Committed Youth

I admit that I like to pile on the youth sometimes. I don’t mean the eternal (and frankly tiresome) old saw about millennials. All the millennials I’ve known are smart, capable, responsible, and altogether lovely go-getters. What I mean is just youth in general. “The young.” Those people in their teens and twenties. Standing there with their shiny ambitions and unfamiliar problems, their chances like apples on a tree ripe for the taking. Those people who are still the centers of their own universes only because they haven’t accumulated enough life experiences yet to show them otherwise.

I just found out the barista at the coffee shop I go to on Wednesday mornings is 27. He has a scattering of tattoos, a mustache instead of a beard; he’s amiable, fast-moving, makes an almond-milk latte with a heart floating on top. I’d thought he was at least in his thirties. But I don’t really know him. I just know that a small part of me envies his youth. It’s hard not to. What’s he done so far? Where’s he been? What does he really know? Doesn’t matter. He’ll find out soon enough, and I suppose that is what I envy: the finding-out-for-the-first-time part. Those moments when something becomes patently obvious, when knowledge cracks through, when understanding crystallizes, when you know you’ll never be the same again.

I would like to be there when this 27-year-old barista has one of those moments.

Just as I wanted to be there when the kids walked out of school today.

At first, they would have felt a growing exhilaration, a defiant sense of their own power. Some of the teachers and administrators no doubt discouraged them—because of their own limitations. When kids challenge authority, it brings up deep-rooted fears in adults about not being big enough or important enough. It makes people face the uncomfortable notion that conformity may feel safe and moral, but it kills vitality and possibility. I’m sure, though, there were others who encouraged the kids. Yes, exercise your First Amendment rights. Don’t worry about what might happen today. Enough of us will support you. Go. This is your time. This is your time to get out there and be heard.

At 10 a.m. they spilled out of classrooms, out of doors, onto the lawns and sidewalks, a milling mass of them, maybe with signs, maybe shouting chants. Once they made it through the doors, the exhilaration strengthened. Yes! We’re outside. We’ve made it thus far.

Not everyone took it seriously, I’m sure. Some participated just to get out of school. They were the ones shoving each other and laughing, shiftless stances and hands in pockets giving them away. They didn’t really know, didn’t really care (deep down inside they wanted to know, they wanted to care, they felt somehow alien out there, but they weren’t mature enough yet, not courageous enough yet, their journeys hadn’t brought them to an understanding of the broader world and their place in it yet, and so they shuffled along, just happy to skip biology for seventeen minutes).

For everyone else, the next step would have been to commit. Really commit. They stood outside, they chanted. They marched. Cars driving past honked their horns, drivers and passengers threw up peace signs, rolled down windows and waved. The kids waved back and cheered, energized by the effect they were having. A few detractors frowned, yelled their displeasure. In some places, the news reporters inserted themselves into the thick of it, or hovered around the edges with microphones and cameras, speaking fast, scanning the crowd, getting jostled along. The shufflers tried to get into the shot. They crowded in behind the reporters and grinned; they told their friends to watch for them on the news that night. Others, the ones with the messages, the ones with the fire in their guts, got pulled aside by the reporters. They were interviewed, slightly breathless but articulate, despite the nervous thrill rising up in their throats. Those are the ones we’ll watch later tonight and admire—openly or otherwise.

All had their phones out, taking pictures, videos, posting immediately and often to social media. Like lightning, a capturing everywhere of this moment. A capturing of youth. Fresh, brazen, defiant. Committed.

Committed youth.

Something has crystallized. Something is new, different, everyone is saying. Was it new and different when college students protested the Vietnam War? Maybe. Was it new and different when black students walked into white schools, ending segregation, staking a claim to the inherent rights of being human? Depends on your grasp of history. Was it new and different that for many years students didn’t do anything at all? No.

