Her family, my values
Is it OK to nudge my girlfriend's kid brother toward a life more like mine?
“Do you think you’ll go to college when you’re older?” I’d often asked Jack this question when we’d walk around Northeastern’s campus, knowing it was a loaded question. This was six years ago, when I was a 20-year-old college student and Jack, my girlfriend Tara’s much younger brother, was just 6. He’d visit her at school and sleep on her futon; we’d take him for pizza and to the Fenway movie theater. And though he was only beginning grade school, I’d pick his brain about his distant future. Perhaps it’s because I was asked the same question at that age.
Tara and I come from different worlds: mine a family of well-educated nomads who never live in one place more than a few years, and hers a traditional Irish-American clan in South Boston who rarely – if ever – move from the neighborhood. Tara says that when she enrolled at Northeastern, 10 minutes from Southie, it was as if she had left the state. Jack visited there more often than any other family member, and the two of us quickly bonded. Now, I’ve been around as long as he can remember. The family treats me like one of its own, even if I’m a different breed from the guy Tara was expected to bring home. But as entrenched in the family as I may be, am I overstepping my bounds by encouraging their youngest toward a way of life more like mine?
While my parents basically mandated college enrollment for my sisters and me, Tara is the first member of her immediate family to attend. And now, as she is wrapping up her master’s, it is a source of great pride for her. Yet I know she’d be even happier if Jack were to go to college. Fourteen years older, she’s very maternal when it comes to her brother.
One of the things I appreciate about Southie culture, at least the way Tara and most of her friends experienced it, is how children are truly raised by committee. Whereas my family was always a plane ride from either set of grandparents, Jack has immediate access to his parents and grandmother, as well as aunts, uncles, cousins, close family friends, and, of course, Tara. There are so many voices in his life, I wonder if mine is just white noise. Still, I know that to Jack I represent something distinct. He knows I look, dress, and talk differently than most of the people around him. He’s also curious about how I grew up, what it was like to have sisters close to my age, and how I can afford so many musical instruments and a relatively new car. Jack’s inquisitiveness reassures me that my “go to college” input is warranted. After all, it’s his choice to make – I’m just presenting my perspective.
The option will certainly be there for him, assuming he keeps up his studies, since Jack is a smart kid who gets good grades. Yet through all the years I’ve been asking him about college, he has always sounded intrigued but noncommittal. Still, even as he entered the typical “I hate school” phase, he never ruled out college altogether. He remained curious.
Last summer, we took Jack to my parents’ oceanfront house in Virginia Beach. I wondered how the experience would strike him. Surrounded by my strange-talking family in a neighborhood that looked entirely different from Southie’s streets, would he find his eyes opened to a world he may not have realized existed? I watched as he played basketball with my mother, the same woman who pushed me toward college from a young age. She asked him questions about school, but never uttered the word “college.” Later, I told her I’ve been putting the thought into his head for years. “I’m sure he listens,” she said, “but you won’t determine whether he goes to college.” His friends and interests are key, she said, adding that it’s about him figuring out who he is and making that choice for himself.
Sure enough, Jack invited a friend over recently and the boys brought up which colleges they like. Out of nowhere, Jack declared he’d like to attend Boise State – because he likes the football team. “Well, it’s a long way from Southie,” I said, “but college sounds good to me.” He grinned. “Yeah, I’m still thinking about it.”
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