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Teaching the "waiting for the van" generation in the 1990s, Phoenix, Arizona


When I started teaching at the Art Institute of Phoenix in 1996, I quickly realized that there was going to be a lot more that I needed to do in addition to teaching Graphic Design, and software. At my advanced age (I was darned near 40!) I had lost touch with what recent high school grads were like. And I added an aspect to the classes that I called adapting to the "waiting for the van generation" - that is, people who were one generation younger than me.

What really surprised me is how confused so many people would get if I didn't explain everything very precisely, and over and over again. These people weren't rude, or anything, they would just sit there, looking confused, and patiently wait until I came over and explained again, and again, and again. I wanted to sympathize with them, and I just imagined that as kids they had play dates arranged by their parents, and were driven to their sporting events. And that's why I thought of them as "waiting for the van" - that is, their parent's van, or some grownup that would take them somewhere.

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Of course, looking back now I realize that this generation wasn't exceptional, this is just normal human behavior. The school encouraged creative thinking, and I saw a lot of blank looks. Now in my golden years I realize that this is just how it is, and how it's always been. There was nothing exceptional about the generation younger than me, it's just that they hadn't had the additional twenty years of life experience that I had had.

Instead of disliking these people, I learned to love them. I encouraged people who had never had a reason to do anything on their own before. I saw small achievement grow into great things. I saw people who had been told to just sit still and be good (and wait for the van) stick their necks out for the first time. Because I realized that they were just like me, only younger.

If you've forgotten what it's like to be young and scared, teach a college class. At first glance you'll see a lot of confidence, but it's just an illusion. Many of my students had tattoos, and piercings, and I would look into their eyes. Their eyes were young and scared. Their eyes wanted some encouragement, to be told that they could do it.

At the bottom of every syllabus I wrote "You can do this!", and I expect results, not excuses. For the people who had always known exactly how many classes they could miss, or be tardy for, and still not fail a class, I redirected their aim. I'd like to think that in the past twenty years these people have done great things, but I haven't kept track of anyone. I know that the amazing stuff that we see every day is done by them, and they just needed a chance, needed some encouragement.

I still behave this way, because I see the "wait for the van generation" everywhere, even in people who are older than me. Ultimately it means people who had been told to just be invisible, people who had had their knuckles rapped when they spoke up. I want to hear these voices, and see what these people can do.

You can do this!