In eighth grade, my English teacher asked my class for something no one had ever wanted before; she asked for our opinions, and I don’t mean our opinions on what we thought Johnny meant when he told Ponyboy to “stay gold”. She wanted to know how we felt about the world around us – abortion, gun rights, police brutality, climate change, gay rights – all that. We sat dumbfounded, the heat rising in everyone’s cheeks and eyes widening as the realization set in – she was going to make us voice our beliefs … like, out loud. What if no one agrees with me? Everyone struggled with some form of this question. Some sat back determined not to give in to the forced conversations. Others looked around seeking anyone they could make brief eye contact with to verify that our teacher was a nut. But despite the overwhelming urge to act too cool to participate, a select few fourteen-year-olds summoned the bravery to create a platform on which they could voice their opinions.
Remarkably, there was no blood, no screaming, no fire, no hate. Of course, this doesn’t mean our thoughts on these topics matched. In fact, it seemed like our class was evenly divided on many subjects. I remember taking a moment to gather my thoughts between arguing with the student to my left and agreeing with the student to my right and seeing that our teacher had disappeared; she simply sat back in her chair watching us all but not saying a word. At first, I thought she was doing that teacher act, the one where she would remain silent until we stopped talking. I mean, we were getting a bit loud. I was about to eye my classmates and inform them that the dragon lady was about to snap if it weren’t for the smile etched into her face. There was something different about it. It wasn’t a smile one would associate with seeing a friendly face or hearing a good joke; it was the smile that comes from the end of a good day’s work, a smile of satisfaction. I would not understand until later what her smile meant.
Flashforward, I’m almost seventeen years old, I have a driver’s license, and I’m just starting to understand who I want to be and what I want to do with my life. It seems as though growing up means it’s time to form my own thoughts and feelings on what is going on around me. I find that I am constantly being influenced by family, teachers, peers, or the internet, but this awareness is new. Conflicting perspectives and ideals battle within my subconscious, influencing my decisions, but I see them now in ways I didn’t before.
As I begin to integrate myself more and more into society, I am becoming aware of how annoyed I am with the way our world seems to work. I find it impossible to be on social media or watch tv without being bombarded with petty disagreements from around the world. Whether it has to do with race, politics, or human rights, it appears as though none of the adults that I consider role models know what to believe either. From my perspective, the leaders of our world today are too focused on the here and now. They are too worried about who is friends with who, what someone is saying about someone else, and who is the most popular. It’s just like high school, and our leaders are the teenagers. They are too focused on destroying their enemies to realize that the time they are wasting is hurting their future, and mine. I’d like to send them all to the principal’s office, but I’m not sure we have one.
Getting closer to election time, I see this occurring even more. Instead of making real connections with citizens and working to better the lives of all the people in the U.S., I am witnessing our politicians act out of self-preservation and greed. When I was younger, I thought the government was a group of moral and wise men and women. Now, I think it could be compared to the bickering between siblings, usually wanting a similar outcome but too concerned with who has the upper hand to accomplish anything.
I recently came to a conclusion about what my role in society is: to make sure that there is a future where my grandchildren will not have to lose hope in those who are supposed to protect them. In the past, I ignored every adult who would say that the kids of my generation would be “the leaders of tomorrow”. I assumed by the time we were adults everything would be under control and the problems we would have to deal with would be of our own making. Once I let go of my wishful thinking, I had the epiphany that it truly is up to us to correct not only the problems we create in the future but also those of our naive ancestors.
To keep myself from becoming too disappointed in our leaders today, I think of all we are learning from them. The purpose of recording history is to ensure that we never repeat the bad parts. If we are unable to look to our leaders for wisdom, we can view them as more of a cautionary tale. Based on what I have witnessed so far, I’d like to think we have learned a decent amount. With this knowledge, I hope my peers and I will succeed where other generations have failed so terribly and understand that nothing can be accomplished if we as a people are not united.
If this idea of unity seems vaguely familiar, it’s because it was an entire unit in eighth-grade history class. The colonists knew there was no chance of gaining independence from Britain without being a united thirteen. I keep referring to my eighth-grade curriculum because our greatest problems have junior high solutions.
In two short years, the children in my eighth-grade English class will be legal adults. I now realize why my teacher was smiling while we were arguing. She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew that her own generation had let us down, so she created her own change by conditioning us to become logical and reasonable leaders. I still remember the conclusion that we came to when discussing those controversial topics – not everything is black and white. There will always be a gray area, and it is in that gray that we can come together. While some view this gray area as indecisiveness, we know that it is a harbor for growth and empathetic problem-solving that will one day make the world a better place.
Originally posted at Patriot Not Partisan. Re-posted with permission.
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