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?

Examine THIS

After a week of extreme “academic” intensity, I’m done with final exams. There’s a reason I typed the word “academic” in quotation marks.

So much of students’ desires to grasp and comprehend material in school stems from a desire to get good grades. And the desire to get good grades comes from the desire to get into a “good” college. And the desire to get into college derives from the desire to succeed (or at least be considered one). Someone asked me today, “What did you learn this year?” I started telling them what I though I had learned, and within seconds, I was talking about my grade in chemistry class.

It’s not just me. My friends and I are not the only ones who feel an intense societal pressure to get good grades for the sake of future endeavors. And there’s really no one to blame for America’s ardent fixation on numbers and scores. American society as a whole is obsessed with ratings and rankings. More specifically, a great deal of education and the process of college admissions is based on test scores. The SAT, in my opinion, and in the opinion of several teachers with whom I’ve spoken about this, gauges one thing: how well you can take the SAT.

High school students feel exceedingly pressured to take AP (Advanced Placement) classes which, in essence, force instructors to teach to a test. It’s because they think that it “looks good” on a college application. These classes leave little leeway for teachers. One of the most effective ways of learning (for me) is to be engaged in active class discussion, and many AP teachers feel that they can’t go “off-script” because they have to teach students the talking points. Even some of my foreign language teachers feel forced to teach at a quicker pace, regardless of full comprehension, and proceed to the next chapter in the textbook because they are mandated to test us a certain amount of times during the year.

I go to a private school, so most funding doesn’t depend on testing. But my friends who go to LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) public schools have to take standardized tests all the time. Teachers, according to my friends at public schools, get frustrated because their teaching time is depleted to make time for standardized tests.

Often times, students won’t even be told what the tests are for. One LAUSD high school student, when asked what the SPA is for, said, “Something to do with making sure the teachers are doing what they’re ‘supposed’ to be doing…no one really gives a crap. Most teachers dont even do them.”

Students all throughout California schools have to take the CST (California Standards Test), also. And, according to the same student, “the superintendent threatened to close down (the school) if our math scores didn’t go up.” So instead of teaching, the district is focusing on allocating funds to the schools with the best scores– not the worst. Students also have to take the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam) one time during sophomore year. If students get below a certain percentile on the CAHSEE, they can’t graduate from high school until they retake it and do a better job.

Tests, numbers, and statistics shouldn’t be the scale by which students are judged. The pressures and setbacks that they generate are counterproductive a full, comprehensive education

A Disruption of School Affairs

A friend of mine lives in a particularly conservative city in south Texas; a city where 41% of the population is of Mexican descent and about 61% is Hispanic. When Arizona’s SB 1070 passed, my friend and twenty of his classmates organized a school-wide campaign to push back against the new law.

They taped up posters around school that displayed huge pictures of eyes on them with the subtext, “We See You, Latinos.” They put up mirrors around campus and underneath them, wrote, “Do I Look Illegal?” The whole thing was unmistakably caustic and sardonic; it was a powerful statement, the likes of which this school had never seen.

The high school’s administration ended the protest. My friend, along with two other students, got suspended; but not for displaying their political ideology, the administrators claimed, or because it broke with popular opinion. They suspended them because the protest “disrupted school affairs.”

That same day, during school hours, the school gym was being demolished by a crane. But that didn’t “disrupt school affairs.”

“(There shall be) no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Tell me, does the first amendment not apply to minors?