I’ve been thinking about this question for days because of an exchange I heard on an old episode of public radio’s This American Life. Host Ira Glass was reminiscing about his experience as a child magician.
Glass interviewed a woman who had hired him for a couple of parties back when he was 12. He was talking with her about how it seemed so strange to think of what he had been doing at that age when the woman interrupted him with a question.
“Do you think you’re doing anything different today?” she asked.
Glass protested that what he does now — as a radio host — was clearly different, but the woman would have none of that. To her, the Ira Glass of today is still the storytelling entertainer who she knew as a 12-year-old magician.
I turned the show off at that point, because it suddenly hit me very emotionally that she was right, not just about Glass — but about me. I’m the same person I was at 5 or 10 or 12 or 16. I’m still the same person I was when I gave the camera this very serious gaze as a 5-year-old at my kindergarten graduation.
The photo is old and the quality isn’t the best, but when I look into the eyes of this child, I see the same person who looks at me in the mirror each day.
Everything about who I am today — the good and the bad and everything in between — was already in this tiny soul.
I think we forget this. Or maybe I’m the only one.
I realize how much I’ve grown and changed and somehow think I was too young and immature to have been me. But in the past few days, I’ve tried to describe the things I did and the attitudes I had at the time. How much different am I today than I was then?
I was a very serious child and I expected to be taken seriously. I was polite and subservient — as I was taught to be — but I carried myself like an adult in a child suit. I had adult conversations with adults and I had trouble tolerating my peers who didn’t seem to have the desire to become something in this world.
Yes, I laughed and played and had a good time, but I always returned to things which seemed serious to me. As I’ve thought about this over the last few days, here are a few snippets of memory which crossed my mind:
— I always wanted to make money. When I was 5, there was a caterpillar craze among the kids in my Atlanta neighborhood. I set up a little stand in my front yard selling caterpillars to kids who were too lazy or impatient to catch their own. The bigger the caterpillar, the more I charged. The biggest one I had went for 5 cents. I briefly made a killing in this market.
— I went to sleep every night making up stories. As far back as I remember, my stories took me to sleep. I was the hero of the stories. I saved people. They admired me. I was much like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk — brave, charismatic, bold, risk-taking and chivalrous. In my stories, the girls fell for me and the boys wanted to be like me.
— I wanted to lead groups of people who I respected. I established a little club of smart kids in my neighborhood in Meridian, Miss., when I was about 10. Maybe 11. I thought we would have a small company doing investigations for others. I called it United States Spy and Investigation Enterprises. There was a rival club of slightly older boys who lived down the street — they called themselves Flash — and they had been nasty to us. Their dads built them a clubhouse in a small rock canyon near our houses. I took my group out there one day and we burned their clubhouse down. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the older boys never bothered us again.
— When I was about 12, I started a bank. I was unclear about how banks turned a profit, but I bamboozled my sisters — briefly — into putting their money into my bank. It was a locked box in my room and I issued small typed slips of yellow paper to my “depositors” that were good for differing amounts of money. I never figured out how to turn a profit and then the bank was finished when they withdrew their money.
— I wanted to build things. I wanted to make things. I wanted to build organizations and companies that made profit. I wanted to produce great things that would benefit people. I wanted to go into space and build colonies. I was sure this would be possible by the time I was an adult — and I was sure that my company would lead some of those colonies.
I wanted to create. I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be admired. I wanted to be worth admiring — by virtue of doing things that would be life-changing for others. I had no patience for those who didn’t share my dreams. I had no patience for those who told me that my dreams were impractical or impossible. When I was a teenager, I had a mantra that I used to say over and over:
“We do the difficult immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.”
Life turned out to have more bumps and bruises along the way than I thought it would. At different times before I became an adult, I was going to be an engineer, a lawyer, a preacher and president of the United States. After I was an adult, I continued to have adult-sized versions of my child-like dreams. Even now, I have big dreams, some of which I don’t even talk about — because I don’t want to hear unbelievers tell me those things can’t happen.
The more I think about it, the more I’m certain I’m the same person I was as a child. I have the same mind, the same heart and the same hard-nosed determination to eventually get the things I want.
For good or bad, that little boy at my kindergarten graduation — the one who wanted serious respect and admiration and accomplishments — is the same man who sits here tonight. And that makes me happy, because I like that little boy.
I finally realize that I’d be happy to have children who grew up to be a lot like me.