When I was young, my mother told me I could grow up to be anything I wanted. I learned fast that she meant it. It had been planned that way, as many American successes are. My college savings fund was pushing two figures before I hit the age of five. By age seven, I had held the first Olympic torch in Greece, peeked over Niagara’s falls, rolled alongside Oregon’s tumbleweeds, and danced for the rains in the middle of Albuquerque’s coughing desert.
Yes, I was a child bound for glory, hatched and trained in the alarm-protected walls of white suburbia and bred to see and shape the world to my will. It was only natural that I should have lofty ambitions in life.
“I am going to be a pick-pocket,” I told my father’s business partner at a young age.
“A pickpocket. You know, like Oliver Twist.” I watched his face scrunch. “Have you seen Oliver Twist? I am going to be like him.”
I pictured myself, a newsboy hat and ragged cut-offs, sprinting through the streets singing. It was a beautiful career choice, and I was lucky to have found my calling at such a young age. Other kids aimed too low. Tom wanted to fight fire. Jill wanted to be a nurse. But me, I would be a full-on thieving dance number. I would be quick and clever, shy and charming. I would live on stale bread and form secret handshakes with artful greasy-haired boys.
“She’s kidding,” my mother would tell people whenever conversation of my life’s ambition arose. “She just saw Oliver Twist and became obsessed with it.”
“No I’m not!” I insisted. I would lift up the wallet I slipped from my father’s back pocket ten minutes prior. “I’ve been practicing!”
One must imagine the horror this stuck in my poor parents' hearts- their Ivy-League bound little girl, resigned to a life of boyish pilfering.
But what else was I to do? My career options were terribly limited given who I was…
I couldn’t fly, so Peter pan was out of the question. Failed attempts at pole vaulting had proved that Aladdin was a long shot. Robin Hood’s appeal was killed by that awful beard of his. Huck Finn was too edgy to replicate. I could have been Tiny Tim, but both of my legs worked just fine, and I didn’t want to grow up to be disingenuous. Still, I was not going to give up on my big life dreams. I was not going to aspire to “Police Officer” or “Teacher.”
In time, I learned that Oliver’s habit of robbing innocent streetwalkers was both “morally wrong” and hurtful to my parents. So, I aimed to become something happier, something that brought pride and joy to people.
“When I grow up, I would like to be a Christmas elf,” I told the lady in the grocery store check-out line. She had asked, and I was proud to have a new, more socially-acceptable job planned. “My name will be Elmo the Elf.”
My mother shook her head and laughed. “Well, I told her she could be anything she wanted!”
The shopper lady frowned at me like I had just told her my favorite snack food was baby birds.
As it turned out, Santa was actually code word for “Dad, when he stumbles down the stairs with bags of presents.” No real Santa meant no real elves. No real elves meant that I was, again, a boy out of work.
I flitted through several careers after that. For a while, I considered newsie. It still had the great clothing and dance numbers, but it didn’t have the same legal risks as Oliver. This, of course, fell through when I realized that our own newspaper magically appeared before dawn every morning on the driveway. Even if a person put that paper there as I suspected, I was not interested in getting up that early.
I needed a better career goal, something to really aim for, something that would stick, something that came from television rather than books and movies.
Recently, someone told me that when he was young, his father’s friends used to ask what he wanted to be when he grew up. He always corrected the question. “You mean, what do I want to do?” he’d say.
I am still asking myself that question. If review my many life plans, I suppose I want to pole-vault around the North Pole singing “God bless us, everyone” in a newsboy cap. But that doesn’t seem like a viable option either.
I always wanted to be what I wanted to do. I wanted to do boy things, so I naturally wanted to be a boy. And if I could achieve that impossible goal, why not aim even higher? Why not aim for Boy Adventure Hero?
Anything was possible, my mother told me. It was the first thing she taught, and the last thing I heard before going to bed at night. I could grow up and be anything I wanted. And lately, I think she meant it, too.