Problem kid

I love my job. Hong Kong has always had a semi-privatized education system originating in British missionary efforts alongside traditional Chinese free-market schools preparing kids for the Chinese civil service examination, so there’s some room for creativity.

I was defined as a problem kid. Once, my Mom actually came to me and told me not to talk so loud at home. It seems that my voice, changing in early adolescence, bothered my father, but he could not speak to me. This was, of course, unforgivable although I love my Dad.

I understand it for the same reason in literary and historical studies I am quick to forgive Shakespeare for sexism or Lincoln for racism.

The late science fiction author JG Ballard writes that pre-war British parents were unlike those of today, who are more able to express their love for their kids. Parents of his generation were primarily engaged in proving (in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and London) that they were still Bright Young Things of the 1920s as late as 1941, and children were a reminder that they were not; in Ballard’s case, they were having fancy dress balls and being Bright right up to Dec 7 1941. Likewise, my own parents had difficulties with getting older, and a teenage boy or girl is to such parents a Problem.

Long distance I treasured my children’s changes. I loved the cute babies (who doesn’t), the toilet training, teaching them the mysteries of how to use the Men’s room at O’Hare, airline food, revolving doors, and room service. I bought a Mac in 1984 and we cheered Happy Mac in my little studio near Fisherman’s Wharf. I liked the debates that would erupt on the fundamentals in their teen years.

I do not love the silence today as my son goes to Laos without stopping in Hong Kong.

Today, I deal with Asian parents who work hard to ensure that their children get into top schools. But in America, especially when I was young, parents were and are more ambivalent.

Asian parents seem to save more conscientiously for their children’s education and seem to have the funds to purchase after school programs which I teach. But as an American parent, I did not, and while my father saved more conscientiously, five children represented a potential financial disaster.

This invests the American parent, at some subconscious level, in his child’s failure, in his being predefined as essentially a problem, because then he can go, for example, to a state university.

I had the highest ACT verbal score in the history of my school, but wound up at a low-rated school through a combination of my own disinterest in tasks dictated by others, my laziness, and, perhaps, my parents’ fear of the tuition payments at a place like Princeton…at which I worked years later, and took classes, for credit. I subconsciously cooperated with the real plan, which was to seek as innocuous a middle class track as possible.

My parents were also believers, as were my uncles and aunts, in working after school, something Hong Kong kids aren’t encouraged to do. Since I was busy teaching myself things I wanted to learn, including art, mathematics and writing fugues (that very name accurately coding the effort as a “flight” from an unbearable constructed reality), I wasn’t interested, but I did see a lot of fellow students stunting their lives with long hours at McDonald’s, which opened up its first outlet in Desplaines in the 1960s.

My therapist, who seemed Frankfurt School, tried to get me to face reality: OK, the constructed “reality” is constructed and it is unbearable, so you need to do something about it. Instead, I passive-aggressively went along until it became truly unbearable, and then I blighted my children’s life by having a “midlife crisis” at the age of 31.

But I’d struggled, in my own way. I signed up for graduate school in computer science, got straight As, but then, allowed my wife to persuade me that it took too much time away from the kids. The head of department was also genuinely puzzled what I was doing in his department, and tried to explain to me that it wasn’t trying to produce scholars, only successful Loop data processors with fancy-sounding degrees.

In the 1960s, the usual compromise between parent and teenager was acceptable Bs and Cs at school, a brutal fast food job, and free time spent boozing it up and chasing members of the opposite sex, which turn into four meaningless years at Northern Illinois, early marriage, kids, and a job which most of my relatives were able to like. After four less than stellar years at Roosevelt University in Chicago, which my Mom selected but my Dad didn’t like because it was “full of Negroes and Communists” (a point in its favor for me), I who’d wanted To Paint allowed myself to be tracked into programming…which I found really, really interesting.

But I was living in Max Weber the sociologist’s “polytheistic” world, in which people learn to separate, sharply, different lifeworlds with different ultimate standards of justification. As a result, I had difficulty separating the struggle to succeed in business from family life and wound up divorced.

