The Little Engine Who Took His Place in the Underclass

And other new-millennium stories for American kids

I was driving around with friends not long ago, observing the usual suburban desolation—the endless dun-colored houses, drab block businesses, offensively bland signage—and one of my more sensitive friends was like to throwing up over the difference between when he was a kid and now. There was a lot more nature in the mix then, he opined; even the corporate stuff of his youth was more playful, colorful and inviting: winged horses on gas stations, bears on brake shops, big-ass doughnuts dipping into the sky. He pointed to a Dunkin' Donuts; he pointed to an oil-change shop, an Arco station, a toy emporium: all had signs duller than John Ashcroft's underpants. (I'm making an educated guess. No one without top-security clearance gets in his underpants.)

"What's a kid going to feel when he's looking at that? It's like looking at homework," he complained.

"Naw, he'll get excited by the bright-red color, or he'll imagine something fun in it. Kids can be fascinated just by dirt," retorted another friend, who has the sort of boundless optimism peculiar to those born into wealth.

"I'm just glad I grew up when I did," my first friend said. "What's a kid going to see in the present that's going to give him any hope for the future?"

I chipped in then, with the sort of boundless optimism peculiar to those who like hearing the sound of their own voices. "You know what I like about the present? It's so handy."

Years from now, when standards have slipped sufficiently for my genius to be recognized, people will hear the wisdom in these words. The present? There it is, right there in front of you. Unlike the past or future, it's the only moment you can experience directly or have an effect upon. It's the moment kids live in, the one we've largely slipped out of—otherwise, we wouldn't be making the world such a dreary, fear-ridden place.

I don't have kids of my own and probably won't at the rate I'm going, so I can rhapsodize about them from a safe remove. Even just viewing them from a design perspective, what remarkable devices they are! You simply put some oatmeal in them in the morning, and they run all day, jumping, crawling, skipping, singing, shouting, coloring, imagining, etc. And who came up with this idea: right when they're young enough to fall down a lot, they're short enough that they don't fall very far.

I helped a friend pack to move the other weekend. I've done this with plenty of friends, but I realized this was different because I hadn't before helped move someone with kids.

Books are always a bitch—they weigh a ton, and there are so many different sizes they're hard to box up efficiently. But that is nothing compared with packing kids' books, which are shaped like dinosaurs or diesel locomotives and have wheels or bulging, wiggling eyes or a built-in voice chip that starts talking when you touch it—and continues talking, growing more muffled, as you pack it away in the box, like the victim in a Poe story.

There sure are a lot of kids' books! They're expensive! And parents have to buy every one of them for their kids!

And between their colorful pages, at least, the world isn't yet so drear. Maybe that's why parents buy so many of them, enough to build a wall between the kids and the world we've made for them to inherit.

Perhaps it would be kinder in the long run if the books prepared them more for that world. Given that our society has only grown more stratified over the past 20 years, with the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class in between vanishing; given that over the same two decades, the percentage of your income required to send a kid to college has doubled, and Bush is cutting student loans while growing the deficit, is it time for a book called The Little Engine Who Dutifully Took His Place in the Permanent Underclass? Should elephants and tigers be introduced to kids in books of imaginary animals, since they might well be extinct by the time kids reach adulthood?

I just saw one of my nieces in a school musical called Wally the Rat, which was sort of a Waiting for Godot with rodents. A stage-full of kids sit around waiting for Wally the Rat to show up, chorusing, "Where is he? Where is he?" and he never does arrive. The point of this, which somehow eluded Beckett, is that you know Wally is around somewhere whenever people are being hurtful or impolite. Every kid sang, every kid had lines to speak, and it was neat to see all that cooperation and bright-eyed hope in one place.

These are the kids the politicians always talk about, the ones they insist they're so concerned for. "We will leave no child behind" the president has said a time or two, yet the Pied Piper of Hamelin might have claimed the same.

And, boy, Bush and his men sure are concerned about youth when it's a no-brainer crowd-pleaser like going after kiddie porn. But will kids smell a rat when their future is being sold down the river to polluters and profiteers, when the environment and social fabric have been torn up for the sake of a buck, when our vision of their future involves spending more money to imprison them than to educate them?

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