Youth, Oscar Wilde observed, is America's oldest tradition, adding, "It has been going on now for 300 years." But continuity is no guarantee of approval, and youth continues to be a tradition burdened by ambivalence. Generation after generation of former teenagers conveniently forget their own adolescent behavior as they wring their hands over what they see as excesses. All that energy! All that drinking and smoking and sex and fast driving! What, some wonder, is the country coming to?
Yet anyone harboring too many negative stereotypes should reconsider their prejudices this weekend as teenagers across the country spearhead two impressive efforts to make a difference.
Beginning Feb. 25, more than a thousand teenagers in Florida will gather in Tarpon Springs, on the state's west coast, to marshal forces against the tobacco industry. For four days, as part of the second annual Teen Tobacco Summit, they plan to teach their peers how to rebel against smoking and undermine sales pitches by "Big Tobacco."
As 17-year-old Chrissie Scelsi, a group leader, says, "The tobacco industry knows it is about to lose a lot of customers. They're going to turn up the heat on us. We have to be ready."
Within the past year, Chrissie points out, members of the group have written more than 20,000 postcards to Hollywood stars, asking them to portray tobacco use accurately. Last autumn, in surveying convenience stores around the state, they found cigarettes and tobacco ads often displayed near candy or at child's-eye level.
The summit is funded by the Florida Tobacco Pilot Program, created by the state's historic $13 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1997.
Anyone inclined to dismiss members of the group as goody-two-shoes types should note that the gathering includes mainstream teenage activities, such as a live concert on Saturday night by a top band. Participants will also be expected to climb ropes and tackle an obstacle course.
Elsewhere around the United States this weekend, an estimated 600,000 teenagers will fast during an event called the 30-Hour Famine. Sponsored by World Vision, a privately funded international Christian relief and development agency, the effort will collect money for hungry people in North Korea, Romania, Sudan, Kenya, Mexico, and the US. Participants recruit relatives and friends to sponsor them as they forgo food and consume only liquids from 1 p.m. Feb. 26 to 7 p.m. Feb. 27. Last year half a million teens raised $6.5 million.
As part of this year's project, participants in San Diego will volunteer in a Tijuana orphanage. Students in Miami will serve breakfast at a rescue mission while they fast. Elsewhere around the country, fasting students will sleep in cardboard shelters to understand the challenges homeless people face.
Efforts like these typically don't make many headlines. Even if they do, they tend to be quickly forgotten, obscured by the next troubling story about binge drinking, drug abuse, or teenage pregnancy. What's a teenager to do?
Like Kermit the Frog lamenting that "It isn't easy being green," many of the 27 million Americans between 13 and 19 could legitimately point out that it isn't always easy being young. This stage of life might be simpler if adults in their midst were as quick to accentuate the positive as they are to criticize the negative. A good place to start might be by applauding teens everywhere who, like those fighting hunger and tobacco this weekend, are quietly polishing the unfairly tarnished image of America's oldest tradition.