Barbara Ehernreich describes in her expose Nickel and Dimed, how she, as a minimum wage worker, had to “work from 2:00 till 10:00 P.M for $2.43 an hour plus tips” (Ehrenreich, 16). She had to serve food to rude customers while in the kitchen, she had to suffer “a red-faced man with shoulder-length blond hair” who was “throwing frozen steaks against the wall and yelling, ‘˜Fuck this shit!’ ” Aside from that she also was occupied with the “side work invisible to customers'”sweeping, scrubbing, slicing, refilling, and restocking” (Ehrenreich, 17), which, if not finished on time, could force her to skip dinners. Although it was a temporary sociological experiment for her, had she really been such a worker, she would have an adulthood constrained by the chains of poverty. So worried about keeping up with rent and utilities payments, every dollar spent would add up to a financial paranoia. Her thirst would be quenched with the question,
can I afford that bottle of soda? Her back pain will be ignored by the thought, I can’t afford those pills. Life for Ehrenreich would be a routine of work, more work, and worries, with so much hopes and dreams, and yet, due to economical forces, devoid of a way to fulfill them.
At the same moment, just a couple of hundred or so miles away, inside a maximum security prison, another soul, like the minimum-wage waitress, is imprisoned by the walls of adulthood. While his childhood was poor, having been raised by an illiterate mother addicted to cocaine, back in those days, he had time to dream, that maybe he could make it out to be an NBA star or even the first black U.S. president. Instead, the harsh realities of growing up black and poor led him to the weary path of fist fights, robberies, and drugs. Eventually, like the other 32% of black youths in America (Davis), he got caught. Being over the age of eighteen, he was tried, convicted, and put behind bars. Soon, his world was shattered as he became isolated from his family, his friends, his colleagues, and his coworkers. He was coerced into a metallic cell where day and night felt the same, where silence was broken only when he or nearby inmates made groans of fear and resentment. the inmate would only grow to hate the world he was forced to live in. This new life ‘” if you would call it a life ‘” is what became of his friendship with potential basketball stars, his conviction of reaching for that athletic scholarship, his hope of succeeding as an NBA professional in the future.
The worker suffering from economic immobility and the incarcerated black dreamer, in their dismal situations, probably can’t help but ask, what is this adulthood that chains us so? Is there no way the dreams, the freedoms and even possibly the fun of childhood can be felt in our adult lives? Are we only doomed to face this monotonous routine the more we grow up? What is the meaning of all these adult knowledge and all these newfound choices when in the end, they all ultimately end up holding us hostage to the realities of discriminations involved in such things as class, race, and gender?
As a kid, I never would have asked such questions. I was only worried about how to have fun and how to best kill time. My best friend Yu-In-Ho and I didn’t walk around distressing over the adult crises of minimum wage or institutional racism, but we ran and we jumped, enjoying our childhood to the fullest.
Always, right after school ended, we quickly found each other and left the school ground as fast as we possibly could. Some times we ran out of there; some times we just took big strides. Whether we ran or walked, though, as soon as that bell rang, school was the last place In-Ho and I wanted to be. Nothing could stop us from getting out of that place, not the traffic guard, not the crowd of cars, not even orange construction signs warning of some imminent danger. We were two kids determined to have fun, and our determination would only be a match to godly calamities.
Once out of school, we usually went to this big square asphalt area near In-Ho’s house. We only had to wait for a little while before other kids from school came to join us. Without a greeting of any kind, In-Ho brought out a soccer ball from his house. The other kids meanwhile set up backpacks as goalposts. There was a lot of yelling and taunting. Before long, the team was set, with In-Ho as our team’s forward and me as the goalie. Then came the game itself and once it started, nothing else really mattered.
Perhaps, on the other side of the world, someone was dying of tuberculosis. Or perhaps, just a few miles away a baby was born into a family. But really, nothing mattered much as the game. Whatever else was happening in the world, I couldn’t think about it. My meaning in life for that moment was the ball, who had it and where it was going. If the ball was passed to the left side, my body turned entirely to the left. As the ball came closer and closer, my legs bent and my arms spread apart. A kick and the ball flew toward me, and for that millisecond, whether a person was dying, whether a person was being incarcerated unjustly, whether a person was breaking her back serving food, all that mattered for me was to jump in the right directions and catch that ball. When I caught the ball, that was the greatest joy in the world. I saved the team from losing. I had a purpose in life.
