Column: For Jack, two roads diverge

Column: For Jack, two roads diverge

Jack turns 8 this week. Yet he’s already having doors closed to him.

His mother says college just isn’t for everyone. Some people, she reasons, are just destined to attend high school, graduate, get a job and settle into the working life. And I believe her when she says one can be happy that way. But here is my issue: Jack’s not even 8 years old.

At that age, life should be limitless. It should be the time when teachers and parents say to you, “shoot for the stars, anything is possible” and you believe them. It’s the time when you’re the most hopeful, most optimistic, and sadly, in Jack’s case, the most impressionable.

Sadly because buried beneath his chipmunk laugh and dreams of becoming Spiderman, Jack doesn’t seem to have that optimism. He just started school, but is already prepared to quit.

Now, I can’t question the authority of a parent. I’m not a member of this family, but as a closely-involved friend, I do spend a great deal of time with them. Even so, that still gives me no right to question parenting values. His mother is a tough, smart woman, who loves her children and wants the best for them. In her mind, she does not necessarily want to close doors for Jack, though I perceive her as doing so. Our contrasting opinions are simply a product of different backgrounds.

The expectations for Jack are different than the expectations I grew up with. My parents both came from modest backgrounds, went to college and made it a priority since my sisters and I started elementary school that we plan for college. We weren’t necessarily rich, but we were “privileged” and if we didn’t attend school, we would probably be considered a lost cause.

Meanwhile, Jack is from a blue-collared, insular neighborhood where many people say college is a crock: South Boston. It is a community that has been pigeonholed by the media into a cocktail of images of Whitey Bulger, gangsters, drugs and busing wars. But at its core, this is a neighborhood of hard-working, honest folks.

So, I’m doing my best to look at this situation from another perspective. The fact remains I shouldn’t question her parenting – it’s not my place. After all, it is her child, she can raise him as she sees fit, and some might say no one else, myself included, should be involved. But that doesn’t stop me from asking questions.

“Jack, how do you like school?” I asked him last fall as we strolled around campus.

“I hate it,” he said, as usual. But he makes good grades, giving hope to the higher education possibility, so I persist.

“Well, what do you think of Northeastern? Does it make you want to go to college?” I continued. “Lots of pretty girls here.”

Of course, he figures that paying for school is the equivalent of voluntarily signing yourself into a mental institution. I simply received a grimace for that last question. Plus, at 7, he still figures girls are grimace-worthy as well.

Jack doesn’t need me to ask questions or pressure him, either. He already has a collegiate influence. His sister took the initiative to better her own life, putting herself through Northeastern and weathering the criticism from some friends and family members who feel she’s “wasting her time.” And Jack respects her. If anybody is going to change Jack’s mind on college, it will – and should – be her. But right now, Jack doesn’t want his mind to be changed.

Jack says he’d like to grow up to “hang on the corner” (pronounced “cor-nah” in his Southie accent), which is exactly what it sounds like – hanging on a street corner, where kids socialize, play sports and occasionally make drug deals (though I don’t think Jack knows that last part). When I hear him say this, I can’t help but want to be involved.

Once, he told me, in the normal little kid school hatred kind of way that he’s already prepared to quit school, so I asked him how he plans to make money after he drops out.

“By making deals,” he said confidently.

My heart stopped. Deals? Drug deals? No, couldn’t be. Where would he learn that?

“Uh, what kind of deals?” I tentatively asked, afraid of the answer.

“I don’t know. Sometimes Auntie will pay me $5 for making her bed, stuff like that,” he said.

I laughed. For a moment I had forgotten how innocent he really is. After all, he’s only 7 almost 8. A big world remains out there for him.

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