Friday, April 20, 2012

The Adolescent's Guide to Money

It's amazing how much of your adult life is consumed by accumulating, spending, hoarding, investing, giving, receiving, losing and contemplating money.

It's also amazing to watch my students slowly develop an awareness of money's importance, alongside their struggles with exams, co-curricular activities and parents. In both cases there is the same overwhelming incredulity and boredom - how could something so dull eventually come to take up so much time and head-space?

To my younger teenage students, money is nothing more or less than a vast, grey, amorphous jelly blob hovering over their lives. Occasionally it clouds a decision at the parental level, but rarely dips down to interfere with the daily grind of homework, Facebook, school projects and co-curricular activities. Money for them is measured in two dollar and ten dollar notes, in fifty cent coins for a swirly ice cream cone at McDonald's every Monday evening after tuition class. It emerges from a parent's pocket, or the blue and grey ATM in the wall with the grimy, sticky number pad.

As they get older, they learn from their parents, for whom money is the paramount concern in life (note: that seems to change once retirement age - and death - beckons; i.e., when it's too damn late). By 15 or 16, I start to hear: "Teacher, what for study humanities? Science stream is better." Triple sciences and A Mathematics form the achievement code that unlocks a future where 'a good job' awaits.

Which is all they want, or are told to want by their elders: "A good job is one where you earn a good salary!"

Sometimes I get the optimists, teenagers who bubble up with enthusiasm and hope for a job where they will "enjoy working" and "have fun". But more common are the realists, who talk vaguely about becoming accountants or doctors. Not out of a passion for numbers or saving lives, but for the perceived prestige and high income. Most of them will end up as middle management, planted for the next 40 to 50 years in fields that run a whole rainbow of diversity - all the way from stolid blue business development to wan greige human resources.

Once in a while, one of my students will daringly venture to ask how much I earn. I think they are confused by my stories of living in Melbourne, my TV accent, maybe even my clothing. They wonder, what the hell is she doing here if she had enough money to study abroad? And perhaps, how can I avoid the same fate?

These students - usually the offspring of striving Type A parents - seem to feel a little bit sorry for their tuition teachers, who are part of the revolving cast of nannies, maids, swimming coaches, violin instructors and school counsellors they see on a daily basis. They don't see themselves growing up to be tuition teachers anymore than they see themselves becoming domestic helpers. To them, real live people are financially successful, gaining three-dimensional bulk from the solid, trustworthy weight of money and fixed assets. Everyone else are dim figures fluttering in the background, like the servant and chauffeur paper dolls the Taoists burn at funerals to ensure a comfortable afterlife for the deceased.

I can't help these students, who have waded out too far to reach. But for the rest who are still uncertain, still coming to terms with who they want to be and what they think they should be, I offer up a subversive element to our conversations: I tell them that grown-up life doesn't always have to be about money. Having money is very important, yes, but doing what makes you happy is far more important. Cliched lessons, but they are very easily overlooked when every other adult in your life is telling you to grow up quick and make lots of money soon.

Anyway, being practical, I don't expect my students to remember my words, or even their lessons. But if there is one thing I have learnt from the Christians, it's that seeds can be planted early on, for harvesting decades later. Every year, I patiently lay down the first dark roots that will run riot under the surfaces of their minds. Beneath the city grime of crumpled dollars, employment contracts and COEs, maybe some silly and pointlessly lovely weed of an idea will poke its head out in 2032. A tax specialist can always take up painting lessons again. One can always hope.

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