A couple of my former students were expressing disappointment with their generation today on Facebook. One young man was unhappy with his peers’ apparent inability or unwillingness to think critically, while a young woman was disgusted with what she perceived as a lack of compassion.
I can appreciate their frustration — Lord knows I had plenty of negative things to say about my own peers at that age — but as a teacher, I obviously had a little different perspective on things.
During four years in a tough, urban classroom full of tough, urban students, I learned that kids can be remarkably kind. For example: My kids elected a developmentally disabled prom king; started several anti-bullying initiatives, including a Gay-Straight Alliance; and used their own time and money to organize a candlelight vigil honoring two former students who had been killed in a car accident, even creating a special scrapbook for one boy’s mom.
At a more personal level, I will never forget the boy who stayed after class just to give me a hug the day I had Scout put to sleep, or the girl who caught me fighting back tears after a particularly discouraging faculty meeting and responded by writing me a sweet little letter that I still cherish to this day.
I also learned that given the opportunity, most kids can and will think critically about important issues. If they don’t, it’s probably because they’ve spent too much time being told to sit down and shut up.
A lot of teachers don’t like it when kids question authority. It’s too disruptive, and teenagers are cheeky enough as it is. But what I found with my semester-long activism unit was that when I taught the kids to question authority in a constructive, effective way — and then encouraged them to do it — the sky was the limit. (They were hell on the administration, but I think their stellar test scores more than compensated for their impertinence.)
Teenagers can be goofy and annoying and impulsive and obnoxious and exasperating. No doubt about it. But they can also be brilliant, thoughtful, kind, clever, determined, creative, articulate, open-minded, astute, curious, and compassionate — and that makes me very, very optimistic.