We in white, middle-class America were conditioned by parents, teachers, society to focus only on getting a good job with benefits, saving money to buy a house, squirreling away for retirement some day. We were conditioned to believe that “choice” existed in consumerism only—where it belonged. Here, choose among patio furniture and car insurance plans. But don’t worry about the slow strangulation of corporate government on our two-party system. Don’t worry about social ills; they don’t really concern you. Vote if you want to, portray the image of civic duty, but that’s not where you really need to pay attention. In fact, don’t. Those who are called to politics will figure it out for us; ultimately, they’ll take care of everything. Yes, it’s a long and storied tradition to complain about this country and our politicians, but it’s unnecessary for citizens to do anything about it. Just worry about yourself and the family you’ll someday have. Be practical. Be reasonable. Be indifferent. Don’t ask questions. Stifle your curiosity. Go watch football. And for heaven’s sake, if you start to figure it out, don’t tell anyone.

What’s new and different this time? I’m not asking the question to be cynical. I’m asking to be scientific. I need evidence. I need a randomized study conducted over a period of years. Even so, I accept that it won’t show everything. A young person committing to something is not always empirically observable. The new neuropathways cannot be seen on the outside. Whether or not an 18-year-old votes this year or in the next presidential election isn’t the only measurement of change. Whether or not gun reform happens as a result of a collective movement of suddenly awakened students isn’t the only measurement either. These are big measurements, yes—important ones, of course. They may indicate that a real difference is being made. Kids across the country are counting on it, anyway. And they should. Hope and idealism are the roots of change. Without it, you drift with the wind.

But there must be more that we don’t know.

The final step would have been after the seventeen minutes were up, when the enthusiasm melted into acceptance that the kids still had to go to class today, that those teachers who had been tolerant of their First Amendment rights nevertheless expected them to be back in their seats. Shit, the kids probably thought. Even the shufflers felt it. Enthusiasm caught is hard to come down from. What now?

Here’s what: The day will progress. There will be stories tonight, texts, questions, more social media posts. Tomorrow the kids will still be talking about it (and some of the administrators). There’s another march coming up in a couple of weeks. Planning ahead is not necessary. These days, you don’t schedule. Things materialize. And you are either swept up and absorbed into the nucleus or spun out like an electron. Congress will do nothing; the kids will do more. They’ll chip away at each other’s resolve until a decision is made.

But as I watch this unfold, strangely I find I have nothing to criticize. Either enough kids are committed, or there aren’t. Lord knows I wasn’t committed to too much for a very long time—how can I judge anything that happens after today?

I don’t need to.

The 27-year-old barista lives in a different world than I do. My teenage nieces do as well, and my college-sophomore nephew. There is nothing for me to measure if we are not living in the same world. This is the key. I can’t judge this movement, these kids, through the same lens that I judged myself or anyone else my age or in my generation, or in the generations before me.

Yes, we have been around longer. We are the ones who are wearier and warier and hardened and cynical and rigid—and also desperately, despairingly naïve. We realize we know less than we thought we did. Maybe we never knew anything at all. We participated less in society. We had less compassion, for ourselves and others. We kowtowed too much to a system we weren’t sure we believed in. We let activism be a hobby for someone else to have. We didn’t make anything happen when we needed to.

But we’re trying to now. We’re late to the game, but god damn it, we’re showing up, signing up, organizing, listening, calling, marching, allying, running for office, wearing t-shirts, waving flags, giving speeches, saying prayers. We are fired up now because we can’t afford not to be. And we have the checkbooks or the accrued time off or sometimes, with a little luck, the support systems to back up our efforts. That’s why we joined the resistance. It’s about time, many of us say to each other. It’s about time we did something real.

But on days like today, we learn that we are not enough. These youth—the youth of today—are more than us: more is riding on them, more will be asked of them, more is important for them to learn, more urgency is needed for them to save what may already be dying, more of their ingenuity and fortitude is needed to resuscitate and re-imagine a hamstrung democracy.

This makes us sober. A hush falls.

The crack of knowledge is painful, no matter what age you are.

There is a time when every generation admits that the next generation must somehow win the battle. We have to clear the field; they have to pick up the armor. We have to trust; they have to engage. We have to gracefully step aside; they have to aggressively step in. We know we are at a tipping point; they don’t know enough to be paralyzed with fear.

No matter what happens, no matter what we achieve or don’t, none of us will ever be the same again. And it is then we begin to see that finding out for the first time never stops and youth is just a relative term.