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?