Five minutes of watching the news and you will wonder how the world, how mankind, and all of humanity is going to survive. We are told our young people are all into crime, gang violence, are depressed, or addicted to prescription drugs or the internet. They are spoiled, coddled, and have no work ethic. They are information natives, having been raised always connected to a device, rather than to each other, and as such are allegedly socially inept, yielding repercussions we have yet to discover. I have two teenage sons, and often find myself looking at our society and wondering, “Have I done enough? Are they going to make it out there?” I also have days when I look at them, and attempt to process hormonal mood swings, piles of messes, groans and griping. Or I stand in shock at their sometimes disrespect and ungratefulness, and simply think “How does anyone survive the teenage years?”
Thankfully, my hope in the future, mine and theirs, and in what our nation’s teenagers are capable of, is renewed at a place where you may think it would be falling apart; a typical American high school. There, in the library where I volunteer, teenagers in this small Catholic school roam in and out, doing teenager-ish things; hanging out, sporting earbuds and bopping their heads listening to rap music, tapping hard on computers, staring deeply into tablet screens and calculus books. But if you look deeper, if you really observe their behavior, and you take a second and ask them some tough questions, and then listen intently, giving no unsolicited advice, only listening and encouraging, you get a glimpse of hope. Hope that these teens can and will rise up to the challenge of adulthood.
Here they come in all shapes and sizes, navigating changing bodies, and having to do so under media pressure which mandates attractive girls must weigh 100 pounds and young males be sculpted like Adonis. There are kids here for whom the yearly tuition is grossly unaffordable, sitting next to kids who could easily pay three times the amount. They treat each other as equals, for they both know the value of their education has no price. They sit in groups together, mixed sexes, mixed shades of skin color, jocks next to artists, next to math geeks, next to class clowns, next to introverts. We have not forced them to sit like this, in “It’s A Small World After All” fashion. They have yet to buy into the media telling them they are racists, bigots, or bullies. For they do not see a white race, a black race, a hispanic race, an asian race. In their innocence they only see the human race. At age 15 there is no need to practice or define tolerance, when you have been taught and are still practicing the most basic of lessons, to live to love your fellow man. The Golden Rule is alive and kicking.
I sometimes strike up “What do you want to be when you grow up?” conversations with them. I am not a threat to their honesty, I am not neither their parent pouring pressure over them, nor their teacher ready to grade and evaluate their answer. They harbor no fear of being honest with me. Their answers cover the spectrum of being insightful, ambitious, inspiring, nonplussed, often vague. To the type A kids, whose answers sound scripted and rehearsed, and who appear to know exactly what their field of study is going to be, how long it is going to take, what their job title will be, and what it pays, I reply, “Have at it! Set those goals. Keep your eye on your passion, your prize. Some people live their whole life and never figure out what their purpose is.” To the type B kids, who stare off into space while they tell me they have no idea what they want to do, they have too many varied interests, do they really have to decide now? I reply, “Have at it! Keep looking for your passion. Stay open to the possibilities. Some people live their whole life doing what they were never meant to do because they never left their options open.” Both the questions and the replies yield the same reaction from myself and the students….big smiles. Possibility. Promise. Hope.
The face and future of humanity, if we continue to look for it in the wrong places, is ugly. It is a warped reflection of mankind, of only one horrific news story after another. The face and future of humanity, when we look for it in our youth, is beautiful. It is a perfect reflection of mankind, in all its purity, honesty, and goodness. It is spunky teenagers who will grow into poised adults, and vow to do ‘life’ better than their parents, and probably will. It is aplomb with hope. These kids. Our futures. I think we are going to be just fine.