And Then He Rolled His Eyes – Dignifying the Next Generation

On a summer day in 1963, a young Bill Clinton shook hands with John Kennedy. Clinton – just seventeen years old – was a participant in Boys Nation and was given the opportunity to spend a day at the White House. That moment was a pivotal one for Clinton. It kindled his internal activist spirit and incited within him the desire to achieve. “It had a very profound impact on me,” Clinton said years later. “I think that it’s something that I carried with me always.”

Last week, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. He was visiting to deliver a brief autobiography and court a group of soon-to-be constituents. As kids were still shuffling into the gym, where the congressman was to give his talk, I spotted him and decided to approach him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said politely, putting out my hand to shake his. I began to tell him about a project that I’d helped to start; my “Global Response” team at school had designed and produced pins to sell as a fundraiser for disaster relief in Japan. I worried that what I was doing might seem somewhat trivial; still, I felt that it was important for me to reach out to the congressman and offer him a glimpse into our student activism. But when I began to tell him about our venture, his eyes glazed over in boredom.

As I handed him one of the pins – emblazoned with the slogan “Bring the light back to Japan” – the congressman rolled his eyes. He backed up and threw his hands in the air as though he was conceding something to me. “Uch,” he said, shaking his head, “I get so many of these kinds of things.”

What if the congressman had said “Fantastic!” or “May I have a few more pins for my colleagues?” What if he had told me that he’d done something similar in high school? What if he had even challenged me – asked me to prove to him why Japan needs our money more than Haiti or Chile?

The congressman’s remark was particularly troubling because of the setting he was in: a high school. In this era, rife with the distractions of “pings” from BlackBerrys and “pokes” from our Facebook profiles, it’s difficult enough to inspire young people to engage in the world’s pressing issues. What we need isn’t contempt and disinterest. It’s encouragement – or even just recognition.

Teenagers are – as our parents were, and as the next generation will be – inherently self-involved. That’s not an accusation; it’s an established physiological fact. Combine that egocentrism with pervasive technology – SparkNotes, Google, smartphones – and you’re witnessing a perfect storm of distraction and apathy. We’re not texting at the dinner table out of disdain for our families; we’re doing so because to us, in that moment, the most important thing in the world is whatever it is that we feel the need to text about.

To combat that adolescent indifference, my English teacher says the same thing in one form or another almost every time we meet for class: If you’re not bothered, then you’re not paying enough attention. And he’s right. In this era, to be disheartened is to be enlightened, and to be angry is to be empowered. But when a United States congressman belittles the hopeful and inspired efforts of a group of motivated high school students, he promotes just the opposite. Instead of the “Thank you for the pin!” that would fan the flames of intellectual curiosity, he chooses the “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things” – a slight that extinguishes them.

The value of person-to-person validation is unquantifiable. No matter how high we rise or how low we sink, no matter what job we have or what job we wish we had, it must always be our priority to validate, engage, and elevate the company with whom we surround ourselves.

To the congressman: If you wish to extol the values of education from the height and might of the podium, please practice what you preach. Dignify each individual, young or old, seemingly worthy or seemingly not. Instead of “Uch,” how about giving a teenager what Bill Clinton got: something to carry through life. And to the rest of you: Want to buy a pin?


6 thoughts on “And Then He Rolled His Eyes – Dignifying the Next Generation

  1. You are so correct in your perspective. I know you will always follow what you say in your last sentence. I am sure that your actions will affect others as Kennedy’s affected Clinton’s.

  2. Ami,

    You’re so smart and so passionate. You just need a little more information for your passion to be more effective. Yes, the congressman was a jerk. So what? He’s irrelevant at best.

    More importantly, the best way to help Japan is to send a check to groups that already have resources on the ground like the Red Cross. Why make buttons? Just send them money, and ask the people you were going to try to sell buttons to to do the same.

    Please read “Basic Economics” by Thomas Sowell and “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley. They will give you tools to to realize your passions.

    • Albert,

      FYI, the buttons ARE being sold to raise money for the Red Cross. It’s easier to get teenagers to give money if you offer a gimmick.

      Also, last I checked congressmen weren’t irrelevant. I think they have something to do with making laws.

    • There is great value — just not necessarily economic — in selling the buttons. For sure, making the buttons won’t make any real dent in the facts on the ground. But it gets students involved, interested. It’s about taking initiative — and it’s a way to get students invested in the issue. In this fast-paced world, it’s a significant challenge to get young people to care about fixing the world. Maybe this will raise awareness, will lead someone to do something that will lead someone to do something that will lead someone to do something powerfully good, far off in the future.

  3. WOW that’s horrible! Good thing you aren’t going to get discouraged and let one closed-minded person deflect you from your passions.

  4. It’s amazing to me how rarely public speakers actually understand their public, or their speech. I wonder how much different our world would be if our leaders were free of cynicism. How can we prevent that cynicism from sinking in, Ami?

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