Fast forward. My own son did even better on the SAT. He received equally high scores on the verbal and math parts for a combined score of 1560/1600. I was thrilled, but when I tried to communicate my joy to my former wife she seemed just not to care, and more concerned with the many ways he irritated her. And because of the expenses of two households, despite the fact that I paid child support, I’d been completely unable to save a dime for myself, much less my son’s education.

He had been defined as a problem in Weber’s “polytheistic” world, where part of learning is learning to switch attention brutally and rapidly between completely different and completely unrelated subjects…in ultimate preparation for the world where the Wall Street thug is actually able to go home, and be a good father, for real.

This was because as a natural child, he was interested in what he was interested in, strongly, without limit, just as I was alternatively fascinated by Avalon Hill’s wargame Gettysburg, a book, or re-enacting Shakespeare plays with my toy Britain’s Limited “Knights of Agincourt”, or baseball. And just as my own parents didn’t celebrate this, my former wife was too overwhelmed most of the time, especially when she had to bring the kids to school and get to work, and my son was debugging his Macintosh software.

Money made all the difference. I was improvidently seeking the ideal software job up and down the West coast, using the dregs of what were supposed to be retirement packages and credit cards to ensure the child support was paid, as the software business evolved to the hellish nightmare it is today…where you can’t even program, but must attend meetings and read white papers until you want to soil yourself. My wife was working hard at one job and saving her money, but had my son been accepted at Princeton, we would have had few resources.

My boss at Princeton assured me that the University would find a way, but none was needed, since like me my son had inferior grades as opposed to SAT/ACT test scores, because getting good grades is mostly (especially in public schools) about demonstrating focus on one thing at a time.

The ironic tragedy is that SAT measures ability to benefit from education and was meant to be taken cold, without prep. I took it cold, and likewise, my son couldn’t be bothered with Kaplan. This means my son should have been given resources to go to a top school and it was a judgement on my son’s English teacher.

I’d read his snarky and idiotic comments on a paper my son had written on Catcher in the Rye. The structure of the comments was interesting, for structurally our experience, my experience, is to be the Great White Hope at first and then to let educational systems down. I’d entered high school to get straight As but my performance nosedived after Kennedy was shot to the cheers of some of the horrors I had to spend every day with (including Ted Nugent, the insane right-wing rock star in later life).

The teacher expressed disappointment that Eddie’s paper was taking an unexpected direction. He wanted to see the sort of essay you’d get today if you Googled “winning essay” but with a deep irony, my son like Holden Caulfield went his own way, and the teacher didn’t understand. So my son received a low grade. I should have been there, as my Dad was there when my own high school tried to refuse me a diploma: my Dad paid those clowns a visit, and I graduated after a summer class. It’s why I love him after all is said and done.

My son later found his own scholarship and educational support, but the family system would not let go. He is constantly subject to depression as I was: the depression, that is, of being the scapegoat and the mark for a larger dysfunction; that of the family and a society in which oil is now destroying the Caribbean Sea.

This tragedy isn’t healed by my teaching, of course, but I am pretty good with the “problems”, the kids who come in struggling with their Indonesian or Filipina helpers.

Tiger Monk (my name for him) likes to move and can moonwalk and do Kung Fu. Of course, the urge to do so strikes Tiger Monk at the strangest damned times, such as when we’re supposed to be doing Skills Book. My own sense of the absurd makes me his friend, nonetheless, they pay me for teaching attention to task, so to chill the Monk, I give him a book on dance, and he’s fascinated while the other kids do skills book.

I can even assign traditional punishments. One day, when Tiger Monk was being exceptionally obstreperous, I said, “OK, write ‘I will not be obstreperous’ 100 times, you young brute”. I sat down next to him and showed him the new word “obstreperous” and what it meant. I showed him how to write in different styles: joined up, engineering lettering, and funny. As he wrote, I sat next to him describing how in the “old days” guys in China and New York had to copy documents by hand. He wrote the sentence 100 times as we used to in the 1950s and calmed down.

