When I was a child I used to cringe whenever adults asked me that question because I was embarrassed about the answer I really wanted to give, one that still stands true today; live in a cottage beside the sea and write fiction all day long. When I turned fifteen and fell in love with my art classroom this answer expanded to ‘and paint pictures as well!’
Now, these are the types of answers that sensible adults with obligations such as bills to pay and mouths to feed will do their best not to scoff at. They’ll shrug their shoulders, heavy with the burden of reality while all the while thinking ‘those aren’t real jobs.’ I was smart enough to know that. I used to wonder what was wrong with me: why couldn’t I be good at maths or more athletic? Less dreamy and more focussed. So instead my answer to that regularly asked loaded question became ‘I don’t know, yet.’
A couple of years ago at school I had the experience of sitting down with Year 10 students for their Senior Education and Training planning interviews. In our ever-competitive global job market the pressure is certainly felt by young people to have their whole future mapped out in front of them. At fifteen years old they must choose their preferred subjects and lock them in for the next two years, with a view to set them up for their chosen tertiary course. While there are definitely some students who have always known what they want to be when they grow up there are still a great number who are not sure or, like me, do know yet the path seems far too risky to stake their future financial stability. I have met the boy who wants to be a computer animation expert yet stuck with Legal Studies to lead them into a law degree, and the exceptional drama student who was going to study Hospitality instead.
Many teachers I know also moonlight as writers, actors, musicians, fishermen, builders, samba dancers, photographers and the list goes on. Some are actually teachers because that is what they have always wanted to be and that is, of course, fantastic, too. Teaching is an interesting profession in its own right but the truth is you are giving of yourself most days until there is nothing left in reserve (thank god for the holidays!) which can be anathema to other creative pursuits.
When I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my headspace a number of years ago a psychologist asked me ‘Who is Jo?’ I replied with ‘I’m a teacher, a wife and a mother.’ She said, ‘That’s not what I asked.’ I got annoyed and said ‘I don’t understand the question.’ She then explained ‘You’ve listed what you do, not who you are. You’re a human being, not a human doing. So, let me ask the question again, ‘Who is Jo?’ The lightbulb went on! ‘I’m a person who loves time alone just to think. A person who values painting, writing and reading. A person who enjoys new experiences and places.’ And the list goes on…
I’m still grateful for that guided conversation. As a result I always make an effort now not to ask teenagers what they want to do when they grow up. I get a better response when I ask them to tell me about their favourite subject or extra-curricular hobbies, or even just to name the highlight of their day. The answers to these questions are more interesting and telling about who they’ll be instead. I hope they’ll take a chance on themselves when it comes time to stepping out into the real world.
Likewise, I can keep my dream about becoming a successful writer to myself all I want but unless I make time to put words onto the screen and keep surrendering them to an audience then that’s all I’ll ever have, a dream. At times it’s a scary proposition but I want to model to those young minds that it’s worth taking a chance on yourself and your true dreams. We only have one life!