The Dissillusionment of America's Middle-class Youth
Suburbs. High school football games. Green. Church. School. Buses. Backpacks. Lawn mowers. Et cetera.
Things like these always find their way into your thoughts when you hear of America's suburbs, most certainly in the Midwest. Unfortunately nothing much else does I feel. Having spent almost my entire life entrapped by a suburban culture filled with lower to upper middle class citizens I have seen just about every inch of my small community of Lake Zurich, which sits in northeastern Illinois.
Since I was two my family moved from one suburb to this one until eighteen years later I still find myself living within the same walls I have since my first memories began piling on. I attended preschool here, went to elementary school here, middle school, and then high school. I saw friends move in and move out of each of those schools, seemingly in shifts, and everything felt as though it never changed and always did simultaneously. I was there to see my cats and dogs die as I grew and less and less people were surrounding me.
All I've had in this town I could call family were my parents, for all my relatives live on the east coast in New Jersey or Florida for the most part, and as an only child my siblings were always a television and Sega Saturn or maybe a Playstation. And though the suburbs may have appeared lush and lively as a child I couldn't help but see a dull, monotonous and morbidly vacuous place unfold as my age went further into its double digits.
By the time I was eighteen the fall made me think of death; the death of a warm summer and the onset of an irritating and bitter winter. Every bench in every park held a memory of depression or loss, or maybe a happiness from my childhood I now miss. I can't look at my schools without thinking of how I was teased as a child and never held a girl's hand or received a hug in all those years from sixth to twelfth grade when it was the one thing I wanted most.
The beach looking out into the lake, the middle of town, became a place of mourning and pondering of lost innocence. I can't look at a tree without thinking of walking beneath it in misery years ago. And here I am at twenty, moving out at the end of the summer to a new college.
As you can probably tell, my recollections, my bringing up, has not been a most enjoyable experience for me, and thus it has greatly impacted my view of this town as well as suburbs in general. But I feel as though I'm not alone in my contempt for this lifestyle I've come to know. Everywhere I look I find peers as miserable or bored with the place as I am. Detachment is something many of us feel. Spoiled, perhaps, but most of all, withheld.
Granted my college is technically not in this town it certainly doesn't feel far considering the same greenness and repetitive rows of strip malls between branching neighborhood after branching neighborhood remain constant within my view on the drive up to the place. The college I attended until this summer was the College of Lake County's Grayslake campus, essentially a cheap, dormless high school without lockers and with shorter hours. At the beginning of every day there, I'd drive up in harsh weather for most of the year, and find myself sitting isolated in class even if I was in the proximity of my peers. Most of the teachers wound up sneaking in biased opinionated attacks at our generation, saying we were too “dumbed down” of a film audience or “inattentive” for literature. At the end of the courses, I'd get up and drive home, back to Lake Zurich and back to a little bland retreat within my home. Either that, or I'd stand in my movie theater and become a human ticket and popcorn machine.
I knew a friend who had become so shielded by the middle class lifestyle that he had nothing to do but rebel against it. He'd get a cheap thrill from driving in school zones, drunk and stoned, chugging a beer and not wearing a seat belt. Or perhaps he'd smoke a pot-filled cigarette as a police cruiser passed him by uptown at a busy intersection, the adrenaline working its inner magic through this mild exhibitionism. He sold marijuana in other territories, telling me he sometimes dealt at night in places where people of our skin color and class had been shot. And now, with this kid being twenty-one, I find him moving to China to pursue a career in teaching English which may turn out to be a wild goose chase to pursue the Asian Dream. “I have perfect pronounciation, so I'll be helping teach down there,” he'd told me one evening in a drunken stupor. I didn't bother mentioning that he had pronounced “pronunciation” wrong, as I was stupefied by this perfectly ironic conversation.
As for his parents, as well as mine, I don't think they truly understand the reason he wants so much to go down to that overpopulated place. They simply see it as silly or as a means to party, without being able to empathize because of a generation gap. But I understand perfectly. It's the drive to escape, not only this suburb, but a materialistic and boring part of America, a place so filled with restrictions instilled by soccer moms and boards of all shapes and sizes. Censorship is something none of us can handle here. The world is a sick place, and though we are living in this place, so green and concealed by the fog of religion and social grouping keeping people misplaced and outside, it is equally sick in my eyes. And the act of running, of fleeing to a place that feels free of stressors and plain ignorance of its youth's true wants and needs, is hope enough to restore some part of ourselves, to help us find identity without being repressed by social confinements when we are not those good suburban children. As this friend has learned, having been to China, getting in trouble is much harder there as opposed to here. In a sense, it's more open and free than a country based on freedom.
I myself wish to move to Miami or the Keys after touching base in Chicago, down to that beautiful peninsula of Florida I've longed for since I was a kid. If only to escape the suburbs, the endless lined lawns and fragile people, to the tip of the country where I can feel no snow, nothing pushing me back, nothing pulling me back to the mainland where apathy roams and politics make up the people. Lake Zurich is but one town, but the houses in suburbs are all the same, the neighborhoods equally mapped out, roads filled with potholes and kids riding bikes alongside them because there's not another thing to do. Kids get into trouble because they get tired, and their parents punish them for desiring freedom and independence. “You're supposed to go to church,” they say. “You have more opportunities here than I ever had,” they claim.
But is opportunity not having the freedom to choose a path? Is it being brought up in a world where desensitization by negative and violent media is looked at as less offensive than exposure to the naked form? Is it being constrained and oppressed by rules and regulations which cancel out the right to express or refuse to conform? Opportunity to most adults is going through years of education, most courses repeating what has already been learned, teachers teaching not for skills in life but for the next test, and formality and bureaucracy being what determines what and who we become.
It's these supposed utopias people praise there, families retreat to to grow, but when the children grow apathetic because of the lack of compassion toward their conditions, the bubble of denial consuming parents' minds and clamping down on youthful blossoming, and when the parents are split by divorce or at the least separation, they will hate these patches of green. It's as though the heart of American life is a place where dreams cannot thrive for many of us, and we are lost trying to find other places where there isn't so much that keeps us from exploring, from living in our ways, from seeing the world within it, not through a looking glass.