For thirty-two years I stood in front of classes of high school students. I now teach at the college level, but I sometimes miss the energy and urgency of teenagers. I often muse about those days…..
I have been in the presence of genius: brains so keenly alive and omnivorous they barely need teaching, souls so hungry I must scramble to find fodder, synapses snapping so fast the air crackles with the energy. I have been in the presence of those who managed daily to step forward strongly in spite of bodies weakened by injury and disease.
I have also been in the presence of souls so numb from the loveless battery of uncertainty that they can barely absorb air, let alone ideas. I have seen young people utterly exhausted from -- what? Sleeping in a car? Staying up all night playing video games? Arguing with parents? Doing homework? Doubtful. Doing drugs? Quite possibly. Fixable? Who knows?
I was constantly surrounded by paradoxes incarnate: these new people – both childlike and adult, simultaneously worried and cavalier, scared full of bravado, both curious and blasé, both earnest and incurably lazy. My own brain has acquired the habit of thinking in tiny electrical, virtual bursts. It is said that in Columbus’ time, folks thought the world was flat; my students thought the world is square, that it lights up when you flip the switch, that you can change it by merely pushing a button, relocating a mouse. They were very sure that if you miss something, the whole world would rewind, will TIVO reality into convenience.
I have witnessed their amazement when they discover that a car accident actually hurts, that homework has to be actually produced, a book actually read. In their world reality and imagination have no mutual boundaries, no sure signals, no Welcome to Fantasyland signs to let them know they’ve crossed an invisible frontier.
I have been in the presence of very worried people, fresh, young, vulnerable people who already know all about rape and incest, torture and terror, famine and wealth. They have learned well the lessons of global warming, capitalistic evil, nuclear holocaust. These kids were in grade school when the World Trade Center went down – over and over again, in front of God and everybody. They know it is “only a matter of time,” and that time is their time. My students were very aware of time and very sure that it goes by too quickly; few seemed actually bored. Most were frantic, fractured, running on static. I may be onto something there – most were usually plugged into something electric, wires draping from pockets and backpacks, cell phones hidden in folded hands, IPods humming on their desks.
At my old school one of the most important hidden curriculum pieces was the assiduous teaching of procrastination, and our students took to it like mechanics to grease. All due dates were officially whine-able, especially if a parent, preferably a rich parent, did the whining, and by allowing this we succeeded in enlarging the student sense of impermanence and uncertainty. I could be angry with my kids for not finishing projects on time, but I helped set up the culture that allowed that. It is a kind culture. On the surface. It is a culture straddling several vast caverns, so all is unstable at best. We tried on the one hand to see to it that no student could slip by without doing all that he needed to do to learn. We tried, on the other hand, to encourage timeliness. Since kids all march to some pretty off-beat drummers, they are not all going to learn on schedule, so do we bow to the time god and march on without the slower ones (And, how do we know if they’re slow-lazy, slow-drugged, slow-abused, slow-slow?)? Or, do we struggle slowly on, vowing to “leave no one behind,” due dates be damned?
I was daily in the presence of students who were very sure that nothing is true. Except, of course, that statement. They learned this from some very good teachers. They didn’t know what to say when I suggested then that we all just go home. If nothing is true, why learn?
We have taught them this very trendy idea in order to straddle another canyon – the supposed gap between thought and faith. Is faith (read that Christianity) so fearful that we have to obliterate logic and thought in order to avoid it? And yet, it breaks my heart that those beautiful, confused, and frightened young people couldn’t be told that guilt, fear and anger are optional, that the problems of the world are traceable and controllable, that God is not only in His heaven, but He is here too in the devil’s world. What would be so bad about all those brilliant, nervous brains facing the future with hope instead of dread? with a sense of duty instead of entitlement, with love and logic and thoughtfulness? What have we done?