Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Katie Carleton, Lego Architect

Mom wanted to be an architect when she grew up.  Instead, she was sent to beauty school.  

It was the mid-Fifties, when she was seventeen.  Mom had the grades and the talent to get into architecture school, but by her junior year of high school, she decided to quit her hard college prep classes and signed up for home economics instead. She told me this story as we sat on our front porch, when I was a junior in high school myself, still living at home.

“Why'd you do that?”  I asked, picking at the dirt where Mom had just planted seeds that would grow into wildflower vines she'd eventually have to remove when the neighbors complained to the City that we had weeds growing in our suburban yard. It was the Eighties. We lived in Yuppieville.
“Because I knew I was going to marry Jim and I would need to know how to cook and sew, not draw building plans.”

Her folks sent Mom to get a cosmetology license as a backup plan, in case the whole thing with Jim fell through. Mom worked briefly as a professional beauty operator before she married Jim when she was 18, right out of high school.  She didn’t let her beautician skills go to waste. But she never updated her technique either. The old lady hairdos my sisters and I suffered through!  Why pay to cut up a wig on a mannequin head if you have access to free young heads right there living under your roof?

When my sister Kit was eight months old, Mom put her into a high chair with some Cheerios and gave her a perm.  Mom was a pretty lenient parent.  We could basically do whatever we wanted, as long as we were kind to others. And wore scarves over our mouths when we left the house in wintertime so we wouldn't catch a cold.  But there was one thing Mom did not abide: straight hair.  I was twenty-four before I escaped Mom's smelly perm solution and rebelled by allowing my hair to take its natural form.

I’m Mom’s youngest.  So even though I was born at the height of feminism, in 1970, Mom had my oldest brother twelve years before, during a time when midwestern, middle-class, white mothers were expected to be unpaid homemakers despite any other yearnings.  By the time I was a kid, with inflation rising and my dad getting laid off several jobs in a row as the companies he worked for figured out ways to automate him out of his accounting job, my mom had to find a paying job.  At first it was retail.  Montgomery Ward.  Then Kmart.  

When I was ten Mom enrolled at the community college.  She wanted to take some drawing classes, but my dad insisted she only take classes toward a bookkeeping certificate.  He was in charge of our family’s budget and he insisted there was no extra room in it for frivolous classes that wouldn’t help her get a good paying job.

Mom eventually did get a good paying job, bookkeeping, one that she hated.  She’d come home from work exhausted and starving, having worked through her lunch hour, too busy to stop and care for herself. I'd have dinner waiting for her and Dad. We'd eat together, the three of us, what was left of our dwindling family. And if they talked it was about work: debits and credits and accounts receivable and accounts payable and blah blah blah blah blah.

School was no better than home. At the time, my so-called guidance so-called counselor at high school asked me why I wasn't signed up for any more math classes.

"I've finished the requirement. I passed Math 10 last year." I responded, sucking a frayed edge of my dyed red hair.

"But if you plan on going to college you need to take Algebra." He warned me.

"But I don't plan on going to college." I stated, flatly. Why was this guy taking up my time? I wanted to get back to English class so I could spend the best part of my day sitting next to the boy who made me want to come to school. Love, requited or not, gets even emo teenagers out of bed in the morning.
So-Called Counselor said nothing for a long, awkward time as he looked over my file. Finally, he looked up, cleared his throat and said, "Rebecca, you get good grades. Why don't you want to go to college? You'll be able to get a better paying job in the long run."

"I don't care about money. I want to be a writer. I don't need to know algebra to be a decent writer,"  I said to the floor. My voice seethed with anger, but I was afraid if I looked at him I'd cry.

"What sort of writer do you want to be?" He asked, leaning forward in his swivel chair.

I had just read The Color Purple and I was still carrying it around inside me the way I do when I've recently finished a great book. Like I'm living inside it. It's still inside me today and I haven't read that book in more than twenty years.  

"Um. I dunno. Like Alice Walker."

He snorted, then tried to cover like he wasn't laughing at me by leaning over his desk to grab a tissue and blow his nose. When he finished, he tossed the tissue toward the wastebasket. He missed.

"Well, Rebecca. That's a pretty lofty goal. You might want a backup plan, just in case that plan falls through." 

If he were any kind of counselor, he might have pointed out that Alice Walker is college educated. Instead, he excused me so I could return to class. He never harassed me about math, or college, again.

I ended up going to the local community college. I got a good job at the public library, and I've managed to both self-educate myself and make a living wage. And although I long ago shrugged off that immature notion that just because I'm a good reader it means I'm a good writer--just because I connect with a writer doesn't mean my writing is somehow equivalent to hers--I still love to write.

So here I am, middle-aged with one unpublished novel. A writer, yes. This blog makes me feel like I have an outlet. But writing without concern for a paycheck is not nearly as glamorous as it seemed to be when I was seventeen.  

Katie is only six, but she's already been through several career changes. Long ago she announced she's going to be the owner of Katie's Fun Factory when she grows up. From what I understand, Katie's Fun Factory will be some kind of utopia and Katie will run it. It's free. Everyone is allowed to come in as long as they're being nice. You can even sleep over if you want. And you can eat all the candy you like and you'll never get a tummy ache. It has video games and indoor carnival-type rides so you can ride even when it's raining! And it's open all day and all night and if you get sleepy you can just go take a nap on a cot in a quiet room and if you get hungry they have free pizza and corndogs.

I can see why Katie wants such a sweet gig.

Then her cousins gave Katie the best birthday present ever: Lego Friends. The other day, Katie announced she wants to build houses when she grows up.  

"You want to be a construction worker or an architect?" I asked.

"What's an architect?"  

"Someone who designs buildings. Someone who creates them. They draw a blueprint of what they want the building to look like from their imagination and from measuring things."

"OH! I wanna be an architect!" Katie beamed.

"Did you know Grandma Bev wanted to be an architect when she was young?" I sat on the bed next to where Katie was assembling a new house for her Lego Friends characters.

"She's a good drawer." Katie nodded in agreement without looking up, fixated on the two Legos pieces she was snapping together. "Why she's not an architect?"

"Good question. I don't know. It was a different time. When Grandma Bev was young not as many girls went to college and had big careers like they do now," I explained.

At six, it's not like Katie has to hurry and make up her mind what she wants to do with her life. But I'm glad she has choices. When the time comes, if she wants to go to school to be an architect, how very cool. Or even if she wants to try running some kind of indoor commie carnival, that's cool too. I want her to find a livelihood that suits her. I'll encourage her to go to college not because it's the thing to do, or because it will increase her income potential, but because it will expand her mind and give her more opportunities in life.

Or not. By the looks of what she's creating with her Legos, I'd say Katie's showing potential for autodidacticism. Maybe we can spend her college fund on more Legos.

"A House" by Katie Carleton 

aerial view

Big Bunny's Hutch, Mommy and Daddy's House, and A Horse Eating Grass

Mommy and Daddy

Big Bunny's Hutch

Little Bunny's House and Car

Friends' House and Cousins' House