“Boyhood” and “Being Mortal”: Agency, Agency, Agency

I spent my winter break with a 2-year old whose mantra, as you might imagine, was “I do it myself!” Her areas of expertise: steps and doors. I quickly learned that if I tried to open the door, she would shriek. If I let her do it, she would try and try until she got it. I had to be patient, but she stopped shrieking as I learned to be patient and give her time and space to perfect her craft.

I’ve just finished Atul Gawande’s thoughtful and significant book, Being Mortal. In it, he reflects on our reluctance to acknowledge, much less embrace, the notion that our bodies will, in fact diminish, and we will, one day, face the end of our lives. He examines not only death, but quality of life and care for the elderly, and the ways in which we restrict autonomy and remove agency in the name of safety or to extend life—but at a cost. As we see in his example of the institutionalized diabetic who is forbidden dessert—who could, if she lived on her own, choose to indulge now and then.

He investigates and reflects on what becomes important to people as they approach their final years:

The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. …. We have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of [professionals] believe their job is not to confine people’s choices, in the name of safety, but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life. (Gawande 141)

Consider applying that excerpt to schooling, as in: “The battle of [learning; finding one’s passion, voice, interests] is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s own life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from … who you want to be. …. We have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of [educators] believe their job is not to confine [students’] choice… but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life.”

Lest you consider connecting end-of-life issues with early-life issues a bit of a stretch, consider Richard Linklater’s recent film, Boyhood. It was an unusual artistic venture—he began the fictional tale in 2002 when the actor playing the main character, Mason, was 6 years old and returned to film the next segment each year until his senior year and high school graduation in 2013.

We watch the character and the actor grow up over the span of two hours. Artistically, it was extraordinary, but beyond that, what leapt out to me, and felt so very true, was the way that every adult in the film with the exception of two—his mother and one teacher (in a brief encounter toward the end of his high school career) talked at him.

Mason was lectured to endlessly by nearly every adult in his life. He was a smart, artistic, quiet, reflective boy, but with the exception of his mother, you would not have known that by the interactions he had with adults. His father, his step father, his teachers, all spent their time with him telling him how life is, how he should act, how he should be, how to succeed, how insufficient he is, what a failure he will be, etc.

This was Mason’s interaction with his school photography teacher, Mr. Turlington:

I’m worried about you, Mason.

[laughs] Why is that?

I’ll tell you why: The images you’re turning in, they’re cool. You’re looking at things in a really unique way. Got a lot of natural talent.

Thanks.

Yeah, but that and 50 cents will just get you a cup of coffee in this old world. I’ve met a LOT of talented people over the years. How many of them made it professionally without discipline, commitment and really good work ethic?

[Shrugs]

I can tell ya. I can count it on two fingers. [Makes A-ok hand gesture] Zero. It’s not gonna happen for you, Mason. The world is too competitive. There are too many talented people who are willing to work hard; and a buttload of morons who are untalented, who are more than willing to surpass you.

The interaction does not even make complete sense—unless you are accustomed to the logic of school, where learning and exploration are, too often, not the goal. Certainly goals and outcomes typically do not include self-discovery, and the development of one’s own vision, voice and passions. Discipline, delayed gratification, the subversion of one’s desires—in the interest of “what’s good for you”—is much more commonly the goal.

Interestingly, Mason’s mother listens and respects her son’s integrity, even in the opening scenes, when he is only 7. They are driving home from school:

Your teacher said you’re behind on your homework assignments.

No, I did them, they were just sitting in my backpack.

So, why didn’t you turn them in?

She never asked for them.

Well, honey, she’s not supposed to ask for them. It’s your job to give them to her once you’ve finished.

Oh.

She also said you destroyed her pencil sharpener.

No I didn’t.

Then what did you put in it instead of pencils?

Rocks.

Why were you putting rocks in the pencil sharpener?

Because I needed them for my arrowhead collection.

Who among us is patient and kind enough to continue to question and listen that long?