Last night, my high school held its graduation ceremony. As a teacher, I've always considered graduation the best night of the whole year, that one night when hundreds of people in a community come together to celebrate its young people-- a group that, let's face it, doesn't often get celebrated.
With that in mind, I thought I'd reprint an article that I wrote-- whoa!-- two years ago. The specific students mentioned herein have now finished their sophomore years of college (man, who feels ancient now?), but I still feel the sentiments in this piece remain timeless. The article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant's Northeast Magazine, on June 18, 2006, under the headline, "Adolescent Defiance... of Stereotypes". Here it is...
"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"—commonly attributed to Plato (427-347 B.C.)
Glastonbury High School senior Nancy Tong had a problem: “How,” she asked herself, “could I make a person into a chair?”
But, as the Costume Designer for Glastonbury High’s “Beauty and the Beast,” that was her charge: to transform ordinary high schoolers into not only chairs but anthropomorphized napkins and plates and clocks and candles. When she agreed to be the show’s Costume Designer (a job that usually went to an adult), Nancy knew it would be a lot of work—but she couldn’t have anticipated just how much work. This particular production boasted a cast of eighty-six people, all of whom needed at least two costumes (some even had three).
Such a massive undertaking meant spending countless hours online researching 18th century attire. It meant driving around to different rental places in search of Gaston and Cogsworth costumes; when she couldn’t find them anywhere else, it meant making them herself. It meant devoting six to seven hours every day (more on the weekends) to measuring and snipping and sewing and adhering. And just how much of a toll did this take on her? “Sometimes,” Nancy admits, “I looked forward to doing homework.”
Nancy didn’t get paid for her troubles. She didn’t get college credit. And as someone who toiled behind the scenes, she didn’t even get a curtain call. But she did get something: “The first dress rehearsal, I remember standing in front of the whole cast after their vocal warm-up, and when I began to talk to them, I started crying,” she remembers. “It was an uncontrolled kind of happiness and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.”
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”-- Hesiod, 8th Century B.C.
“I often ask groups of adults or students what inherent traits or characteristics the expression ("boys will be boys") implies. The answers typically are astonishingly negative: Boys are messy, immature and selfish; hormone-driven and insensitive; irresponsible and trouble-making; rebellious, rude, aggressive and disrespectful - - even violent, predatory and animal-like.”-- Deborah Roffman, “What Does 'Boys Will Be Boys' Really Mean?,” Washington Post (February 5, 2006)
“I like helping in the community,” says Greg Fisher, a member of the South Windsor High School Class of 2006. And as the Bobcats’ goalkeeper, he also enjoys soccer. So it made sense that he decided to combine these two interests by creating Preschool Soccer Fun, a month-long instructional program for three- and four-year-olds.
Since 2003, Greg and his teammates have been teaching children fundamentals of the game—all for the low, low price of a can of corn or a bar of soap. Instead of money, Greg only asks parents for donations to the South Windsor Food Bank.
The first year, when he was only a sophomore, Greg threw himself into setting up the program—everything from researching age-appropriate activities to handing out flyers at the town pool fell on his shoulders. His hard work paid off, with fifty preschoolers signing up in 2003, and it continues to pay off: seventy-five players registered in 2005. (Greg even needed to put some kids on a waiting list.) Of course, he couldn’t coach so many kids on his own; he needed help—and he got it. Last fall, about twenty to twenty-five South Windsor students agreed to assist with the Preschool Soccer Fun program. “I was overwhelmed with the response,” Greg says of his classmates. “All the high school players I asked enthusiastically agreed to help.”
"A generation, numbering in the millions, has gone so far in decay that it acts without thought of social responsibility... The Lost Generation is even now rotting before our eyes." – a 1936 Harper’s Monthly article by George Leighton and Richard Hellman (as quoted by Mike Males in “Generation Gap: For Adults, ‘Today’s Youth’ Is Always the Worst,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1999)
As a member of the Connecticut Youth Forum and the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, Bulkeley High's Jasmine Levy knows the importance of keeping busy—and she wants to pass on that lesson to her peers. Since 2004, Jasmine and about forty other Greater Hartford teens have been working with Hartford's Institute for Community Research (ICR) to stamp out "teen hustling" in the city. The project has been completely student-initiated and student-led: the teens themselves identified the problem of "hustling" (which they define as the illegal selling of anything, from bootleg CDs to drugs) and then researched ways to combat it.
Over the past two years, the ICR youth researchers have conducted workshops for elementary and middle schools students on the dangers of hustling, and in 2005, they organized a youth rally on the topic at the State Capitol. Most recently, in March 2006, they unveiled their most ambitious endeavor yet: a pilot youth employment center, located at Weaver High School, called Project OBJECT (Our Business is Jobs Employing Connecticut Teens). Proceeding from the idea that students who have jobs won’t need to hustle to make money, the ICR teens have equipped the Weaver center with an employee database and a website listing job openings (www.freewebs.com/projectobject), to help students find employment opportunities in their communities.
And yet, this service hopes to do more than give a few kids some short-term bucks: as Jasmine Levy puts it, “people who work when they’re younger are more likely to have jobs when they’re older.” With that idea in mind, Jasmine, who will go to the University of Hartford in the fall on a full scholarship, has taken the initiative to bring Project OBJECT to Bulkeley; her coworkers also hope to start a job service at Hartford High.
“Teenage rebellion is nothing new… But it is the degree of their outspokenness, their refusal to play by the rules, their utter disrespect for authority that prompts you to shake your head and think, ‘I could never have gotten away with that when I was their age’… Sadly, the virtues of courtesy, tact, and diplomacy are on the endangered species list.” – Eric Chester, author of Getting Them to Give a Damn: Getting Your Front Line to Care about Your Bottom Line (2005)
Every generation believes the next one will hasten in Armageddon. Generation Y, Generation Me, Generation Whatever, the Entitlement Generation—no mater how you label the current crop of teenagers, the descriptors remain constant: lazy, disrespectful, uninspired, lacking direction and motivation. (And don’t forget the piercings. Oh, the piercings!)
This graduation season, as you enjoy your finger rolls and melon cubes, remember kids like Nancy, Greg, Jasmine, and all of the IRC’s youth researchers . And then consider another quotation, this one from The Who, a group of blokes who liked to talk about their generation: “The kids,” they famously said, “they’re alright. The kids are alright.”