When I was very little—maybe three years old—I only wanted to be . . . married to Denise, the little girl who lived next door. I told my mother I was moving out.
“Where will you live?” she asked, with a note of curious surprise.
“Here,” I said.
“How will you get money to buy food?”
“I’ll get a working business, like Daddy.”
“A working business! Like what?”
“I can work at a filling station.” This really didn’t even strike me as a hard question.
“What do you know how to do at a filling station?”
“Wash windshields.” Clearly, I had already thought about how easy that looked.
“Well, Randy, you can’t even reach the windshields.”
“I’ll climb up on the cars.”
That’s my earliest memory of knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be Denise’s husband. And I wanted to climb up on cars to wash windshields. I was ready to begin right away. I didn’t even think I needed to grow up to be what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I think, all through my childhood, I had an idea, on any given day, what I wanted to be. I’d think about it lying in bed, not sleeping, which was a good part of every night.
I have this early photo of myself, dressed up like a cowboy. No, not just dressed up, being a cowboy. I’m only two years old, but I have the wide-legged stance, the boots placed delicately on the ground, a hat perched on my head, and six-guns at forty-five-degree angles to my shoulders.
When people say, “what I want to be when I grow up,” they are talking about a life they want, a kind of person they’re becoming. They want to live like a cowboy, look like a cowboy, be seen by others as a cowboy. It’s what they want to be known for—how they want to be recognized, not just a job they want. A cowboy gets to wear a certain kind of hat and footwear, hold particular tools. Other people recognize him as a cowboy when he goes by. It’s not just his work that makes him a cowboy.
That’s one difference between the me in the cowboy picture and the me as a gas station guy. The cowboy picture had not one bit of practicality to it. I was not, of course, trying to figure out how to buy food. (If you’d asked me, I’d have said I’d just kill my food.) I wasn’t thinking about doing a cowboy’s duties. I was just being a cowboy—the whole deal. In the gas station story, I was not hoping to look like a gas station guy or have others recognize me as one. That was about a jobby-job.
For a while, I thought I would be a doctor on weekdays, a professional football player on Saturdays, and a preacher on Sundays. Why should I choose, when there were so many days in a week? If I became only a doctor, how would I get to have fun playing football? And what would God do without me? It seemed unfair to have to grow up and lose parts of myself that I had right now. I could not accept growing up if it meant being just one thing.
My father used to say to me, “I don’t care what you are when you grow up. I don’t care if you dig ditches. But just make sure, if you do, that you’re the best dadgum ditch digger you can be.” I never wanted to be a ditch digger. I had never even seen anyone doing that job, but it sounded pretty hard.
This talk with my dad always seemed like a conversation about jobs, but now I think we were really talking about becoming a sort of person when I grew up. And that’s a whole different way of thinking about what I want to be. “What I want to be” is not just a question about a job or who I want to work for, because a job isn’t all a person is. The guy who washes the windows at the gas station (if such a person still existed) might also be passionate about beautiful colors and care about the environment.
I can imagine some kids still thinking, “Well, I’m going to be an astronaut.” But maybe those kids should ask themselves what’s so great about astronauts. If they love outer space, maybe they know that all their lives, they want to study and learn about one thing, deeply. If they like the uniforms astronauts wear, then maybe they know that they want to wear clothes that make them feel powerful, or that have everything you need right in your pockets. Maybe they are wishing to become some kind of person, and not just for a particular job.
When my dad used to talk to me about what I would be when I grew up, it wasn’t really about something in the future. It was something that had happened that day that made him want to talk to me about it, something I was trying to do in drama, or in sports, or music, or school. I think the real point was that I was becoming someone I was going to be today. It wasn’t really about the future; it was about the present.
Maybe, whenever we think about what we’re going to be when we grow up, we’re thinking about ourselves right now as someone who can become something different. When we say the words “what I want to be . . . ,” we are crawling into a chrysalis.
Randy Bomer teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He loves art and music, and for lunch, he loves chili. He is lucky to be married to the lady who wrote this whole book.