Our gang

petey-SQAt breakfast at the Phoenicia Diner one morning, my soon-to-be-25-year-old son Nick talked about this bunch of area kids his age who all know each other. A couple of them may have finished community college, and the others have dropped out somewhere along the educational path. Some would like to finish college if they could. Others vehemently reject that route.

These are not your standard college kids thirsty for knowledge and eager for career advancement. They’re the opposite, cynical about the benefits of schooling but extremely supportive toward each other. They’re all in the same boat, rowing against the tide. They’re the waste product of a society that once believed in equal opportunity but no longer practices it.

One might describe these young people not only as congenitally undereducated but also as chronically underemployed. Though a couple of them subsist on handouts from relatives, most work part-time or intermittently as housekeepers, waitpersons and dogsitters, as landscapers, contractors and electrical apprentices. They’re competent at what they do. They’re as smart as anyone else. Maybe smarter.

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They travel a lot to North American cities, and some have been to Europe. Though they talk often of moving to the West Coast, they’re still here. Time is passing.

My son, thanks to his recent college degree and already decaying computer skills, is the only one on their frail vessel with a plausible round-trip ticket. He can go back and pass for ambitious.

Nick likes these young people he knows. He identifies with them more than he does with his college classmates. Why? Because they’re always honest, he says. They try earnestly to express who they are, how they live, what their problems are. Few false notes. They’ve traveled the territory they inhabit. They’re not phonies.

Shades of Holden Caulfield: “You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were.”

July 16 was the 65th anniversary of the publication of Catcher in the Rye.

Maybe these kids should all go to college together. All for one and one for all. How could it happen? What college would have them?

To graduate from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, “every student, with faculty advice and guidance, devises an individual program in which he or she attempts to ask, and answer, a question perhaps never before posed. There is no other undergraduate college that approaches learning this way.”

A lot of these kids haven’t had perfect upbringings. Learning problems are not unknown among them. But they follow their passions. It’s a mean society that excludes on the basis of handicap rather than building on the base of strength.

So here’s my idea, I told my son across the diner breakfast table. You put this group of kids who are as good as anybody else but will probably never have the opportunity to prove it into this college that claims to want to answer questions that may never have been posed. The question you want them to find the answer to is one Socrates asked of Athenian youths 2500 years ago: how they can live meaningful lives contributing to a world that doesn’t usually ask — or answer — questions like that.

Socrates was a real pain in the ass. We need more like him.

My dear friend Julie O’Connor, who edits our Almanac, and I have worked together for decades. She’s one of the few people I know who does her best to live a meaningful life. Her daughter Lucia, who was mostly home-schooled, is a wonderful kid who I think has inherited the meaningfulness gene. Lucia has just finished her first year at Hampshire College. It’s challenging, she says, but she likes it.

My daughter Heather’s stepdaughter Emma, 16, came to Ulster County this month with her family. Heather and her family live in the affordable part of Beverly Hills. Emma wants to go to school on the East Coast, and she’s been doing a tour of colleges. When I mentioned Hampshire, which I knew she visited, her face lit up. That’s where I want to go, she said. She’s considering applying for early admission. I gave her Lucia’s phone number.

So here’s the deal, Hampshire College. Be willing to admit all these kids Nick knows as a group. Give them the opportunity to realize the American dream.

Practically all kids who go to college spend a couple of years finding themselves. Susceptible to false idealism in a false gathering place, they start isolated from one another. For self-protection, they learn a herd instinct often disloyal to who they started out as. Should education feed off weakness, not build on strength?

That isn’t what education has to be.

Admit these kids, Hampshire College. Pay the freight. Arrange for them to share in depth with their fellow students how they intend to live meaningful lives. Have an equal number of regular students tell the young people Nick knows in turn how they intend to live meaningful lives. The two groups, in conjunction with facilitators, should plan a curriculum for exploration of the alternatives. The goal will be to create in this agora a better, more holistic and more examined community life.

It’s an experiment worth conducting. If the opportunity were honestly provided, I believe it would help build what we all need: a less inequitable American society.

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