Elephant Monk likewise prefers not to write characters in boxes. And when he fails, his response is to run around the room, questing. At this point, Teacher has to think like Jenny Holzer, the New York conceptual artist who writes gnomic sentences such as ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE. Thinking in isolated words, as parent in my experience, as teacher, makes you Go Crazy: HE.RUN.AROUND.ROOM.AI-YAH.

Instead, one leads the Elephant Monk (carefully), back to his seat whilst singing a merry song such as “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines”. One reflects in a complete sentence “They pay me to do this: the big boss actually sweats bullets to deposit the payroll on time for me: lo, I could be distributing flyers for Modern Toilet Restaurant in Jardine’s crescent dressed as a pile of ice cream which looks like poo, since the ‘theme’ of Modern Toilet is food as poo, eaten whilst sitting on a toilet, and I am not making this up, and isn’t Asia a strange and wonderful place to be”.

I should have been there for my kids, as a tutor and a Homework Helper, and on my kids’ ass, but regrets are pointless. I’d first learned that I love teaching because my Mom had asked me to tutor my kid brother in math. Since she paid me, I did not resent the fact that I’d received no such help, but I really enjoyed the work. But in the Eighties I was focused on trying to get rich in Silicon Valley, for the kids and, of course, for myself.

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn saw the evil in American society of 1960s in the nightmare of childhood. These were dreary classrooms, Catholic or public schools, with only islands of meaning; for example, I thought sentence diagrams were cool. But mostly they were a wasteland in which boys stumbled through reading, were mocked by women, and put grease on their hair in response.

Hundreds of students at Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels school in the 1950s died miserably because the nun in charge told them to sit still and pray rather than try to lead them to safety…or find their own way out of the burning school.

Bill and Bernardine were radicalized by this experience. Nothing since then has changed my conviction that we SDS members were right. And the system since that time has lost a war whilst killing civilians and is now fouling the Caribbean sea.

Of course, teaching the children of the wealthy in Hong Kong isn’t idealistic. I tutored homeless kids in New York but only could do so on Saturdays, and at DeVry University I taught computer science to 60 students from poor and minority backgrounds. If I get rich, which I probably won’t, I can teach for the UN, and give my helper money for her daughter to attend university.

My dad, the old monster, said it well. His office was on north Michigan avenue and it changed during the 1970s from an attractive, tree-lined boulevard with Kroch’s and Brentano’s books, Stuart Brent books, and a dime store (Kresge’s) with a lunch counter to the odious replicant it is today: it looks just like Central in Hong Kong.

He wondered what was the point of buying all this crap. All this useless beauty, when children are being neglected. But he was inside the system: he bought fancy 1960 Cadillacs.

And…someone inside the System, unlike Bill Ayers, has to say these things. Ayers doesn’t have to compromise having somewhat of an academic perch. His sons and grandsons see him every day.

And that which should accompany Old-Age,
As Honor, Loue, Obedience, Troopes of Friends,
I must not looke to haue


True “immanent” criticism in Adorno’s sense would be for Studs Lonigan, the victim/perp inside the Chicago machine, to find a voice, and not die, as does Studs Lonigan in James T Farrell’s book Judgement Day, miserably after a day of fruitless job hunting, boozing, smoking, and peepshows on south Michigan.

Studs Lonigan is what the system manufactures. He is like me an addictive personality, trivial, filled with fear and unfulfilled lusts, who has a basic savagery (EF Hobsbaum’s “anarchism of the lower middle class”) which emerged in riots on Armistice Day 1918, race riots in 1919 in Chicago, and on VE and VJ days.

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen: my kids can no longer stand me but I will speak the truth all the same. To quote Auden, then:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.


2 Responses to “Problem kid”

  1. Touching, humble, and human. Captivating from beginning to end.

  2. spinoza1111 Says:

    Thanks for reading it, Phil.

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