world and say: dream, dream about what you can be for you, dig deep and find that passion. So I will find a way to do that. It’s what my generation owes the next.

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