I had a purpose because as a child, soccer was not a job but just a fun game. While it’s true professional soccer players would have a purpose of earning massive income to make a grandiose living, through that process of trying to make a purpose out of a game, by putting some kind of cash value to a simple activity, the paid goalies eliminated the purpose of the game, and ultimately of their own lives. Within the closed mindset of the child, money did not matter; only the direction of the ball, the testosterone surge brought on by the game, only the panting and the laughter of friends and enemies — only those mattered. We kicked the ball for the sake of kicking and I caught the ball for the sake of catching. Somehow, as meaningless less as our games seemed to be, the game’s regulations gave us all the purpose in the world and ultimately, fed our optimistic hopes and dreams.
Looking back now as a college student, I realize that it was only a soccer game, that I could just as easily play soccer right now if I wanted to. But soccer now wouldn’t be the same. If I played soccer today, I would be thinking of goalies who are immensely better than me, players who would be making millions of dollars for doing it in a mass-marketed stadium. More than that, if I played soccer today, I would never think it possible that I could be a professional soccer player because I learned by growing up that the chance of me making out to that kind of stardom is slim to none. Besides, I have other things to worry about. I don’t have time for soccer. I have to write a research paper on Tituba and Salem witch trials to get a good grade for my Race and Gender Studies class, I have to transcribe interviews to make money to pay for my college tuition. And really, what’s the point of soccer when I’m learning more and more how mankind is engaging in wars, dumping toxic waste in harbors, enslaving immigrant workers with incredibly low wages, trafficking human beings for profit and for sexual gratification? What’s the meaning behind it all? Back when sky was the limit, a gun was just a toy which fired harmless BBs, money was just something your parents gave you for lunch or for Pokemon cards, drugs were just nasty things forced on you after you got a cold, but with time, we grew out of the world where there are no essays, no politics, no drugs, no factories, no wars, no genocide — We learned as we grew up, and with new opened-up horizons, our childhood vanished before our very eyes.
But Jane Addams would disagree. To her, the optimism and the joys of childhood wouldn’t be defined as ages 5-12 like I would at times, but rather, it’d be a part of people of all ages through reformative processes of socialization and empowerment. In her book, Twenty Years at Hull House, Jane Addams tells of her attempts in establishing her settlement house (which came to be known as Hull House) in inner slums of Chicago. Through this shelter, she not only provided for those who were hungry and cold, but entertained the elderly with free books and lectures, gave job training to the unemployed, opened science and art museums to adults and children alike, allowed for social gatherings in different issues and jokes were shared, and encouraged social activities such as knitting, poetry reading, and acting on stage. By establishing this institution, Jane Addams gave hope and joy to the adults restrained by the monotonous and unjust elements of adulthood. There was no doubt that Chicago and the world was still embedded in a mess of problems, but Hull House provided means to escape that for a while for by permitting a chance to revisit the hopes and dreams of childhood for a little while.
Given a little bit of aimless rest in Hull House in their seemingly purposeful adult live, childhood became accessible for those who came to rest at Hull House, maybe only for short intervals, but nonetheless, it was still childhood. When assessing the effects of Hull House, it becomes evident that the meaningless activities of childhood produced real meaning for those involved in them. Due to Hull House, relationships between a parent and a child was fostered, decreasing the rate of domestic and child abuse. Jane Addams’ social activism reduced the number of adult men getting drunk in saloons and exploiting prostitutes, allowed the elderly to become more active in their families, women paid less visits to the hospital, and crime rate was not so high in Chicago as it had been before the establishment of Hull House. Hull House even positively affected children as the as the potential juvenile delinquents instead ended up as respected muckrakers, innovative educators, and even as lawyers fighting for human rights. Jane Addams’ Hull House, by allowing everyone to live life as a kid should, consequentially prevented the rise of the minimum wage worker described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and the hopeless prison inmate depicted in Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?
Jane Addams probably knew as much as I do now about the importance of childhood, and how as kids, narrow-minded as we may be, we are optimistic, purposeful, and happy with simple things. Though some children work and do things that adults may do, especially in agrarian societies, work has no meaning for the kids; they work for the sake of working, because their parents say they must. Free from the purpose-driven discourses and seemingly meaningful institutions, kids are actually able to find meaning in their lives, both for the present and the future. Kids may suffer domestic and sexual abuse, but unlike adults, they do not see it as a statistic (1 in 3 girls are sexually abused in United States), but due to their closed mindset, their dreams and their hopes are unaffected. It is only when we grow up, when we learn about the world around us, when we start doing things to get meaning out of them that soccer no longer becomes a soccer but a commercialized occupation, and the freedoms of childhood are fenced in by the depressing and cruel realties of adulthood. Simply put, back when the sky was the limit, we were never wage slaves and we were never prisoners. Oh, back when sky was the limit.
Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Penguin Group, 1938.
Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2001.