I heard it all through my high school and college years: “This is how it is now, but wait until you get to the real world.” Now it’s the education student version, “We need to teach kids this way, to prepare them for the real world.” It bothered me back then, and it bothers me now. I was elated to hear one of my English education professors take issue with this wording earlier in the semester. He said that we needed to teach kids not just to prepare them for a far-off future, but for the lives they lead right now, which are just as real as the years to come. I remembered the indignation I had felt when I was younger and heard people juxtapose school with the “real world” in condescending tones, as if my life were somehow less valid because I wasn’t living on my own or working a job that paid more than minimum wage. I rejected the “real world” distinction as a way for adults to assert their superiority over youth.
Now that I’ve been out of school for a while, my perspective has changed a bit. When I hear people mention the “real world,” I still hear the superiority, but I also hear undertones of bitterness and envy—”Yeah, you kids better enjoy the fun and games while they last. Soon enough you’ll be tied to a nine-to-five job, too.” Why is the world of school not considered “real”? Because it’s an institution with its own set of rules and norms and its own unique structure that does not resemble life beyond that institution? Does not the professional world function the same way? At school there are classes and bells and cafeterias and detention and passing notes and words like “mods” and following the rules and playing the game for the sake of reaching graduation. At work there are cubicles and lunch breaks and staff meetings and strategic planning and phrases like “moving forward” and “restructuring” and performing the tasks and following the rules for the sake of receiving a paycheck. How can anyone privilege either of these institutions by designating it the “real world”?
To me, the real world must encompass both school and work, or neither. I would be reluctant to trivialize a major component of anyone’s life as something other than real. However, these institutions are merely incidental to what is real for me. What is the real world? The real world is genuine human interaction, is you listening to me, is me holding your hand. The real world is walking alone at night in the snow. The real world is what I can touch and taste and feel and create, is the air I breathe, the music in my blood, the words that make me cry or smile. The real world is wherever I am truly and wholly alive and present. Theoretically, I suppose, with the right mindset, I can make the real world everywhere I happen to be.
In the words of the immortal John Mayer:
They love to tell you,
stay inside the lines
But something’s better
on the other side
I wanna run through the halls of my high school,
I wanna scream at the top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the ‘real world,’
Just a lie you’ve got to rise above. . .
. . .I am invincible
I am invincible
I am invincible,
as long as I’m A L I V E.