My oldest daughter has a dream.
She, all on her own, found a high school near us that she wants to attend. This school could not POSSIBLY be a better fit for her. It’s arty, it’s free-form, it’s community focused; being loving and kind to one another is one of the tenets of the entire organization. It’s sort of like a Montessori school for almost-grown-ups.
It’s one of the top prep schools in our area. It costs more than a private college. We have trouble putting food on the table most weeks.
Before I go on, let me tell you a story. It’s a story that has been repeated so often that it’s passed into legend or lore; I have no idea if it ever really happened, though I’ve found it referenced in dozens of scholarly articles (but never with a footnote). It FEELS so real that nobody seems to mind.
It goes like this:
Behavioral scientists set up a food reward – let’s say it was a bunch of ripe bananas – at the top of a ladder, and let a group of monkeys into the room. The monkeys immediately made for the ladder and the bananas, as you’d expect. Easy access, great reward.
As soon as the first monkey touched the ladder, the scientists sprayed him with ice-cold water. Then they ALSO sprayed the rest of the group with water, so the entire band was punished for the first one’s effort.
Another monkey tried it – same result. Ice water in the face for the whole group.
Within a short amount of time, not only was nobody heading for the ladder, but if a monkey so much as considered it, the rest of the group would drag him down and beat him up. They were not going to take the fall for that monkey’s mistake.
At this point, the scientists introduced a new monkey, one who had never been sprayed. The new monkey headed for the ladder – and was immediately grabbed, dragged down, and punished. He quickly learned to not approach the ladder.
As the experiment progressed, the scientists introduced more and more new monkeys, and gradually removed the original ones. By the end of the experiment, the entire group was made up of monkeys who had never been sprayed with water, who had no idea why they shouldn’t get the bananas, but who were just as viciously attacking any newbie who dared to go near the ladder.
Thus ends our story. The moral is twofold: First, misery and deprivation are extremely contagious, and the disease is usually spread through deliberate effort on the part of the miserable one. If I’m depressed and feel like my life has not met my expectations, I’m going to do my very best to make sure that everyone around me feels the exact same way – by force if need be. Second, you really have no idea if somebody else can’t do something. All you know is that YOU can’t do it. Don’t perpetuate a myth that is really all about you.
So every time I think about that school and my daughter’s dream, I am closing my eyes and shutting up. She’s incredibly mature and she knows her own mind better than most adults; she’s not oblivious to our family’s means and me telling her that we’re poor has no purpose except to steal her joy and knock her off the ladder. She’s surprising me already. She got herself to the open house and spoke to teachers and students. She’s investigating creative writing scholarships; she’s (on her own) made appointments for a full day of shadowing a peer student and meeting with the admissions director. Even if she never gets any further than this, the lessons she’s learned about how to be a serious adult and network are invaluable – and she never would have learned them if I had said “Impossible; it’ll never work – have you seen how often we eat beans?” And she ALSO would never have learned them if we were wealthy enough to just write a check. Whatever happens next, whether a great reward or a no, she’s gained a level of determination and optimism that may well change how she lives the entire rest of her life.
And, of course, this made me think about dogs – because everything makes me think about dogs – and the other big theme in my life, which is teaching and photography. And I wondered how many times I’ve seen new breeders knocked off that ladder, or new teachers, or new photographers. How much time and energy and love is wasted by that group milling around the bottom of the ladder looking for an ankle to grab? And how much time is wasted on the fear that somebody will think we’re being “too big for our britches” until we are so paralyzed that we’ll simply stop the effort entirely?
I think I need to go try to climb some ladders. Bananas may be awaiting me.