A lesson from a teenager: Maybe the next generation really is OK

It was a classic case of older-generation hand-wringing and worry over nothing.

I have grown children and a 3-year-old grandson. My contact with teenagers consists mostly of conversations that include "Is that for here or to go?"

Usually, the exchange goes something like this. Me, slowly and with emphasis: "I'd like a 16-ounce, sugar-free, skim milk vanilla latte, to go."

They say, "Will this be for here or to go?"

I say, "To go."

They say, "What size do you want?"

I say, "Sixteen ounces, the middle size."

They say, "Do you want whole milk or 2 percent?" I say, "Skim milk."

They say, "OK, a 16-ounce skim milk latte. Do you want flavoring?"

I say, "Sugar-free vanilla."

They sigh and say, "So, a 16-ounce, skim milk vanilla latte?" I say, "Yes."

They say, "For here or to go?"

I say to myself, "The future of the world rests on people with no attention span."

I see teenagers lined up for the film version of a classic novel or bestseller. I hear them say, "I tried to read the book, but it was, like, so not the movie."

And I think to myself, "The fate of the world rests with people who have no imagination."

Enter Abby. Exit my previously held concept of teenagers.

Abby is the daughter of a dear friend of mine. She is 16. I'd catch Abby here and there, slouching around the kitchen, hands around a mug of tea, bargaining with her mother over chores and errands, exchanging humorous quips with us, and taking things in with her slow smile.

One day she asked me for help with a college entrance essay. The topic she chose was to pick a character from literature or a piece of literature itself that had provided inspiration. She chose "Les Misérables"!

Ah, I thought, teenagers read things beyond the required reading list. But there was more. Her essay included some lines of sheer exuberance: "Then, a brilliant flash - this wonderful story of unrequited love, love at first sight, love for a stranger! Drama, scandal, passion, comedy! Oh, it was amazing, moving from page to page, word to word, soaking in all of the sights and sounds."

The lines were raw, unbounded, unselfconscious. They showed an exhilarating celebration of spirit, of joy in the written word. Teenagers, wow! Who knew they had imaginations, and could sail away to other times and places in books that were not part of entertainment-driven pop culture?

Then, a few months later, she said in passing that she was struggling with "Beowulf." Secretly, I was impressed that kids were still asked to read "Beowulf."

My sense of teenagers ever-changing now, I said, "I have a copy of the new translation by Seamus Heaney. You might like it."

She took it. She got into the rhythm and vitality of the ancient Anglo-Saxon; the dark, foreboding mood of it; the heroic, epic sweep of it. She read the entire book and loved it!

Abby likes to shop. She talks on her cellphone. She messages with her friends. She hangs around. She has a boyfriend. She watches "Desperate Housewives." I'm sure there are times when she's bored, sullen, or fails to pay attention. In short, she lives the life of the quintessential 21st century, middle-class American teen.

And yet, off she goes, marching right into the tale of some distant dragon- slaying warrior - a world that resonates with eternal struggles, universal losses, and victories - through words that bring her to the core of what makes us human.

Abby yanked me out of the cliché I was living - a classic case of older-generation hand-wringing over the sorry fate of the world in the hands of the next generation.

She gave me hope that youth indeed still has spirit, curiosity, and imagination; takes risks; is not afraid to feel or to express things from the heart; is not deadened by cynicism; and has ideals.

The result? I feel more hopeful, more tolerant, less worried about the future of our planet.

No small gift from a quiet girl, sitting in her parents' kitchen with hands around a mug of tea.

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