If you weren’t a young male living in the United States in the 1960s, it may be hard for you to understand my situation. It was a little more than 6 months from my college graduation. Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I had applied for and been accepted in a postgraduate fellowship in art history. However, it was clear that this country was becoming entangled in a confusing, unpopular – and from my personal perspective – a dangerous war.
While I was in college I was protected from the draft. But upon graduation, if I were to pursue my studies in something as unrelated to the war effort as art history, I would be ripe for the picking. I’m not sure why, but luckily I had been banking science credits for a rainy day. And in the winter of 1965-1966, it was raining big time.
Although I had never even remotely considered becoming a physician, medical school represented a temporary safe haven. The rest is a 50-year history in pediatrics that included serving 2 years in the Navy seeing dependent children as the war wound down.
I was not alone. Even if the term “gap year” had been coined, taking a year off to “find oneself” was not an option for young American males on the verge of high school or college graduation. I share this unflattering anecdote as evidence that there are times when circumstances can provide a floundering young person with a much needed sense of direction.
In May 2017, the Chicago Board of Education approved a plan sponsored by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that will require all high school students planning to graduate to provide evidence that they have secured a job or have been accepted by a college, trade apprenticeship, structured gap year program, or the military. (“ Chicago won’t allow high school students to graduate without a plan for the future ,” by Emma Brown, the Washington Post, July 3, 2017). Critics of the plan complain, probably with good reason, that the cash-strapped school system with more than 300,000 students doesn’t have the resources to provide its students with the counseling they will need to create the required post-graduation plans.
Even if there are too many devils in too many details in the Chicago plan, the principle underlying it is worth a try and deserves consideration by other school systems. It is not a universal military service requirement. Although, I wonder at times if this country should consider such a thing. It also is not a scheme cooked up by the business community to provide itself with cheap labor, although, it probably will.
In my mind, the intent of the Chicago plan simply is to remind its students that being an adult and a member of a society means doing something. Hopefully something that is productive or creative or at least something that improves your chances of living a life that is more likely to provide you with some degree of happiness. It offers a broad enough range of choices so that it is not overly prescriptive. If well administered, the plan would send the message to the graduating student that you must at least have a Plan A.
Regardless of whether a student’s patients come from affluent families with a myriad of post-graduation opportunities or from an economically challenged neighborhood in Chicago, I suspect that many of them would benefit from an artificial dose of necessity in the form of a message that doing nothing is not going to be an option.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at email@example.com .