Wednesday, December 7, 2022

If You Can't Say Something Nice, Maybe Don't Say it So Loud

 For a number of years, we managed to make it to Manhattan around Christmas every year. Having a kid who went to school in Connecticut (and who loved NYC) definitely played into that, just as COVID has played into the absence of these trips for the past several years.

I have many fond memories of those trips, but there are also a few things that I remember less fondly. One that stands out even more than being so tired that I drifted off during the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show (it wasn't them, it was me -- I promise!) or being colder than I ever remember being in my life as I trekked through the city is a conversation  I couldn't help overhearing on the train ride home -- one that still rankles six years later. No horrific illnesses or devastating endings, I promise -- just a group of women with short memories and long opinions.

My freshmen this year are very different from the ones I had that year -- and in all the other pre-COVID years as well. The pandemic has made life even harder for young people than it was then, and so many of my students are struggling with a dearth of enthusiasm and an overabundance of expectations, topped off with an unhealthy dose of anxiety. They need dreams now more than ever, and I can only hope that the adults in their lives have bigger hearts and wider perspectives than those women on that train. 

If you have a young adult in your life, reach out. You'll likely be glad you did, as will they, even if they don't let on.

Kranich17 via Pixabay

Since I've started teaching First Year Seminar, I always have mixed feelings about the end of the semester. I'm looking forward to not feeling buried under a pile of things to grade, and to finding time to write on a regular basis, and maybe even some R&R&R (rest and relaxation and reading). 

But I will miss my freshmen. 

It's not that I don't have mixed feelings about setting my upperclassmen free -- I do. But there's something about teaching a seminar to a group of brand new first year students that's an experience all its own. This semester, the sophomore "fellow" who helped me out made things even more fun. She’s bubbly and lively and from the same town where I went to college; we hit it off immediately and, over the course of the semester, she became an integral part of the class.

In FYS, our designated content is life itself: happiness and success; perfectionism and procrastination; mindset and meaning. I am privileged to see and hear all the promise and passion these young people have to offer, and it makes me proud and optimistic. Kids who want to enter the medical field not to become rich, but to listen to kids, help underprivileged populations, join the Peace Corps. Kids who recognize that happiness doesn't arrive in the form of a paycheck and who understand that hard work is an integral part of success.

Last month, on the train home from New York, I sat across the aisle from a group of privileged, opinionated middle-aged women. After spending much of the ride talking about dining and drinking and shopping and other people (loudly enough for me to hear, despite the fact that I had earbuds in), they engaged in a conversation with a woman sitting across from me in which they lumped all young people into one category. One of the partiers concluded by proclaiming that "they (kids) all need a 'boot up their ass' and a minimum of two years in the military."

Less than five minutes later, one of her fellow girls' weekend compatriots bemoaned the fact that she had to work the next day.

The conversation infuriated me to the point that it made me sick to my stomach, and it has stuck with me for weeks. I had to wonder if these women knew any young adults, let alone young adults like the ones I see in my classes. Sure, my students (and my daughter) infuriate me sometimes when I see them doing less than they're capable of or on their phones during class or failing to comprehend the simplest of questions because they're just not listening.

But that's only part of the story.  

These kids are giving. They're optimistic. They're smart. Many are shouldering much more responsibility than kids their age should be. They're figuring out who they are and what they stand for and what matters and what doesn't.

They're becoming contributing members of our society.

Some of them have experienced boot camp and military service. Others are the first in their families to attend college. Many play sports and work and are paying for some, if not all, of their education.

Are they perfect? No. Are there spoiled, self-centered kids among them? Yes. Am I privileged to be a part of these years of their lives?

I am.


As I sat and fumed on that train, unable to put together a coherent rebuttal, these kids marched through my mind. Kids who drive me crazy some days, but who, on many days, exhibit more maturity and a better work ethic than the women sitting across from me on the train, full grown adults who were willing to blithely lump all young adults together--as if they'd never experienced that stage of lives themselves, let alone spent the past weekend recreating it.

I'm still unable to articulate why that conversation elicited such a visceral response in me, but clearly, it did. And while I suspect that the tirade I kept to myself would have made little difference had I let loose, I hope that sharing my counterpoint might.

Do you know a young adult? If so, do yourself--and them--a favor. Ask them about their plans. Not what they want to be when they grow up, but what dreams they have. Not about salaries or majors or grades, but about how they see the world--and how they want to see it. Or change it. Tap into their enthusiasm, their optimism, their belief that all things are possible.

And then encourage it. Encourage them to chase their dreams, change the world, and spread their joy and enthusiasm to a world that sorely needs it.

Help them prove those spoiled women wrong.

I suspect that you'll be glad you did.

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